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A Tequila Way of Knowledge

The teachings of Don Juan, the Rolling Stones and 400 rabbits

lizard, agave, plant

A lizard among the leaves of an agave plant, circa 1970.

Ernst Haas/Hulton Archive/Getty

The journey had passed like a dream and I was in Guadalajara. The last few towns had fled by too quickly to grasp — Jalisco, Tpic, Ahuacaan, Ixtlan, a hypnotic litany that mingled with the clicking of the train tracks to put me into a trancelike mood of expectation. Only a few hours and I would be on the trail of Don Juan himself!

By merest chance I leafed through a phone book at the Guadalajara train station, never expecting I would find what I was looking for. But there it was, among the Js: a listing for a Sr. Don Juan, Guru, and a number in Atotonilco. An old man’s voice answered when I tried the number.

“Alo.”

“Señor Don Juan?”

“Si. A su servicio.” “Don Juan, quiero que yo visite a Usted y Usted me introduzca al Mezcalito y yo saque una grande cantidad de la sagrada medicina a mis amigos en los Estados.”

“Eh?”

“I want that I should visit you and you introduce me to Mezcalito and I take back a lot of holy medicine to my friends in the States.”

“Come by in the morning, hijo.”

He gave me an address and hung up. Next morning I drove my rented car out to Atotonilco and with some difficulty found his house, an ancient mobile home with rusting corrugated sides. A small, wiry man the color of a burnt tollhouse cookie stood on the porch apparently chewing out an audience of lizards. He looked up.

“You the seeker?”

Si, Don Juan.” “

You want to know about the holy medicine, eh?” I nodded yes. “The way, it is hard, it is dangerous.” I nodded again. “There is an initiation.” Suddenly I felt faint and my heart leaped to my throat, but I kept nodding.

Abruptly he wheeled and walked around to the back of the mobile home. I found him standing next to a plant consisting of huge fleshy leaves, each three or four feet long and edged with spines. “Cactus,” I said hopefully.

“No!” he spat with unexpected fierceness. “This is what all you gringos think! It is not a fucking cactus [chingadero de cacto]! It is maguey, what we use for mezcal.”

I mumbled assent. It looked like a century plant, an aggressive bush with leaves like saw blades.

Don Juan picked up a tool that looked like a big flat spoon and began chopping the bottom leaves off the plant, using the tool like a shovel. “Like so,” he said. “Cut off all leaves, the stem too, so it looks like a piña, a big pineapple.” He chopped away, and sure enough soon there was what looked like a big pineapple surrounded by a pile of chopped off leaves.

“Do this to all these plants that have stems like this one.” I looked around and realized that there were hundreds of these plants on his land. He handed me the sharpened shovel and retired indoors. I heard a TV set go on.

Some hours later I had finished the job and, tired and sunburned, knocked on Don Juan’s door. Presently he opened and peered at me for a moment.

“Okay, now bring all the pineapples to the driveway. The truck from the distilleria comes later this afternoon.”

The things were huge, 80 or 100 pounds apiece. I collected them with a mule cart and when the truck came helped load them. Then I knocked on Don Juan’s door again.

“Finished? Good. We shall see Mezcalito now.” We sat down at the breakfast nook table at the back of his mobile home and he produced a knife and a handful of limes. Working swiftly but very carefully he sliced each lime neatly in half. He handed me one and a saltshaker.

He poured a clear liquid, which he referred to as medicina, out of an unlabeled bottle and handed me a glassful. He then taught me a complex ritual: bite the wedge of lime, take a sip of medicina, then lick some salt off the back of my hand, which I had moistened and dashed with salt according to his instructions. I tried this ritual and sat very still for a while.

“I feel nothing, Don Juan,” I said after an interval. “You will not feel anything yet. Continue.” He did likewise, alternating lime, medicina, salt, lime, medicina and so on.

I worked steadily for the better part of an hour and then suddenly it occurred to me that things were very strange. I rose and walked out the door. There standing in the desert was an incredible apparition, shifting and indistinct in the twilight, but indisputably the form of a rabbit. The rabbit was white and gray in color and appeared to be about 15 feet tall. He was chewing on a carrot, drumming the fingers of his white-gloved hand on the mobile home roof, and wisecracking rapidly about somebody named “Don” or “Doc.” I thought of the medicina — the stars were wheeling and the hills shook like jelly.

