From my third book, A gringo's Guide to Authentic Mexican Cooking.
If your impression of tequila is that of a cheap, clear beverage mainly used by power-drinking college students on spring break trying to drink themselves into oblivion, you are not in the minority. However, you are missing what this extremely well-produced national treasure of Mexico is all about.
Here is a little test to check your level of gringoness: What is the #1 way that the people of Mexico drink Tequila? If you said margaritas, thank you for playing but no cigarro! I love a good margarita as much as the next guy, but truth be told, margaritas are for touristas. I was in Guadalajara as a guest of the José Cuervo company doing research on Tequila when I saw the light.
Below is my recipe for a Sangrita Mexicana. This is how the true aficionado of tequila drinks it. Sangrita Mexicana is served in two small brandy snifters about three inches tall—tequila reposado in the first and in the second, a beverage called Sangrita, which is tomato-based and a little citrusy. You take a small sip of tequila and then a sip of sangrita. This is sometimes served with a third small glass of key lime juice or key lime juice mixed with Squirt Grapefruit Soda. This three-drink combination, being green, white, and red, is called a Bandera, or Mexican Flag.
Tequila, like so many things from Mexico, is meant to be slowly savored, like a fine cognac. Chugging it down would simply be a waste of good tequila, not to mention the fact that you will get as drunk as a cow and everyone will know you're from out of town.
Another gringo misconception is that tequila is made from cactus. The agave is actually a member of the lily family and not a cactus at all. Tequila is only produced in Mexico, and by distilling the Agave Azul Tequilana Weber, also known as the blue agave. Tequila is such serious business that the Mexican government requires all tequila producers to adhere to strict guidelines known as "Normas." In order to be called tequila it must be made from a minimum of 51 percent blue agave. Furthermore, the Mexican government officially recognizes the four following types of tequila:
Basic, inexpensive white tequila used for margaritas and bar mix. Made from 51 percent or more Blue Agave.
Gold tequila is either tequila that has a flavor added or an aged tequila that has had a little white tequila added to it. It's commonly used in the United States for premium drinks. Also made from 51 percent or more Blue Agave.
Meaning rested, reposado is tequila that has been aged in large oak tanks for between two and twelve months. This tequila is the most popular among tequila drinkers in Mexico due to the fact that it has a full agave flavor. Usually made from 100 percent blue agave. This is also my personal favorite, so before buying I always look for "Reposado" and "100% Agave Azul" on the label.
Añejo, meaning aged, in this case for a minimum of one year in small oak barrels. It is considered by many Americans to be the finest of tequilas, mostly because the select-oak aging process creates a flavor reminiscent of premium whisky or cognac, a flavor they recognize. After awhile, most premium tequila drinkers develop a palate for the distinct agave flavor and switch to Reposado.
Tequila in milder, fermented forms, and by other names, was made by the Aztecs for centuries. When the Spanish showed up, they combined their knowledge of distillation with this local favorite and came up with tequila. In the mid 1700s, the king of Spain granted a parcel of land to José Antonio de Cuervo to grow blue agaves. By 1795, José Maria Guadalupe de Cuervo was granted a concession to commercially produce tequila and "Tequila Cuervo" was born. And from that day to this, José Cuervo has been the world’s leading producer of tequilas.
So, whether you choose an añejo with its deep, aromatic, cognac-like flavor, or a reposado with its rich, full-bodied agave flavor, the next time you're having a tequila, slow down and sip it with a little sangrita. Enjoy tequila the way they do, down south in Mexico, and leave the power-drinking to the gringos.
Sangrita Mexicana or the Bandera Mexicana
Because this drink is so popular in Mexico, there are many different recipes. I put this one together by talking to several different bartenders in Guadalajara over a four-day visit. Sure, I got a headache, but that's just me, working hard for you!
1 1/2 cups tomato juice
1/2 cup Clamato brand juice (very popular in Mexico)
3/4 cup orange juice
Juice of 4 key limes
2 teaspoons grenadine
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
Dash Worcestershire sauce
Dash A-1 steak sauce (yes, A-1; they love the stuff)
Premium quality tequila reposado
16 key lime wedges
Glass III (for the Bandera Mexicana)
½ cup Fresh squeezed Key lime juice
½ cup Squirt brand Grapefruit soda
Stir together all sangrita ingredients. You will need two or three 3-inch tall brandy snifters per serving. Fill one half full of sangrita and the other half full of tequila (about 1 shot in each) and top each with a wedge of lime.
If making the Bandera Mexicana mix the Key Lime juice with the Squrit and fill the third glass half full, Sip a little tequila, sip a little sangrita, and a little of the lime juice mixture, and now and then, take a little bite of the lime wedge, forget the salt it’s for power drinkers. Oh, and one more thing, slow down a little: Life is good.
Serves 6 to 8