Not too long ago, the notion of sipping a glass of neat tequila like you would bourbon or scotch was unheard of in these parts. Then a few Mexican-themed restaurants, like Taco Mamacita on Sullivan's Island and Taco Boy downtown, started lining up some serious reposados and añejos on their bar shelves.
Now, suddenly, good tequila is popping up everywhere, including at a new crop of tequila-centric bars like Mex 1, 3 Matadors, and Cha Cha's, which offer patrons 40, 70, even 100 different tequilas.
At the better liquor stores, you can pay as a little as $8 for those 750 ml. mixto bottles down on the bottom shelves and well over $100 for extra añejos with ornate labels. If those aren't snazzy enough, you can always order limited editions that start at a mere $250 for a Gran Centenario Leyenda and head well up into the four-figures for stuff like Jose Cuervo's 250 Aniversario ($2,000).
If you find all this variety bewildering, you're not alone. The more I started digging into the subject of teqauila, the more I realized I needed help. Which is to say, I needed to ask a Mexican.
So I called up Gustavo Arellano, editor of the OC Weekly in Orange County, Calif., and author of the nationally-syndicated column ¡Ask a Mexican! (He also wrote a splendid book called Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America, which not only explains how tequila shots became so popular with Americans but also how an aspiring Tex-Mex restaurateur invented the frozen margarita machine.)
When it comes to finding good tequila, Arellano's first rule of thumb is simple. "You want to stay completely away from anything from Sauza or Cuervo," he told me. "It's rot gut. It's terrible crap."
Arellano's not particularly impressed with the top of the market either, those anejo tequilas aged between one and three years and the new category of "extra" anejo, aged three years or more, which was created by the Mexican government in 2006 at the insistence of marketing-savvy tequila companies.
"Just because a bottle costs three figures doesn't mean it's good," Arellano says, "There's a lot of hucksters more than happy to take the money off gabachos."
The high-end tequilas do have their place, Arellano admits: "If you are doing it to try to impress some ladies, hey, I'm not going to knock you for it. You gotta do what you gotta do to get your groove on."
But when it comes to great flavor, there are plenty of worthy tequilas out there that won't cost you a month's rent. Here are a few recommendations for ones that can be found right here in Charleston.
Corazon Blanco: Made in the highlands of Jalisco from 100 percent blue agave and twice distilled in pot stills, Corazon Blanco has plenty of fire, but on the tongue it's smooth and clean with nice grassy notes, a good solid blanco. Corazon is a fine choice for a baseline, a great way to experience the pure agave flavor of unaged tequila, unencumbered by the sweet caramel and oaky flavors that barrel-aging adds.
Cazadores Reposado: Cazadores is another solid, middle-of-the-road tequila, and its reposado offers a prime example of the effect of wood on agave juice. It's aged at least two months in small, new white oak casks, plenty of time for the wood to impart its flavors. The reposado has a heavy touch of vanilla from the barrel and finishes with oaky and citrus notes. Interesting enough to be enjoyed neat, it's also a great choice for a margarita.
Don Julio Reposado: Among the larger tequila makers, Don Julio has perhaps the best reputation among aficionados. The reposado is aged for eight months in old bourbon barrels, giving it a crisp honey sweetness with a touch of cinnamon.
Kah: In a field already crowded with ornate novelty containers, those from Kah might take the cake. Inspired by Day of the Dead imagery, Kah's bottles take the form of elaborately painted skulls, white for the blanco, red and yellow for the reposado, and black for the extra añejo, but there's more to this tequila than fancy packaging. In our side-by-side tastings with several other contenders, the Kah stood out as superior. The blanco has a clean, sweet agave taste, while the smooth añejo has a definite smoky, earthy character. The reposado clocks in at a stiff 110 proof, but it's surprisingly smooth and balanced, a great high-proofed tequila that you can still actually sip. And that skull bottle will look awesome sitting up on your home bar shelf.
Corralejo: Gustavo Arellano recommends Corralejo, which he has declared the official tequila of ¡Ask a Mexican! "I think that's a good sipping tequila," he says. "It's a higher quality than Don Julio and other brands, but it's still affordable." It's one of the few tequilas not made in the state of Jalisco, the spirits' original home. (By Mexican law, tequila can only be made in Jalisco and parts of four bordering states.) It's even sweeter than Don Julio, and you can snag a 750 ml. bottle for under 30 bucks. Arellano points out another advantage to Corralejo: thanks to its distinctive tall, colored bottles — midnight blue for reposado, bright red for añejo — when you go to the bar "even if you're drunk, you'll be able to know they have it."
"When people in Mexico drink tequila," Gustavo Arellano says, "They either sip it or pound it." The margarita has never been a particularly popular cocktail, and the paloma — tequila mixed with grapefruit soda — is about the only other mixed drink you'll find.
In Mexico, imbibers might alternate sips of tequila with nips of sangrita, a blend of orange, lime, and pomegranate juices with a little salt and hot sauce. Once hardly known in the United States, you can now find sangrita served at most places with good tequila selections, including most of the tequila bars in Charleston, though the gabacho versions are usually made with tomato juice instead of pomegranate.
The expert consensus seems to be that the now-hoary American ritual of licking salt off your hand, pounding a shot, and immediately sucking on a slice of lime is nothing more than a way to mask the harshness of rotgut tequila, the kind made with the legal minimum 51 percent agave and 49 percent lord knows what kind of cheap grain alcohol.
But, that doesn't mean a little salt and a squirt of lime juice can't enhance the tasting experience. "Salt and lime does open up your palate so you can observe it more," Gustavo Arellano admits.
In other words, don't worry too much about it. Sip the agave and savor it. If you like it by itself, fine. If a little nip of sangrita or bite of lime opens it up for you, go for it. There's no need to stand on dogmatic ceremony when there's such a rich variety of tequila out there to explore.
When I was talking to Gustavo Arellano, the Mexican of ¡Ask a Mexican! fame, about his recommendations for good tequila, we got sidetracked discussing other traditional Mexican forms of booze. He predicted that mezcal, which is already starting to sneak its way onto bar and liquor store shelves here in Charleston, will really take off in the next year or two, and we might start to see a few other regional Mexican spirits, too.
There's sotol, made from the Desert Spoon plant in northern Mexico, and bacanora, an agave-derived liquor from Sonora that's similar to but softer than tequila. And then there's raicilla, a sort of high-proof moonshine version of tequila from Jalisco.
All of these, Arellano says, will likely make their way into the United States and weasel their way into the hip drinking scene at some point in the not-too-distant future. But, he declares adamantly, there's one traditional Mexican beverage that doesn't have a chance in the United States: pulque.
It's an ancient concoction that dates back to the days of the Aztecs, having survived over the centuries despite the best efforts of church and state to eradicate it. It's essentially the fermented sap of the agave plant, a sour, milk-colored, viscous liquid.
"It's like drinking alcoholic spit," Arellano says. "It will never be popular in the United States."
But down in Mexico City, the hipsters are apparently cramming into pulque bars, where they serve a range of variations infused with strawberries and other fruit.
Could pulque be on the radar-screen for avant-garde drinkers in Charleston? Crazier things have happened.