I felt momentary panic, and struggled with the thought that I had been poisoned . . . the rocks on the path were glowing, speaking to me; then they rushed toward me and there was a tremendous roar, a universal gushing; I was reduced to a tiny point of awareness surfing the crest of a thick, surging tide that seemed to fountain from unending to unending . . . and then that point itself was snuffed out.

To judge from the position of the sun, it was perhaps ten o’clock in the morning when I awoke in a pool of what appeared to be vomit. There was an intense pain in my head that centered around my eyes; every muscle in my body ached, and my stomach was in revolt. I could scarcely think. There was a ringing in my ears and a stifling wooliness located directly behind my eyes. Don Juan was kneeling beside me.

“Has one stolen my soul?” I asked, after telling him my sensations.

He merely gave me one of his piercing glances and made a noncommittal grunt. “You let yourself be snuffed out,” he admonished. “You showed no respect for the power of Mezcalito, so you were overcome. You should never take on more Mezcalito than you can handle. A macho, a fighter, never chooses certain defeat.”

He handed me a thick glass mug filled with a reddish fluid. It tasted of tomatoes and Worcestershire sauce. “This will help,” he said gruffly. “Take these aspirins with it, you will feel better after a while.

“But better for you if you cease performing the ritual before the stars wheel and the hills shake like jelly. The morning after, there is little even a fighter can do.”

Mexico, Land of a Thousand Trances

The New World is a rich source of intoxicants. Mexico above all; not only peyote and magic mushrooms and jimson weed, but booze. Altogether, 26 plants were fermented to make alcoholic beverages, including cornstalks, cactus fruits, hog plums and bananas. Alcohol is among the blessings of civilization, unknown to precivilized peoples, and as Mexico was the center of civilization in pre-Columbian times, it was the center of brewing. The only Indians who knew of alcohol in what is now the United States were those along the southern border, the ones most influenced by Mexican cultures. They made beer out of persimmons, corn, cactus and a few other things.

Pulque was a sacred beverage to the Aztecs, who had an extraordinary number of prohibitions against drunk enness. Except for invalids, pregnant women, the elderly and prisoners of war who were obliged to serve as gladiators in public circuses, people could drink pulque only on ritual occasions. If an average citizen was found drunk in public his head was shaved and he was held up to public scorn. For a second offense (a first offense in the case of a priest), the punishment was death.

The legend that backed up these stern punishments told about the first drunk. The day pulque was invented all the chiefs were drinking, and a chief of the Huastecas (in some stories, the blue-eyed, black-faced god Quetzalcoatl) made the fatal mistake of taking five full bowls. He got shitfaced and took his clothes off, so embarrassing himself that he and the rest of his tribe left the central highlands and settled in the territory they now inhabit, the arid desert of northeastern Mexico. (By coincidence, five drinks taken in one hour is enough to raise the level of alcohol in your blood to the legal definition of drunkenness.)

After an Aztec emperor was elected, he delivered a sermon against pulque, or octli, as the Aztecs called it. “Octli is the root of all evil and perdition, for octli and drunkenness are the cause of all discords and dissensions, all revolt and all troubles in cities and realms . . . . Before adultery, rape, debauching of girls, incest, theft, crime, cursing and bearing false witness, murder, calumny, riots and brawling, there is drunkenness.”

Despite all this, drinking octli was a religious duty at certain times, and the very name Mexico may mean “place of maguey plants producing pulque.” Mount Popocatapetl, which means “foamy-topped mountain,” was sacred to the god Patecatle, the mythical inventor of pulque, which is foamy when fresh.

All this high-minded sobriety disintegrated after the Spanish invasion of 1519. After five years of Spanish rule drunkenness was rife. Even women were drinking. From a strict rule of no more than four bowls of pulque, the populace had switched to drinking to the saturation point, vomiting and then drinking more. Some of the Spanish rulers tried to control drinking, but without success. The misery of colonial life led people to drink, and in many places the devastation of the lands and decimation of the population made it impossible to raise corn any longer and maguey was the only practical commercial crop. By the 1840s pulque was selling for a third the price of milk.

