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Larry Hunter's tequila tips

Ah, tequila! One of the liquors of the Gods.

Mescal is the name of liquor distilled from the agave plant. Tequila is the name for mescal from the state of Jalisco. In order to be certified by the DGN (a Mexican government agency, sort of like the FDA) as mescal (or tequila), the liquor must contain at least 51% Agave distillate; the rest is usually corn liquor, which is cheaper. Better mescals/tequilas are labeled "100% Agave" or "100% Blue Agave", meaning no adulterating liquor is used.

To make tequila, the Agave plant, which looks sort of like a yucca or hundred-year plant, first has all its leaves chopped off. Then the central core, called a piņa, is cooked and then fermented.

The other legal distinction among mescals/tequilas is the amount of aging. Liquor that has been barrel aged for at least 6 months can be called "reposado" (rested); liquor that has been aged for at least two years can carry the designation "Aņejo" (old). Gold tequilas not labelled as "reposado" have sometimes been barrel aged, but are more often just given food coloring.

Mescals (as opposed to tequilas) tend to come from a different type of agave plant, which can be harvested younger. Jalisco Agave tends to be at least eight years old, and often as old as twenty years before they are harvested.

I tend to drink tequilas rather than mescals, although there decent non-tequila mescals out there. Here's my current set of recommendations, roughly in order of preference. All listed liquors are 100% Agave tequilas unless otherwise noted.

Tequilas to seek out

1.El Tesoro de Don Felipe, Muy Aņejo. Wonderful aroma, almost perfume. Best price I've seen is $31.99 at Calvert Woodley in D.C. My current choice for drinking (as opposed to margarita) tequila. Typical cost is $34. Their "Plata" (silver) is typically $28.

2.Patron Aņejo. Aged in French Oak barrels, light in color, refined but intense flavors. Best price I've seen is $28.99 at NYC's Warehouse Wine & Spirits. More typical price is about $40. The Patron Silver (unaged) is typically just a few dollars cheaper, and not quite as wonderful.

3.Heradura Aņejo. Largest distribution of the top brands. It changed in early 1994, getting a new label (dark brown instead of beige) and the liquor is also darker in color. There is a slight difference in taste as well, and I don't like it as much as the old style. I used to rank it with Patron & El Tesoro, and now I rank it slightly below. The Heradura Silver (typically $22, best $18) is a good margarita tequila, although somewhat pricier than Sauza Hornitos (See below).

4.Chinaco (Green label). I haven't seen one of these in a long time. I recall it being very good, though, so find a bottle and send a report.

5.Centinela Aņejo. Not quite in the Patron/El Tesoro league, but at $21 (best) to $24 (typical) a real bargain. Their Blanco (unaged) is typically $19 (I prefer the cheaper Hornitos, see below), and the reposado is $21; go for the aņejo here.

6.Real Hacienda Aņejo. At $36 (typical), a little too pricey given the competition. Still very good, however. Their $18 (typical) silver or $21 (typical) reposado are much better deals.

7.El Viejito Aņejo. Like the Real Hacienda, at $33 (typical) the El Viejito costs too much for what it is. However, an nice tequila if nothing else is available.

8.Sauza Hornitos. Unaged, but delicious tequila. My current choice as best tequila deal. At $12 (best) to $17 (typical), it's a steal. In Mexico, it was widely available for about $12 a litre (not 750ml)! I use this in my margaritas. Note carefully that there are many different Sauza brand tequilas, and this is the only one I recommend. Look for the green label.

9.The cheapest 100% Agave tequila you can find. My travelling companion and I once found a bottle in a state liquor store in Rapid City SD for $8. It was "Durango" brand, and alas, I've never seen it since. It wasn't actually labelled 100% Agave, but it sure tasted like it.

Tequilas to avoid

1.Cuervo. All of them. They add sugar, and, I suspect, artificial flavoring to their liquor. I'd almost always rather have a generic cheap unknown 51% tequila than Cuervo. Cuervo 1800 adds insult to injury by typically costing more than $25 for a mediocre, blended liquor. They have now come out with a "traditional" tequila which is a decent 100% Agave, but at $40 (typical) for 500ml (the prices quoted for everything else are for 750ml bottles), it's simply not worth buying.

2.Porfidio Aņejo. In a very pretty bottle, but nearly tasteless. Perhaps it is filtered before being bottled? I think of it as tequila flavored vodka, and won't spend $35 (typical) on it again.

3.Sauza Tres Generationes. Despite being Sauza's top of the line ($30 typical) it is not labelled 100% Agave, and I am suspicious that it might not be. I don't like it nearly as much as the half-the-price Hornitos. The Commemorativo (at $25 typically) is also not as good in my opinion as the Hornitos.

Buying tequila at a bar

First, get a designated driver or the taxi phone number. :-) Then, figure out how to avoid drinking the Cuervo. Confronted with a limited choice, I'd for the most part rather drink the generic rail tequila than Cuervo. In fact, at one of my favorite local dives, the rail tequila is Dos Reales, which is perfectly drinkable stuff, and $1/shot less than the Cuervo. Ah, a little justice!

A final note

And sipping tequila (even good tequila) is likely to get you in trouble with the drinking gods. Tequila is meant for shots. In tall, thin shot glasses if you ask me. And with decent tequila, limes are optional. Con Mucho Gusto!

-- Larry Hunter