Updated: May 2, 2014 at 11:01 am
With Cinco de Mayo only days away, many are thinking of tequila and margaritas.
Tequila, the agave-based liquor from Mexico, is enjoying a "moment" in this country. The U.S. is second only to Mexico in the number of bottles purchased and, according to the Distilled Spirits Council, the number is growing. With more varieties than ever from which to choose, there's almost no wrong way to drink it.
But first, how about a class in Tequila 101? For that, we turned to Al Lucero, author of "The Great Margarita Book" and host of a tequila tasting I attended a couple of years ago in Santa Fe, N.M. He is proprietor of Maria's New Mexican Kitchen, which has an eight-page menu of margaritas. The restaurant mixes up 20,000 to 25,000 margaritas a year so, as you can imagine, Lucero knows tequila.
The tasting started with four pours of tequila: Jose Cuervo Gold Mixto, El Tesoro Silver, El Tesoro Reposado and El Tesoro A?jo. While I sipped, Lucero explained what made them different, how to shop for quality brands and how to make the perfect margarita.
The main differences among tequilas are the percent of agave (juice from the blue agave plant) and how they have been aged. For instance, Jose Cuervo Gold Mixto is a blend of 51 percent agave and 49 percent cane sugar dissolved in distilled water. All three of the El Tesoro tequilas, on the other hand, are 100 percent agave.
"Read the label," Lucero said. "If it is 100 percent agave, it will say so."
A silver tequila is one that has not been aged in oak. A reposado tequila has been aged in old oak for at least 60 days. The a?jo tequila has been aged in old oak for at least a year. The longer the aging, the more expensive the booze.
Lucero, a man who sells hundreds of margaritas each week, has some suggestions for the perfect recipe.
"We use fresh-squeezed lemon juice," he said, "because limes are so inconsistent in quality and amount of juice."
On the rocks or frozen?
"We sell about 95 percent of our margaritas on the rocks," he said. "We try to discourage frozen margaritas because the tequila becomes diluted with the slushiness of the blended ice. It just becomes a diluted, watery drink."
His recipe: 1 1/2 ounces 100 percent agave tequila, 1 ounce triple sec and 1 ounce lemon juice; shake and pour over ice.
Nate Windham, a cocktail historian and the bartender at The Blue Star in Colorado Springs, makes a special margarita-like drink for Cinco de Mayo.
"Cinco de Mayo is the celebration by Mexican-Americans to commemorate the Mexican army's victory over the French," he said. "The Mexican soldiers were heavily outnumbered by 3 to 1. Even with these terrible odds, the Mexican soldiers stood their ground and pushed the French out of Mexico, pretty much for the last time."
With Windham's drink, "I take 1 1/2 ounces of French cognac and mix in 3/4 ounce of Mexican mezcal," he said. "To that goes 1/2 ounce fresh lime juice and 1/4 ounce of demerara syrup. Shake all with ice and strain into a short glass without ice. A few finishing drops of Angostura bitters and there you have my Cinco de Mayo cocktail." Demerara sugar is a type of unrefined sugar with a large grain and a pale to golden yellow color.
You don't have to be in the restaurant business to have the corner on making a good margarita. In a post on thedailymeal.com, a blogger named The Lunchbelle wrote that she found "the last margarita recipe you will ever need. Period." A simple Google search produced the recipe, and testing it produced the results she was seeking.
"The winner was the Sauza Rita," she said in her post. "Why? Because the recipe only called for four ingredients, two of which I had on hand."
She liked it because it was easy to make, tasted fresh and tart, "and goes down as smooth as water," she said. It has beer in it, which gives it a little fizz, and a can of thawed frozen limeade. And, like Lucero recommends, it's stirred, not blended.
How to salt a margarita glass
Cut a piece of lime and rub it along the rim of the glass. On a saucer or plate large enough for the entire rim to be dipped at once. Pour enough salt so it is about 1/8 to 1/4 inch deep. Then dip the rim on, twirling around so the salt sticks on the entire rim. Then fill with the margarita of choice and serve.