It was impossible to stamp out the maguey plant. It was essential to the economy. It didn’t have to be cultivated or watered, and it could be used for firewood, medicine, roofing material, fabric and even needles to sew with. The root could be cooked for food, the juice was a food and a natural sweet, leaf fibers made a scouring pad, and the juice could be used to treat wounds. On top of all that, it could be planted around your hacienda and make a natural fence. There is even a certain worm, the meocuil, that lives on the plant and is esteemed as a gourmet food when fried and served with guacamole.

With all the native alcoholic beverages in Mexico, it’s funny that the Spaniards didn’t make brandy out of more of them. Besides mezcal they made chinguirito, or rum, out of molasses, but there is no record showing that they made corn whiskey, for instance. Probably it’s because corn takes careful cultivation while magueys grow wild. And the making of mezcal wine — from which the brandies called mezcal, which include tequila, were later distilled — was already widespread in Mexico, everywhere outside Yucatan.

Most of the religious associations of pulque died out in the cataclysm of the colonial period, though in pulque fermenting rooms there is usually a statue of the Virgin. One thing that did survive was the myth of the 400 Rabbts. According to the story told to the conquistadores, the Aztecs believed in a god or gods called Centzon Totochtin, which means 400 Rabbits. They lived on the moon and each of them was in charge of a different degree of intoxication — rabbit number 400 being in charge of the illegal fifth-bowl stage. Sometimes they referred to the drunkenness deity as Ometochtli, or Two-Rabbit.

Blame It on the Stones

Tequila sales in the U.S. went up 300% between 1972 and 1975, making it the third largest selling imported liquor behind scotch and gin. This is practically unprecedented growth, and people are groping for an explanation.

One theory holds that the tequila boom started from the 1972 Rolling Stones tour. The press coverage of that tour, it is pointed out, of the parties and hotel wreckings and meetings with New York society, could not fail to mention how many Tequila Sunrises were being drunk. The aura of coke spoons and hash oil and hard-rocking hedonism inevitably invested the drink. The same year David Clayton-Thomas of Blood Sweat & Tears brought out an album titled Tequila Sunrise. The rock & roll audience took up the fashion.

There standing in the desert was a rabbit 15 feet tall, wisecracking about ‘Don’ or ‘Doc’ This theory holds that the rock musicians got into the drink in the first place through dope dealers. Not just any dealers, but the high-class smugglers, the aristocracy of the trade, purveyors of rare icebag and Maui wowie and sinsemilla and other premium grade weed. With their desirable product and a certain turquoise-encrusted elegance, these tradesmen had natural entree to the highest councils of superstardom. And in the course of their business life, they had spent many an hour in Mexican cantinas, waiting for this or that. There they had developed a taste for tequila. It appealed to them for such things as its refinement, its exotic folklore and a quasipsychedelic cactuslike vegetable flavor. The fact that it is produced just south of the haunts of peyote-eating Indians and north of Guadalajara, marketplace of the renowned Guadalajara green, seemed part of the Great Harmony. Dealers would make a point of keeping a good grade of tequila on hand and eventually the rockers got turned on to it.

There’s something to this theory, whether or not the Stones tour did it. Tequila definitely had a place in the rock & roll world by 1972, and rock fans do pick up styles from the musicians. The great growth in tequila sales is mostly due to younger customers, whom the liquor companies see as moving on from fruit-flavored pop wines to harder booze. But tequila had been bubbling under for years. Younger drinkers just made tequila spurt up faster.

You can see this in the somewhat irregular growth tequila experienced before ’72. Tequila was first imported in quantity during the Second World War, when grain rationing brought about what was called the “whiskey holiday.” When whiskey went on the market again after the war, tequila sales all but died; the U.S. imported more tequila in 1944 than it would again until 1962. At the end of the Forties, when Young’s Market in Los Angeles was the importer of Cuervo, long the only brand available, 80% of the U.S. tequila market was in Los Angeles. As late as 1971 the Southwest accounted for three-quarters of the tequila sold in this country — it’s under half now.

