As Gustavo mentioned earlier, Mexican alcohol is on the upswing. Its time is here; it's one of the only alcohols distilled from a native plant rather than a neutral grain spirit, the number of producers is on the upswing, and people are finally realizing there's more to tequila than the swill they put in those pre-mixed jugs of margaritas.
As our taste for tequila evolves, it's only natural that people would open tequila-centric bars. There are several of them in our distribution area, from Long Beach to Laguna Beach, but are they serious tequila bars, or merely pretenders? Here are five ways to know if you're in a true den of tequila.
5. The only Cuervo on their shelf is Reserva de la Familia.
It may surprise you to learn that Jose Cuervo makes some outstanding tequila; it's just not the stuff you can find at the corner liquor store. Cuervo Gold is 51 percent agave and 49 percent meados de gato (look it up), and 1800 is pretty sorry stuff too, but the Reserva de la Familia label is actually very good tequila.
4. The bartenders can talk knowledgeably about where the tequilas come from.
You wouldn't trust a sommelier who couldn't tell you which wines came from Napa and which ones came from Santa Barbara, so why would you take the recommendation of a bartender who tells you all the tequilas come from Mexico? There are many different growing regions, and a tequila from Tequila is as different from a tequila from Arandas as a Bordeaux is from a Burgundy.
3. Their well tequila is 100 percent agave.
Tequila mixto is an abomination, something so cheap and tawdry that the one time I tried to buy some in a Mexican supermarket, the cashier begged me to buy a 100 percent agave tequila that was only 10 pesos (less than a dollar) more. If the shelves are lined with fancy bottles but the margaritas are being made with Sauza Gold, be very careful about ordering.
2. They have more than just national brands.
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Anyone can open a bar and stock it with national and large regional brands; a serious tequila bar procures the stuff that's harder to find. 1800, Cabo Wabo, Don Julio, Hornitos, Patrón, Tres Generaciones--they're nationally distributed and they're not particularly special. Believe it or not, there's more--much more--to tequila. Start with Cazadores at least, and Arette, and Fortaleza, and when you see brands not available in the United States like Volcán de Mi Tierra and (until recently) Tapatío, you'll know you're in the right place.
1. They serve sangrita, not lime and salt.
If you go to Jalisco, the heart of tequila country, you will never get a wedge of lime and a dish of salt with your trago of tequila--no, not even for the cheap stuff. If you need a chaser, the Mexican way to do it is with sangrita, a dark red, sweet-sour-spicy mix of juices and seasonings. Incidentally, that's sangrita with a T ("little blood"), not sangria, the foofy wine and fruit drink.