By Marla Santos
You know the ritual.

It’s party time – and the Tequila is flowing – ready to do some shots.

Grab some salt, chug some tequila (to avoid actually tasting it) and suck on a lemon or lime, quickly, before you feel the harsh liquor (that sometimes feels like you’re drinking gasoline). Usually this “lick-shoot-suck, is followed by someone shouting: “Let’s do another!” This is called “Tequila Cruda” and the salt is believed to lessen the burn of the Tequila, while the fruit enhances the flavor. Across the States, party after party, Americans continue this ritual – unknowing that there is something better out there.

Some of you might be thinking: “No! I love my Tequila!” And possibly, some of you are already “in the know” – that there are many higher quality Tequilas, those made with 100% Agave, that do not have the alcohol burn. These fine Tequilas are sipped from a snifter glass and savored like a fine brandy, allowing you to enjoy the flavor and detect its fragrance. The blue agave plant used for making Tequila is found in the area surrounding the city of Tequila, Mexico, northwest of Guadalajara and in the Mexican state of Jalisco.

Tequila is very popular, but not many people are familiar with the vast array of choices they have when choosing a drink made with this liquor. And with Cinco de Mayo just around the corner, it’s time to get a few things straight.

Let’s begin with the worm. Nearly everyone has heard the Mexican story of the worm in the Tequila bottle, or seen the 1980 movie, Urban Cowboy, starring John Travolta, and the scene when Scott Glenn’s character chews up and swallows the worm after downing his Tequila. The scene was not scripted, but instead a joke that Glenn played on the other actors for shock value. The worm is now an established tradition for some Mezcals. Only Mezcals, from the state of Oaxaca, are sold with the worm. The Tequila worm was started as a marketing gimmick in the 1940’s, to represent Tequila as a premium liquor, similar to Cognac. Some say the worm was placed in the bottles to prove that the alcohol content was high enough to preserve a worm intact. Folklore has it that the worm is hallucinogenic, while others say it was a joke – just to see if the gringos would eat the worms in a “machismo” ritual. The worm is the agave worm, which is actually a butterfly larva, and top-quality Mezcals do not have a worm.

Tequila is fairly new to the United States and wasn’t really a top requested drink until two musical groups sang about it. “It’s another tequila sunrise, stirrin’ slowly across the sky,” the first words to the Eagles big hit song, “Tequila Sunrise”, back in 1973, refer to a guy who has been drinking straight Tequila until the sun comes up. The Eagles, who were big Tequila drinkers, referred to Tequila as “instant courage” when they wanted to approach and talk to women.

The Tequila Sunrise cocktail is made with tequila and orange juice and then a dash of grenadine syrup floating on top to create its famous “sunrise” effect of red and orange. It’s the second most popular tequila cocktail, following the Margarita, which consists of Tequila, Cointreau or Triple Sec, and lime juice, and is served frequently with the glass rimmed with salt or sugar. The Margarita is the No. 1 Tequila-based cocktail in the United States, served “on-the-rocks” or “frozen” (blended with ice). It is a perfect combination of sweet, salty, sour and bitter.

No one really knows who invented the Margarita, but it has become a summertime staple. One story claims that Carlos “Danny” Herrera developed the Margarita at his restaurant, Rancho La Gloria, just south of Tijuana, around 1938. Supposedly, Herrera dreamed up the cocktail for an aspiring actress named Marjorie King, who was allergic to all hard liquor, other than tequila. He combined the ingredients of a Tequila shot, a lick of salt and a wedge of lime, and turned them into a refreshing drink for her. Another contender for the Margarita title was Margarita Sames, who claimed she made the drink for her socialite friends at her Acapulco vacation home in 1948. Attending her party was Tommy Hilton, who would later add the Margarita to the bar menu at his famous Hilton hotels. The stories vary, but we know that Esquire magazine first mentioned the Margarita in print in 1953.

In 1977, Jimmy Buffett wrote the hit song, “Margaritaville”. The lyrics are about him drinking Margaritas, and symbolize a laidback lifestyle of the Florida Keys and Caribbean islands. “Margaritaville” has come to define Buffett’s music and career.

“Wasted away again in Margaritaville – Searchin’ for my lost shaker of salt. Some people claim that there’s a woman to blame – But I know, it’s my own damn fault.”

The story, according to legend, goes something like this: Jimmy Buffet was in a bar and had some coke on him. The police were coming in to raid the place. He dumped out a saltshaker and poured his coke into it. He left it on a table and calmly walked away. When the raid was over (and Jimmy was free to go), he returned for his “salt”. But the waitress had cleared the tables, and he couldn’t find it anywhere. Hence, the line about “lost shaker of salt”. Worth over $400 million, Buffett has created an empire of restaurants, merchandise, Tequila and food from the song he made famous about drinking Margaritas. It has been reported by the music industry that “Margaritaville” is the most played song in the world, (something like every 8 minutes), evoking visions of the tropical life and lazy vacation days.

