Tequila, I am certain, is the name of one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Shiny, bright, and brimming with hope in a shot glass, it presents itself as the harbinger of good cheer, fellowship, camaraderie, and fun after the first shot. Even after the third. Effusive at the beginning of the night, Tequila’s bipolar tendencies come alive in the waning hours, as it asks what your definition of a “bad idea” is and about the girlfriend that broke your heart. Tequila the Good Witch offers its host the chance to see his life through a prism of laughter and festivity, that laughter soon followed by stitches, tattoos, and bail money at the evening’s conclusion. Cohorting with Tequila makes you wake up on the beach, with swaths of the night missing, as well as your clothing. Whatever mysteries hide in its shimmering succulence, it is up to the drinker to unlock the answers. And very often, those answers come at a price.
Jose Cuervo owes me money. A lot of money. In my earlier years, every time we went out, he goaded me into accepting dares, and this includes karaoke, into telling stories of dubious propriety, and into flirting with women who, looking back on it, I am certain had done time. But when Jose and I drank together, he seemed so sincere, so ride or die; at least until the morning came, when I awoke to see the world, and the bruises, in the harsh light of day.
So what is it about this lucid elixir that turns life into a foggy montage of true love, misplaced camaraderie, bare knuckle fist fights, tearful confessions, and at best questionable decisions when under its spell? The effects of tequila versus other liquors have been shrouded in barroom lore and country music for decades, but the answer is pretty simple: there is no difference between Tequila and any other liquor as a spirit
Tequila is the fermented mash of the blue agave plant, a large cactus, whose base is cut out of the rocky soil of the Mexico highlands, then trimmed and roasted with smoke in autoclaves before fermentation. But what is yielded from the agave plant and its fermentation is ethanol, the same alcohol as when any other carbohydrate is fermented and distilled into whiskey, rum, vodka or brandy. What gives Tequila its unique flavors and aroma are chemical compounds known as congeners, little molecular stowaways that latch onto the ethanol as it is distilled. They are what make bourbon taste like bourbon and rum taste like rum, but they affect the flavor and aroma of a spirit, not its pathology. Think of them as the spices that give flavor to the alcohols that are distilled from the fermented mash. What gives Tequila its ofttimes notorious outcomes is its delivery in shot glasses, a couple of ounces at a time, rather than being sipped and savored over ice.
A good tequila has a complexity to it, a tapestry of flavors, woven layers pulled from the soil and the sun. Redolent with notes of pepper, pumpkin, lavender, and vanilla. Like all mezcals, Tequila comes from agave plants. So, you may be asking yourself: what is the difference between Mezcal and Tequila?
Mezcal can be distilled from any number of agave plants, but Tequila, by Mexican law, can only be made from the blue agave plant. These plants take seven years to mature, and Tequila producers plant around a million new agave plants every year to keep up with future production. While all Tequilas are Mezcals, all Mezcals are not Tequilas.
Tequila dates back to the Mayans, which they made into a beer before distillation was invented. It is a noble spirit, whose history makes the purist in me regret the late night shots of my twenties and thirties, shots chased with enough lime and salt to kill the taste. It also reaffirms my belief that youth is wasted on the young. Those regrets, however, pale in comparison to the regret I harbor for some of the deeds done following those shots. But apparently those choices, even the one where I woke up in a park on a slide in my underwear, are on me, not my choice of beverage at the time. For many, Tequila will remain an inebriating bitter pill to be tolerated, but when savored, lingered over, coaxed out, it is a lush, exotic, and demure elixir, with centuries of secrets waiting to be told to the worthy.