During the Fifties the tequila producers were fighting the legacy of the wartime boom, when the tequila imported had not been distilled with American tastes in mind, and was of varying quality. Yanquis thought of it, if at all, as something so awful you’d only drink it to show off. Sales picked up gradually, then faster during the 1962-67 fad for the Margarita cocktail.

By the end of the decade there were a number of brands on the market and the importers were working on new mixed drinks to expand the market — Tequila Martinis and Manhattans and Bloody Marys, and so on. It looked as if the hard-punching, badass image of tequila would be cleaned up once and for all.

Ah, but then came the Stones.

America Drinks and Comes Home

This whole tequila phenomenon is a measure of how far we’ve come. There was a moment, in the late Sixties, when many people in their 20s were sworn nondrinkers. They rejected the traditional rite of passage — getting blind drunk and jumping off of things and exposing yourself and barfing and waking up feeling like bottom rock in a landslide. The taste makers of a generation had switched en masse to hysterical giggling, spending an hour on one page of a comic book, eating peanut butter with their fingers and falling asleep with headphones on. It looked as if liquor was on the way out.

But then cheap sweet wine started showing up at rock concerts. Okay, wine, but wine still had a vague association with fruit juice and healthful organic stuff. And like beer it is “soft booze.” Even strong dessert wines like sherry are only about 40 proof; table wines are about half that.

But now what have we? Hard liquor. Tequila, a distilled brandy sold at 86 proof. And it’s the youth market that’s drinking it, the ski-lodge, rock-concert, hang-glider generation.

It turns out there is a nationwide trend toward more drinking. In 1974 the Gallup Poll found 68% of the people identifying themselves as drinkers, the highest percentage in the 35 years that Gallup had been asking people about their drinking habits, up four percent in five years. There’s a certain ominous quality to this statistic, because drinking is involved in half the traffic fatalities, half the homicides and one-third of the suicides in this country. A quarter of the people who told Gallup they drink confessed that once in a while they drink too much.

You might think of drinking as primarily an escape from the cares of poverty. In fact, the well-to-do drink more than the national average. Families with incomes over $20,000 are nearly 90% drinkers. And the year during the Fifties that showed the lowest number of drinkers in the Gallup Poll was 1958, when people were trying to shovel themselves out of a recession. Apparently drinking is most popular with people who feel stuck at the bottom of the heap and also with those who, like the ski crowd, say — estimated 20 million, median age 27, average household income over $19,000 — have already more or less made it.

It’s among those who haven’t made it but haven’t given up yet that you find high percentages of drinkers of milk and sarsaparilla. And maybe — time will tell — of organic carrot juice.

Being Four Ways Not to Look at Tequila

As cactus juice. Sorry to tell you, but the tequila plant is not a cactus. A respected, even world-famous editor once kicked my desk in vexation when I told him this, but it’s true. Tequila comes from a plant called Agave tequilana Weber, a variety of maguey. It is a desert plant of the lily family, related to Spanish sword, century plant and yucca. If you ever see one, you won’t mistake it for a cactus even for a second. Cacti, as everybody knows, have no leaves, while a maguey is practically all leaf — a forbidding bush of huge, fleshy, swordlike leaves edged with thorns. Probably the idea that tequila comes from a cactus arose because tequila is a kind of mezcal or maguey brandy (although a lot of mezcal tastes more like Russian Leather cologne than like tequila). The tequila maguey is also sometimes called mezcal. But Agave tequilana Weber is not related to the peyote cactus and there is no mescaline in tequila, however much tequilaholics claim there is “something different” about being little loaded on tequila.

As distilled pulque. Maybe you have heard of pulque, the indigenous Mexican beer fermented out of maguey sap. It was the national drink of the Aztec empire and it still accounts for about a quarter of all the alcohol consumed in Mexico. At a certain age the flower is cut out of the heart of a maguey plant — the tequila maguey can be used, but it is not one of the half-dozen varieties of maguey that make the best pulque — and the plant starts oozing sap which has to be collected several times a day. This thick, slightly gluey substance is called aguamiel, or honey water, and it contains microorganisms that make it start to ferment within a few hours.

