Tequila, now a beautiful thing
   by Craig LaBan    Inquirer Restaurant Critic (Philly)

With no lick of salt and no macho chomp on a lime wedge to give her away,
Susan Sopko is used to getting funny looks when people realize what's in her tumbler.

"They think I'm nuts when I tell them it's tequila," says Sopko, a 37-year-old software sales rep.

Sopko isn't nuts: She's on the cocktail cutting edge, and part of a growing number of thirtysomething
drinkers who have made high-end tequila the single-malt Scotch of their generation.

"I used to think of tequila as that nasty stuff people got polluted on," says Sopko, until she was i
ntroduced to the pleasures of "tequila with a cork" by a friend eight years ago. "Now I'm a tequila sipper."

Tequila is one of the top five fastest-growing segments in the distilled-spirits market, according to the
Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board. But this flavorful Mexican elixir will likely never gain the mass appeal
of flavorless but versatile vodka, which outpaces tequila sales nearly tenfold. Much of that is due to decades
of bad publicity spread by the low-grade rotgut that has been the liquid fuel of frat parties, insipid beach drinks,
and monumental hangovers.

The tequila swirling in snifters at high-end bars lately is another thing altogether - surprisingly smooth and complex,
rich in variety, and seductively earthy. Made from 100 percent blue agave plant (compared with the 51 percent
found in such cheaper "mixto" varieties as Jose Cuervo Gold), quality tequila is earning its due as a drink on a par
with great cognac, and selling for as much as $45 a glass in local restaurants.

"The price really doesn't bother people," says Tom Jackson, general manager of El Vez, which sells several
glasses a week of its $33-a-pour El Tesoro Paradiso. "They want to feel like they're stepping up a level."

Note: El Tesoro Paradiso only $87 a bottle in Knuckledrag, OK

Two brands in particular that retail for about $50 a bottle, Cabo Wabo reposado and Patron silver,
have increased sales locally over the last year by 60 percent, according to the Liquor Control Board.

Hold the margarita mix, please. (Though there's nothing wrong with a good sour margarita.)

How much of those sales are due to marketing hype versus actual consumer knowledge is debatable.
Though premium tequilas have been available in the United States for nearly two decades, Philadelphia's interest
is spiking now, perhaps due to a recent wave of Mexican eateries. Several BYOs, including Lolita (see review above),
encourage patrons to bring their own tequila to blend with the house margarita mix - although it's a waste to spend
too much on a tequila for mixing.

Bingo! Would you pay for pure cocaine and then cut it before you snorted?

Anyone seeking an education on tequilas worth sipping straight should visit Los Catrines Restaurant and Tequila's Bar,
which has a list of more than 75 labels, many $10 or less per glass, including such rarities as Casta, Porfidio*, Puebla and 1921.

*Porfidio is out of business - they got caught selling "mixto" as 100% pure agave.

Passionate owner David Suro has more tequila knowledge to share than most interested drinkers will ever have a chance to forget,
from the vagaries of agave politics to the virtues of smooth and floral highland tequilas versus the spicier, drier ones of the lowlands.

All a neophyte really needs to know to get started, though, are the three basic tequila classifications - unaged "plata," or silver;
straw-colored "reposado," aged in oak barrels for two to six months; and "añejo," the amber-colored elixirs that can be aged for a year or more.

New converts tend to gravitate toward the more expensive añejos, which can have the soft edges and oaky sweetness of brandy.
Suro, being a purist, prefers silver tequilas as the unadulterated expression of the agave, a relative of the century plant, also known as aloe.

Methinks Suro has a lot of silver tequila he needs to unload.
Silver tequila has no art to it - it's just agave squeezins.

Agave squeezins is like a Gibson Les Paul.
If you have that, your product should be very nice.

But what the artist does with the Les Paul makes all the difference in the world.
Christ, doesn't Ace Freyley sometimes play a Les Paul?
(Sorry, that was mean.)

Personally, I think reposados are the ideal balance of the two extremes, with the herbal, sappy taste of agave shaded by
just a hint of woody intrigue. But I've encountered several in each category that I enjoyed. Here are some favorites that
are readily available in Pennsylvania:

There's no question that Patron ($44.99) is smooth and buttery, but Chinaco ($34.99) is infinitely more interesting,
with a floral whiff of orange blossom and a finish of salt and spice.

Despite being owned by rocker Sammy Hagar, Cabo Wabo ($49.99) is serious, with aromas
of sandalwood and mint and a briny spice that recalls a splash of Tabasco on raw oysters.

This is a really stupid piece of art.
Just guessing, this moron chases his $25
tequila shot with Milwaukee's Best Lite Draft.

Jose Cuervo Tradicional ($19.99) is less complex, but offers the pure flavor
of 100 percent agave that is a good value to upgrade a margarita.

If you don't have a penny more than $19.99, this might be your tequila.
Never had it in a marg, never will.

Ultra-premium Jose Cuervo Reserva de la Familia ($94.59) is sublime if you want tequila to taste like cognac.
I prefer añejos that don't oak-and-age the taste of agave away (they're also cheaper).
Tesoro de Don Felipe ($35.99) is a favorite, with a swirl of citrus, wood and mint coming through its brassy richness.
Drier Herradura ($41.99) has a hint of buttered ginger beer and is usually another good value, though its price has risen recently.

This guy prefers reposado to anejo, so I'm not sure he's qualified to be a tequila conny, ...connesi, .. expert.

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