It makes your clothes fall off. You end up singing Bon Jovi at a karaoke bar. And in the morning, you wake up with a pounding in your head that not even another shot will shake.
Sound familiar? If so, then you’ve been doing it all wrong.
Of course, any liquor in excess will make you hurt in the morning. But tequila’s bad reputation isn’t justified. True tequila is art.
Tequila is distilled from the piña, the fruit of the blue agave plant. Most of the world’s supply grows in the Jalisco region of Mexico, where the skilled jimadores who carefully remove the 80- to 200-pound fruits from the spiny plants are among the most respected craftsmen of their region.
Until demand began to outgrow production in the 1960s, tequila’s only ingredient was blue agave. The plant is roasted, shredded, fermented, and aged in white oak barrels. When supplies dried up, laws were changed to allow blends of blue agave with corn, cane, and other sugars. In 1994, under pressure from José Cuervo, the world’s largest tequila producer, the law was again amended to allow tequilas to be made from just 51 percent blue agave.
When 49 percent of what you’re drinking is molasses, and the other half was produced as cheap and fast as possible, your hangovers will mimic their rot-gut origins.
Fortunately, Charleston’s savvier bartenders know real tequila from the imposters and are serving it both straight up and in interesting cocktails.
Voodoo Tiki Bar and Lounge
You won’t find a 51 percent tequila behind the bar at Voodoo, Jen Kulick’s West Ashley restaurant and watering hole, but you can take a virtual and informed tasting tour of the Jalisco region. Chat with Kulick for a moment, and you’ll learn the truth about the worm (a 20th century marketing gimmick). More importantly, you’ll understand the subtle differences of a blanco (silver), reposado (rested), and añejo (aged) tequila.
Blanco is bottled immediately after distillation, while reposados spend from two months to one year in oak barrels. An añejo must be aged at least one full year.
Kulick’s favorite tequilas are from Don Eduardo. A flight ($20) includes all three styles, served straight, room temperature, and without chasers (ask for lime and salt and they’ll comply, but you may be judged). Silver is properly enjoyed first, allowing the fresh fruit aroma of the agave to fully infiltrate. Honeydew melon, cantaloupe, and even peach can be detected.
Aging just a few months brings out an overwhelming cinnamon and vanilla aroma in the reposado. With a bolder, more pronounced flavor, it’s felt deeper in the throat, like lingering white pepper. Kulick describes tequila by its “burn rate,” or how long the heat remains on the palate.
Don Eduardo’s añejo has a burn rate of virtually nil — the extra time encased in wood imparts strong notes of caramel and a vanilla aftertaste, but the cinnamon burn is gone. It’s a mellow, smooth experience that makes you crave one more sip.
“Good juice,” says owner Kevin Grant, when asked if there’s a secret to his cocktails. “If you don’t start with real fresh juice, you’ll never have a good margarita.”
Zia makes theirs with orange, lemon, lime, and sugar, with none of the powdered sweet-and-sour or corn syrup-based mixes prevalent in many bars. The Zia Rita utilizes Juarez tequila, a blend, but for $8.50 you can take your pick from the top shelf collection in a Más Margarita.
Although many customers do that, Grant recommends sticking with a house tequila in the mixed drinks (“No one can tell a difference once you add the juice”). Instead, he recommends trying a flight of a tequila like Corralejo, his personal favorite ($9 for a flight). “It’s an excellent tequila that stands side by side with Patrón, but is considerably cheaper,” says Grant. “Don’t shop for tequila by price.”
Flights are served with a glass of sangrita, a spicy citrus chaser with an in-house laundry list recipe (OJ, lime, tomato, salt, pepper, Valentina hot sauce, Tabasco, grenadine, Worcestershire sauce, and finely shaved onions). “It really cuts the edge off a tequila,” says Grant.
Best of all for the tequila snob on a budget: order a beer and for $3 they’ll add a shot of Rancho Alegre, a 100 percent agave reposado tequila. Grant advises consumers to watch out for the wording on their bottle of tequila. “Gold” doesn’t mean “reposado.” Cheap tequilas use caramel coloring to mimic the brown coloring that wood gives an aged tequila.