The fermented substance is pulque, which is said to have a pleasant, bananalike aroma when fresh. There’s no way to corroborate this without visiting a pulque plantation, because it starts to spoil almost immediately. The very name is thought to come from the Aztec word poliuqhi, which means “decomposed.” Within a few hours it develops a flavor that has been compared to rotting meat and “the reverse of roses.”

Grape brandy is distilled from wine; tequila is a brandy; therefore tequila is distilled pulque. This must have been the logic behind the notion that tequila and pulque are related. But forget it — distilled pulque would taste nothing like tequila. In fact, unless it were distilled immediately it would have to be made into a tasteless sort of vodka in order to avoid carrying over the rotting meat flavor of old pulque. There seems to be no demand for aguardiente de pulque.

Tequila is made an entirely different way. Instead of milking sap from a wounded plant for three to six months, they uproot the plant, chop off the leaves, bake the heart and ferment the sugars that baking has created from the starches in the heart. There is only one variety of maguey that can be used for tequila, although nearly two dozen kinds can be used to make pulque. A pulque maguey will produce 80 or 100 gallons of pulque during the months it is working; a tequila maguey gives up its heart just once, and makes a little over one gallon of tequila.

But if you’re still upset about the fact that tequila isn’t made from peyote, maybe you can take comfort in the knowledge that the Otomi tribe, the most ancient people in Mexico, used to throw peyote into their pulque.

As an ancient Indian drink. No, the Indians didn’t know the art of distillation. They did bake maguey hearts to get the sweet syrup that results, and they did brew mezcal wine out of the syrup. In fact, mezcal wine was more widely made in Mesoamerica than pulque ever was.

It is generally assumed that distillation was brought to Mexico by the Spanish conquistadores. But it might not have. In a scholarly paper written 35 years ago, an anthropologist named Henry J. Bruman presented evidence that the Filipinos were involved in the first mezcal distillation. The original kind of still used in the state of Jalisco, where nearly all tequila is made, is not the European style with a coil of copper tubing for the alcohol to condense in. It is simply a big jar with a lid shaped like a bowl. The jar is set over a fire and the lid-bowl is filled with cold water. As the alcohol vapors are driven off the liquid in the jar, they condense on the underside of the lid, and drip down into a cup hanging inside the jar. Such stills are also used in the Philippines, where coconut palm wine is distilled into a brandy called tuba. Tuba, as Bruman points out, is an old word for mezcal used in the same general area of Mexico as the tequila region, on the west coast, where Spaniards returning from their Philippine colonies would have landed.

As simply mezcal from around the town of Tequila. This is pretty close. The town of Tequila in the state of Jalisco gives its name to a drink that must, by Mexican law, be distilled from plants grown in adjoining districts of Jalisco and Nayarit. But it also gives its name to the particular variety of maguey, Agave tequilana, that must be used. This maguey grows in other parts of Mexico but has not been found to produce a drink with the tequila flavor anywhere else. And so far no other region of Mexico has produced anything like tequila, whether from the tequila maguey or not. Spain has imported tequila magueys, but nothing like tequila has come out of the experiment. So tequila must be from both the tequila plant and the Tequila region.

Nobody quite knows what they’re using, but Japan makes something it calls tequila. It tastes nothing like Mexican tequila, though it has a label featuring toreadors and señoritas with Oriental eyes.

Science and Folklore of a Crude One

There is a curious belief afoot that tequila doesn’t cause hangovers. But it certainly does, as many researchers have found. This belief may date from the days when tequila was only taken straight with salt and lime, and never mixed with sweets, because any liquor seems to give worse hangovers when taken in a sweet drink. Or it may date from the days when tequila was exotic and hard to get, a mythical Shangri-La of drinks.

The myth has had to escalate as tequila has gotten commoner. Now it goes, “So maybe tequila gives you hangovers, but that’s because it’s commercially distilled and full of awful additives.” (There is adulterated tequila on the market, mostly cut with mezcal brandy from places outside the tequila zone. The brands strictly watched by the Mexican government, however, which can be assumed to be pure, have the letters DGN on the label, standing for Direccion General de Normas. The only substances that can be added to the juice of the maguey heart are brown sugar, to facilitate fermentation, and water.) The real thing, according to this story, is raizina, moonshine tequila — unlicensed, untaxed, homemade tequila which is often sold under the counter in Mexico at the same stores that sell licensed tequila.

