On The Rocks

Sometimes what you need is right under your nose.

OTR hadn’t yet tackled tequila head on, and the question of where to do it loomed large. Who’s got the best selection in town, the most savvy bartenders, the best ambience … and, of course, the best margarita? We realize that the answer to that last question will never to be definitive; there are very good (and extremely inventive) versions to be had at places as diverse as La Hacienda de los Barrios and Pesca in the Watermark Hotel and Spa. But in contemporary SA, venues such as the Iron Cactus pride themselves on their deep agave-derived beverage list. And in the bad old days pre border violence, San Antonians periodically swooped down on Nuevo Laredo to replenish their tequila stock and have a frosty marg at the Cadillac Bar — when they weren’t having a Ramos Gin Fizz, that is. Tequila is part of the Alamo City’s cultural DNA.

Then we happened on Mi Tierra’s Mariachi Bar, also part of our encoded essence, while escorting a visiting London food journalist and her husband around town. We might have picked the bar for its over-the-top atmosphere — guaranteed to wow visiting foreigners. But it ended up being a perfect choice for OTR, too: carved eagles, framed mariachi costumes, amazing fake-floral displays and all. There are 159 tequilas, just for starters. And there is Brian Snyder.

Snyder’s nametag unabashedly says “mixologist,” a term we wouldn’t have expected to encounter in a mass-market bar that sees its share of tourists. But then we didn’t expect 159 100-percent agave tequilas, either. (There are two other “well” tequilas, but Snyder, in true aficionado fashion, doesn’t count those.) Snyder, who has been at the bar for two years, credits manager Tony Aguilar with developing the impressive selection, including commissioning a branded cask of reposado from Casa Noble that was then bottled and numbered exclusively for the bar. (It’s already sold out, though the cask remains.) But it was his near-messianic enthusiasm for the product that got our attention on that first visit.

Snyder began his bartending phase about as early as he could: at age 21 working for a San Antonio catering company. “I also quit smoking at 21,” he says, “and when I got my taste back, I realized I had been drinking a lot of crappy stuff, so I determined to drink only good things from then on.” Along with scotch and `non-crappy` beer, tequila was one of those good things, and a move to the River Walk’s Iron Cactus helped develop that blossoming preference.

The education part must come naturally. “We get tours from all over the world, and a lot of people find our margaritas too smooth. `I think` they’re missing that cheap tequila bite,” he suggests. “There are also those who had bad tequila (and worse hangovers) in college and swear they won’t go near it again.” So he will often suggest a tequila flight of at least three different grades: the unaged blanco (or silver), the reposado with its required minimum two months of barrel-aging (but no longer than 12), and the añejo, guaranteed to have spent at least one year in an oak barrel. “I change a lot of minds this way,” he says. He doesn’t add that, if you appear open to it, he might also serve an almost non-stop barrage of information on tequila-making. The London food writer was both open and captivated.

Snyder’s own preferences run to the reposados. “They add more complexity to a margarita,” he says. His current favorites, adjusted for summer, include Corzo’s blanco and reposado, Herradura, Cazadores, Dos Lunas, and Don Julio 1942. If you’re throwing a party, however, he suggests the 100-percent agave Luna Azul, whose producers are going up against the all-too-popular Jose Cuervo Gold —“`the Luna Azul producers` call the Cuervo Gold a ‘slap in the face of Mexico,’” says Snyder.

The last two tequilas on Snyder’s personal list happen to be añejos, sippin’ tequilas, which he enjoys with the occasional cigar. And here’s where OTR gets in trouble. Not with the cigars, but with the Gran Patron Burdeos, a super añejo that intoxicates with just a sniff of the cork. This premium product, luxuriously packaged (see patronspirits.com for a description of the double distillation and packaging), is also luxuriously priced at $55 a shot. We then moved on to discussing Jose Cuervo’s Reserva de la Familia, another premium extra-añejo, blended with some reserves over 30 years old, that he says is “much better at one-fourth the price” — though at $15.50, it’s still not a something you toss down lightly. We ordered one.

But our wires got crossed and the Gran Patron arrived instead. Well, can’t put the genie back in the bottle, so here are your vicarious tasting thrills for the week. Or year. The Gran Patron is served in a snifter with a half-round of orange in another glass. The color is a brilliant topaz, the nose, hot at first, warms to a lush caramel with vanilla. You would never guess it’s tequila unless you knew it wasn’t scotch or cognac; it’s utterly smooth on the palate and betrays only a modest agave note on the finish — and we mean modest. The longer in the glass, the better everything became. And an occasional bite of the orange was complementary. (Snyder prefers to serve orange with the sippin’ stuff, finding lime unnecessarily acidic for most good tequilas. And don’t even think of asking for salt … )

Super-, extra-, muy-añejos (all terms are used) are beyond the reach of most of us most of the time, however. (Next time I will try the Reserva de la Familia.) But here’s a Snyder margarita variant that won’t break the bank:

2 oz. premium reposado tequila

1 ½ freshly squeezed limes (or up to 2)

1 oz. agave nectar (available at Whole Foods and Central Market)

½ oz. Cointreau (optional — so start without it)

Shake with ice in a shaker, strain into a rocks glass — or typical margarita coupe if you prefer. But without salt, please. Unless you insist.

Mariachi Bar makes more or less 2,500 margaritas on any given weekend. Most of them, you can easily guess, aren’t this one. Also no surprise, this is not what Snyder wants to do for the rest of his life. “I like to drink, but not necessarily to work while I’m drinking `or while thinking about drinking, more likely`,” he says. So he’s going back to school to finish a radiology program. He has two years left. Unless that hoped-for trip to Jalisco’s tequila country comes along to change his mind about bartending, you have limited time to take the local tequila tour yourself. •

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