Cinco de Agave

Several years ago, with the help of Lidia’s restaurant we organized a tasting of Italian amari - bitter digestifs. It was a fabulous event, both informative and fun, and we immensely enjoyed writing about it in this space.

It was so much fun, in fact, that we decided to do another group tasting. This time, however, we chose a spirit from a little closer to home: Tequila.

Our host was Gene Mangrum, the Director of the Ministry of Culture at Mad Mex (note to self: I need a better job title.) Gene, like many other people I’ve known, is obsessed with great tequila.

Joining us were our crack team of tasters:

John Barbera, architect. Cynthia Closkey, blogger and local PR maven. Yaniv Gur, manager. Kilolo Luckett, realtor. Laura Valentine, writer. and psu brought his camera, and took all of the photographs you see here.

A word about Mad Mex, and about these tastings in general. As I mentioned above, our last tasting, of amari, was at Lidia’s in the Strip. Many people have written in asking why we haven’t done these events more often. Part of it is simply the complexity of scheduling events like this, but there’s something more important: finding an appropriate partner for the event.

For a while now I’ve looked on with envy as my co-workers in the Bay Area arranged to meet at Tommy’s in San Francisco after work. Tommy’s is Julio Bermejo’s restaurant. Julio, called “the epicenter of Tequila” by the Wall Street Journal, can talk for hours about true, 100% agave tequila, and is perhaps the most well-known ambassador of the spirit. I wanted to find someone in Pittsburgh who could evangelize the distilled agave liquor to Pittsburgh with the sort of enthusiasm that Julio brings to Tommy’s. With that in mind, I contacted Big Burrito, the owners of Mad Mex, and outlined my plan. They responded quickly and enthusiastically; that told me everything I needed to know.

Having a partner like this is important. Yes, we could have gone to the liquor store, bought a few bottles and had the tasting in someone’s house. But in doing that, we’d miss out on the opportunity to have an expert and enthusiastic guide. This is the connection between Lidia’s, with their love for Amari, and Mad Mex, with their love for tequila. What excited both of these restaurants wasn’t the opportunity for marketing, but the chance to evangelize about something they love.

Gene began the tasting by walking us through the process of tequila making, from farm to autoclave to fermenting tank to bottle; he had actually provided us ahead of time with a primer on tequila that he had used at an earlier tasting.

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Warming to his subject like an enthusiastic science teacher, Gene continued: “Wine is made from fermented grapes. Gin is made from fermented juniper berries. Tequila comes from the agave plant.” Swinging around his MacBook, he showed us some photos from his recent trip to the Juarez plantation in Mexico: workers harvesting the huge agave piñas. “You look happy in those pictures,” I said. “You have no idea,” he replied.

We began with a “lowland” tequila, the Herradura Silver. The distinction between “highland” and “lowland” is not, as in scotch, primarily one of intentional style. “Tequila is affected by the fermentation and distillation process,” Gene explained, “but perhaps the major factor is where the agave was grown.” The soil in the lowlands, according to Gene, absorbs more run-off and other particulates from the surrounding air, creating a more earthy flavor. I found the Herradura to be sweet, just barely short of being syrupy. Our other panelists agreed. “I like this,” said Kilolo. “You can really taste the agave.” “Wow, that is fruity,” said John.

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Next, Gene poured a “highland” un-aged tequila, the Don Julio blanco. While also a blanco, like the Herradura, the difference was palpable and dramatic. I found it to have a medicinal, almost phenolic smell. “I know this doesn’t make any sense,” I said, “but it tastes like I’m drinking the smell of a new car.” “No, I completely understand,” said Laura. “New car isn’t how I’d put it, but it’s a very chemical taste.” Yaniv chimed in: “I think this is a lot more interesting than the first one. It’s not as sweet, and there’s more going on as you swallow.”

“Now we’re going to move on to a ‘vertical’ tasting,” said Gene. By that he meant that we would try the reposado and añejo tequilas from Don Julio. With luck, a vertical tasting lets you ignore differences between houses and focus instead on the effect that aging in oak barrels has on tequila.

The reposado, to my taste, was much more sophisticated than the Don Julio blanco. Our panelists agreed that the aging had softened the spirit substantially, imparting a slightly oaky taste, and changing the mouthfeel. Kilolo leaned over and whispered at this point, “I feel guilty sitting here drinking straight tequila in the middle of the day.” “Don’t feel guilty,” I assured her. “This is all in the interests of Science.”

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Cynthia, tasting

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The Don Julio añejo was up next. This had a more pronounced caramel color, and a strong, oaky flavor. “I like this much more than the reposado,” Yaniv chimed in. “It’s more refined.” Laura enjoyed the añejo, but thought the aging was, on the whole, detrimental: “I probably wouldn’t choose to drink this on its own. It’s very nice, very scotch-like, but fundamentally if I want to drink something that tastes this much like Scotch, I’ll drink Scotch.”

The vertical tasting done, we moved on to try some other data points, going both high and low. The high end was represented by the Don Julio “1942” añejo. Unapologetically sophisticated, this bowled us over with its subtlety. The mouthfeel was almost silky, and the typical oak flavors – vanilla, melding with the agave to give an almost honey taste – were strong, but not aggressively so. It was a finely balanced spirit, which will set you back, on average, just over $100 a bottle.

Perhaps emboldened by the seemingly endless parade of wine glasses in front of us, I inquired “What about mixtos?” A mixto is a tequila that is less than 100% agave, but more than 51%. Tequila snobs (including your humble narrator) will often turn up their noses at mixtos, but there is a countervailing and quite reasonable school of thought that says that they are perfectly appropriate, especially in mixed or frozen drinks. Gene pulled out a bottle of Mad Mex’s house tequila, made from agave from the Juarez Plantation. We all crowded around with interest. The mixto was not bad; simply different. It had a much more attenuated and thin taste than any of the 100% agave tequilas we tried, but was not at all unpleasant.

[![Yaniv]( content/uploads/2008/05/dsc_20070507-02347-150x150.jpg)


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Apparently determined to ensure that we wouldn’t be able to walk back to our respective offices, Gene decided to sober us up by making a variety of margaritas. It is at this point, reviewing my notes, that my handwriting goes from merely bad to thoroughly amusing. We sample a mix of higher- and lower- end margaritas. The crowd favorite was the Silver Coin, a straightforward classic margarita made with Herradura Silver and Cointreau. While everyone liked the margaritas made from the higher end tequilas also, there was a general consensus that we’d rather drink the añejos, for example, neat.

We thanked Gene profusely for his expertise and his help, and returned, ever so slowly, to the quotidian world, our steps lightened, ever so softly, by the lingering taste of the nectar of the blue agave.