Raizina is not usually genuine tequila, but mezcal made from other maguey varieties in other places in Mexico. It can be very good. In fact, some people have a real taste for the other mezcal drinks, such as comiteco and bocanora, the specialty of Sonora. There is a similar drink made from a plant related to the magueys, called sotol.

But tequila, raizina and the rest all contain the same hangovergenic substance: alcohol. You may not get a hangover the first couple of times you try them simply because they are so exotic that you only sip small quantities. But take enough alcohol to affect your metabolism and you will get a hangover whatever you’re drinking. Alcohol is a depressant. Its effect on your metabolism is to slow it down abruptly, and this causes a buildup of lactic acid in all the tissues of your body — just like the buildup of lactic acid in an athlete’s muscles that he doesn’t notice while he’s running, but will suffer as muscle cramps if he stops suddenly. The alcohol itself is being broken down into acetic acid by your metabolism, and these two acids in your tissues deplete the body’s alkali reserves, upsetting the blood’s ability to metabolize carbon dioxide.

So now you have CO2 and these acids clogging up your tissues. You may not feel them much, because alcohol is a painkiller. But if you fall asleep, as often happens, when you wake up your body will not have cleansed itself because your metabolism shut down for the night. And the painkiller effect of the alcohol will have worn off. You will have what they call in Mexico una cruda, a crude one.

In Mexico you will order tripe soup in the belief that this will help your hangover. Here you may take tomato juice and Worcestershire sauce, or anything bland and liquid. These hangover “cures” don’t actually cure anything, but they’re psychologically reassuring and they help clean that rotten taste out of your mouth. Actually, just getting anything in your stomach (that you can keep down) will help, by getting your system going, because the only thing that will cure your hangover is your body’s own metabolism.

Tequila Technique

The first thing that attracted Americans to tequila was the curious traditional ritual of drinking it. You hold a lime in your thumb and forefinger and take a bite on it, then take a slug of tequila, then lick the back of your hand, which you have dampened and sprinkled with salt. Technology-minded Americans redesigned this elaborate process into a convenience drink called the Margarita, which is basically tequila already mixed with lime juice in a glass with a salted rim.

The other traditional way to drink tequila is more trouble but very tasty. It calls for a chaser called sangrita — not to be confused with the wine punch known as sangria. In Mexico it’s available already bottled, but fresh-made is even better. Most Mexican cookbooks give a recipe for it. A common formula is a quart of tomato juice, the juice of two oranges and two limes, half an onion chopped fine, a good stiff jolt of red pepper and salt and sugar to taste.

Both these traditional ways use citrus fruits. There seems to be a natural harmony between citrus flavors and tequila and the great majority of the new generation of tequila-based cocktails include citrus juice. For instance, the omnipresent Tequila Sunrise. It’s two parts orange juice to one part tequila with a little lime juice and a slug of grenadine to make the sunrise effect.

There is also a Tequila Screwdriver — just tequila and orange juice; and a Tequila Harvey Wallbanger (apparently known as a Freddy Fudpucker) — tequila, orange juice and Galliano. A shot of tequila with a teaspoon of honey and the juice of a lime and a dash of bitters is known by such names as a Lolita or a Pup. Two parts tequila to one part Pernod plus lemon juice to taste is sometimes called a Candybar or a Ghost. Inevitably, two parts tequila to one part crème de menthe plus some lime juice makes what is known as a Tequila Mockingbird.

Tequila drinkers and tequila importers seem to be busy all the time on new combinations involving the stuff. Old cocktail recipes that once served for rum-or gin-or vodka-based drinks are resurrected with tequila in mind. A shot of tequila in a glass of beer, known as a Submarino, is the old “depth charge.” There is a Tequila Bloody Maria, made with tomato juice; a Tequila Russian, made with equal parts tequila and coffee liqueur; a Tequila Stinger, three parts tequila to one part crème de menthe; a Tequila Manhattan, two parts tequila to one part sweet vermouth and a squeeze of lime; a Tequila Martini, involving a little dry vermouth; and collinses, fizzes, sours and all the rest of the Bartender’s Guide inventory. For the après-ski crowd, there is a whole range of hot drinks, such as tequila in double-strength coffee, or in hot chocolate, or in steaming beef broth. For warmer weather it has been discovered that tequila’s peculiar flavor goes well with the pineapple flavor, likewise with strawberry, and even, it is said, with chocolate liqueur. Someday somebody will come up with a combination they’ll call the Tequila Banana Split.