According to Casa Herradura, one of the oldest producers of Tequila, Americans consume 185,000 Margaritas per hour, with the South accounting for 34.9% of the sales. Atlanta, Miami, St. Louis and Nashville are among the cities with the highest volume of Margarita lovers. Though it wasn’t until the 1990s that Tequila started to gain respect, with the brand Patrón hitting the market. Since then, the market for premium Tequilas has exploded and there are well over 1,100 brands of Tequila available today. There are three main categories of Tequila: blanco, (or unaged); reposado (“rested”) – which is aged in oak barrels anywhere from 2-12 months; and añejo (“aged”) – which is aged in oak for 1-3 years. In 2005, a new extra añejo category was established for Tequilas aged longer than three years.

In preparation for Cinco de Mayo, my friend and I visited the Vegas restaurant and lounge, Jalisco Cantina, (known for having 100+ Tequilas) to try out a few new Tequilas, and ended up with an educational Tequila tasting experience. As we sat to relax in a couple of lounge chairs around a cocktail table, Jalisco’s owner, Ross Williams, greeted us, and graciously offered some of his personal history of the liquor known by some as “Hell on Fire” – for others, one of the happiest highs they’ve experienced. With Jalisco’s offering of over 100 different tequilas, this was going to be an exciting adventure!

First of all, Ross began by throwing out all that we might know about Tequila. Ross explained that, through his personal education of enjoying fine Tequila, nothing should accompany a good bottle of Tequila, and never is it to be thrown back “shot- style.” Much like a fine vintage of wine, fine Tequila should be enjoyed. Every tequila served in Jalisco Cantina is 100% Agave. (In comparison, Cuervo Gold, for example, is only 49% Agave). We speculated that possibly that’s one of the reasons people can get so sick on shots of Tequila when out partying – they’re doing poor quality shots.

Jalisco Cantina serves all their Tequilas at room temperature. Ross explains, “That’s the only way to drink a good Tequila, and to savor its flavor. A fine Tequila has its own, distinct charm.” We proceeded to begin our “Tequila Tasting,” pausing first to enjoy each bottle’s unique bouquet. The “silvers or blancos” (also known as white or clear tequila), have an entirely different bouquet – sharp and crisp – distinctly different from the golds that we moved on to – which were warm, (some with buttery hints in both the bouquet and the flavor). My friend said she was immediately going out to buy a bottle of the Ambhar Reposada Light Gold (100% Blue Agave from a combination of both the lowlands/Tequila region and from the highlands. Ambhar found that a mix of the two regions produces a Tequila with the best favor characteristics). It was a Tequila that she would enjoy, slowly sipping throughout an evening. Myself, never a big fan of Tequila, actually fell in love with the Cazadores Extra Añejo (limited edition, 100% Blue Agave Tequila aged for 3 years in new American oak barrels. An all-natural 7-day fermentation process begins to the sounds of Mozart, Symphony No. 40). It was an even deeper gold color and with a heavier flavor that lingered wonderfully on your tongue. Ross, who we now call the “Tequila Master,” made a Tequila lover out of me. Even my friend, who has always enjoyed her Tequila, fell in love with the 100% Agave Tequilas.

We asked:
“So how much for a good quality shot of 100% Agave Tequila?

Ross explained that, just like wine, we all find our own favorites, and it doesn’t always correlate with price (meaning the more expensive, doesn’t always mean best). Jalisco Cantina offers both reasonably priced shots of Tequila starting at $5, as well as top-grade shots priced at $40 per shot. Because they offer nothing but 100% Agave Tequila – you really can’t go wrong when choosing any bottle in the house.

Ross and his wife, Natasha, team up to keep their Cantina customers coming in and happy. While Ross handles the Tequila, Natasha brings some of her family cooking traditions into the kitchen. While enjoying the Tequila, try the Shrimp Pacifico with Mango Sauce, and their Carnitas Pulled Pork on Tortilla Chips. And definitely try some of Natasha’s homemade Guacamole, which is fabulous. Plus, two nights a week, Jalisco offers their “Blues Tasting” – every Tuesday 8-11pm and Saturday 9pm-Midnight – featuring a variety of blues singers and musicians performing some kickback blues, as you relax and enjoy some fine Tequila tasting.

Jalisco Cantina is open 24/7 with 100+ great Tequilas, traditional Mexican cuisine, and video gaming at two locations: 6450 S. Durango (at Sunset) and 3460 E. Sunset (at Pecos).

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