“They trick you into thinking it’s aged,” says Grant, who says that smart tequila choices can leave you “on top of the world.”
Il Vampiro ($10), a cocktail that’s appeared regularly on the menu at the Belmont, requires a multi-step process.
Owner Mickey Moran runs a lime rind around the rim of a martini glass, then twists it into a plate of coarse salt and pepper. Slices of jalapeño are muddled with half a lime before house-puréed San Marzano tomatoes and two ounces of Hornitos Plata (silver) tequila are added. A potted basil plant sits on the bar, from which Moran picks a few leaves to garnish the drink.
The result is like a bloody Mary with training wheels, simultaneously sophisticated and easy to drink. Succulent Italian tomatoes slightly mask the tequila, while the jalapeño gives off a garden-like taste without overwhelming the tomatoes with spice.
Moran only serves 100 percent agave tequila, ranging from the house Hornitos up to pricey sippers like the Don Julio 1942.
“I don’t have a bottom-of-the-barrel well,” says Moran. “With tequila, there’s no real middle ground.”
Don’t give in to the taunts of your buddies. Shooting habañero-infused tequila won’t make you more of a man, but it will eat your stomach lining. Fortunately, Taco Boy’s array of house-mixed flavored tequilas aren’t all of the puts-hair-on-your-chest variety.
Although the restaurant has served their pineapple-infused Sauza Giro Gold since opening, the Folly Beach location recently debuted a flight trio ($10) with two new recipes. Oranges, lemons, and limes give the Citrus Clove tequila a pleasantly oily feel, but it’s the clove finish that best matches the agave. A ginger lemon peel tequila using Sauza Silver goes down easy, but the classic pineapple-infused tequila may still be the showpiece. Tiny bits of pulp and the aroma of vanilla beans and cinnamon sticks permeate every sip of the infusion. It’s perhaps best enjoyed in a Skinny Margarita, where the pineapple tequila finds happy mates in fresh lime, agave nectar, and soda water.
Although Taco Boy only serves 100 percent agave tequilas straight, the infused flights use the blended Sauza. It’s a smart move — the infusions are delicious, and it just might be sacrilegious to blend with a pure reposado or añejo.
The Gin Joint
At the Gin Joint, blocks of ice are slowly melted into perfect spheres, the bar is lined with house-made juices and syrups, and it might take 15 minutes to make your drink.
It’ll be worth the wait. Two cocktails on the regular menu incorporate tequila. The Aeromexico ($10) utilizes José Cuervo Tradicional Reposado, the brand’s line of pure agave tequilas. The rim of the glass is coated in granulated honey crystals, and the drink is infused with lemon, pecan, wood-smoked honey, and maraschino liqueur. It’s a play on the classic Aviation cocktail, replacing gin with tequila.
The White Elephant ($10) is another case of substitution, a take on the Hemingway Daiquiri. Co-owner Joe Raya mixes Espolón Blanco tequila with grapefruit, lime, and again, maraschino liqueur. It’s a pleasant, sour-but-soft blend.
It’s after the cocktails that the real fireworks come out though, when Raya offers a taste of his favorite tequila. Surprisingly, it’s another José Cuervo, the Reserva de la Familia Extra Añejo.
Cuervo pioneered tequila, explains Raya. His name was synonymous with quality, so it was sold off and eventually bastardized into the cheap blends sold today. But the company still knows how to do it right. A snifter of Cuervo Reserva de la Familia runs $35 at the Gin Joint, but drinking it is an experience akin to tasting a truly fine bourbon like Pappy Van Winkle for the first time. Only premium piñas from hillside-grown agaves at their peak of maturity (around 10 years old) are used, and the roasting is carried out slowly by hand instead of in a pressure cooker.
Honey, vanilla, and floral notes are the first to appear, before a light warmth across the back of the mouth. It’s almost too good to swallow.
“It’s everything you want in a tequila, and everything you didn’t even know you wanted,” laughs Raya.
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City Paper has been bringing the best news, food, arts, music and event coverage to the Holy City since 1997. Support our continued efforts to highlight the best of Charleston with a one-time donation or become a member of the City Paper Club.