For these mixed drinks you’d use ordinary white tequila, what some importers call “silver” to distinguish it from the usually more expensive “gold” tequila. The gold, one understands, is aged in cask for up to a year, hence its color. (The color is nearly always legally added caramel, though, not color picked up from the barrels. Most tequila aging is done in used American bourbon barrels, which will not add color to anything aged in them.) In practice, the better brands of tequila also age their silver, but charcoalrefine it to take out the slight cask flavor that is desirable in gold tequila. They no longer market the unaged, white-lightning style tequila of the old days.

Mexican law distinguishes between unaged tequila, reposado (aged for a number of months), and añejo, or true aged tequila, which has been stored in cask for two to five years. Americans have mostly been drinking reposado, but they have started to demand añejo, which is intended not, God forbid, for mixed drinks, and not even for the salt-and-lemon ritual, but for drinking straight or on ice, like cognac or whiskey. There’s not much of it. Until very recently it has only amounted to one percent of the tequila made in Mexico. Recently Sauza’s añejo, called Sauza Conmemorativo, has been joined by Cuervo’s “1800,” and a relative newcomer of a brand, Herradura, has a premium priced añejo as well. Añejos average 50% more expensive than the gold tequila of the same brand.

There are 50 tequila distilleries in the officially delimited area of Mexico. But there are more than 50 brands of tequila on the market. It’s simply that some distilleries make more than one brand. El Charro, for instance, is the American-marketed product of a distillery that puts out two well-known brands in Mexico, Los Ruiz and Tequila de la Güera. As you might expect in a burgeoning market like the American tequila market, the most expensive brands are the best sellers. Cuervo, the perennial best seller in this country, is always matched neck and neck in price by Sauza, the best seller in Mexico (where, indeed, it sells 40% of the tequila in the country). This pattern has one exception, the purist brand Herradura (it makes a point of doing without the brown sugar which tequila manufacturers can legally use to aid fermentation, and making its tequila from maguey juice alone). Herradura runs about a third more than Cuervo and Sauza.

As for which brand is the best — that’s a tough one. There is not as much variation in quality among tequilas as there is, say, among wines. With the possible exception of Herradura, which has a pronounced plantlike scent, novice tequila drinkers might have a hard time distinguishing between a number of brands. But there is an old Mexican test that is said to be infallible in showing whether a tequila is a good one or not. Are you ready? You shake the bottle hard, and watch to see whether the bubbles in the bottom are tiny.

It always works.

Footnote on Tequila in Cooking

Brandies are often used in cooking to add an elegant overtone of flavor. Tequila, however, does not seem to be very suitable for this kind of use. The tequila flavor is a delicate and subtle one — the drink is distilled at a lower temperature than most liquors, to avoid losing the flavor elements.

But if you’re careful and don’t cook it for any length of time, you can use it. Here is a recipe for tequilaflavored ice cream that can be made in an ice cream maker or even in an ice cube tray of a refrigerator.

Tequila Ice Cream

3 cups milk
peel of one lemon
3/4 cup sugar
6 egg yolks
juice of two lemons
1 Tbs Cointreau or other orange liqueur
1/2 cup tequila

Dissolve the sugar thoroughly in the milk with peel. In a double boiler or a saucepan over a very low fire add the egg yolks and cook slowly, stirring constantly, until the mixture thickens enough to coat the spoon. Remove from the fire, add the remaining ingredients, taste for flavor and let cool. When it is quite cool, strain mixture into your ice cream maker, or into ice cube trays. (In ice cube trays the result will not be as light, but it will be creamy if the mixture is stirred two or three times an hour while it is freezing.)

If you do not like the bite of alcohol in ice cream, heat the tequila and Cointreau to drive off the alcohol before adding it. Do this in a high-sided saucepan over a low flame to avoid catching fire, and cook only until the alcohol is driven off. 

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