Food & Drink Mama's last tequila

Contemplating another long, dry nine months, the author samples the top shelf

Like many people, I have a long and somewhat blurry history with tequila. We first met on what would seem to be the wrong end of the Americas where he left me, 18 and facedown, on the Astroturf-lined deck of an Alaskan ferry. In college, he was that permanently tan hard-partying dorm guy you worried about taking out in public. After graduation, I said goodbye. But, years later, we met again at a bluegrass festival in Colorado and stayed up all night retelling our best stories. I almost didn't recognize him, all dressed up and whispering charming secrets in my ear. Most importantly, I still wanted to see him in the morning.

One last tequila sunrise: Mama loves her sweet baby, but before she tucks another bun in the oven, she's revisiting tequila for old time's sake.

Thus began our renewed affair. I sought him out everywhere and even made plans to meet his extended family in Mexico. The day before leaving, I found out I was pregnant. All vacation, he stared down from the top shelf while I drank water. This summer, with that kiddo safely born and well into her own sipping cups, we're thinking about having another baby soon. Facing another long, dry nine months, I'm on a mission to drink all the good tequila I can get my hands on.

Several local restaurants are making that prospect more interesting. Taking a nod from the wine-tasting ritual, Cementville, Pesca on the River, and Yokonyu Sushi now offer tequila "flights," which provide a sampling of three premium or super-premium tequilas. You can compare the vanilla nose on a muy anejo or bite the agave edge in a plata. All this sounds pretty suspicious to my drinking companion who, when I suggest a taste says, "I look at a tequila shot and just wonder which part I'm supposed to light."

But sipping tequila is an excellent way to find out what you like before springing for a whole bottle, which, if you are drinking good stuff, can be pricey. So how did tequila move from a 75-cent, spring-break special in a neon shot glass to a hundred-dollar, hand-blown glass bottle? Recently, plant ecologist Kelly Lyons and I left our little girls at home with their dads and took in some Patron as Café Tacuba warmed up at Sunset Station. An assistant professor of biology at Trinity University who lived for several years in Mexico, Lyons gave me her take, "About a decade ago, a fungal infection took out a big chunk of the agave crop. Suddenly, the agave plants were extremely valuable. They posted guards. But demand for tequila didn't drop and companies figured out how much people would really pay."

Indeed, liquor store owners such as Rick Carranza of Rainbow Spirits wink at the seemingly endless talk of a tequila "shortage" that has pushed prices to increase tenfold since the late '90s. And while some distillers have indeed closed, others have capitalized on the growing taste for an ever-refined product. Carranza carries one of the best selections in town with bottles lined up across several shelves like trophies. I could stand there for hours, touching the handmade cobalt blue porcelain of my favorite Casa Noble Reposado or holding a leggy cognac-hued Paradiso up to the light. Of course, I picked a bottle of Espolon (Spur) in honor of the finals.

As with wine, there is plenty of good tequila in an affordable price range. But the range of tequila itself can be confusing. Premium tequila is 100 percent blue agave and must say so on the label. That's a good place to start. The Mexican government only requires that anything called tequila must have at least 51 percent agave sugar. Usually, such "mixto" tequilas are filled out with water and corn syrup. Substitute the word headache for "mixto." It's the additives - be they in the tequila itself or in a syrupy-sweet margarita mix - that are responsible for that hammers-behind-the-eyes feeling we all know and, gulp, love.

The real stuff is best taken neat, sipped, sniffed, savored, and never shot. The most common type is blanco or plata (white or silver), which is less than 60 days old and may be bottled straight from distillation. A mixto plata is harsh, but a 100 percent blue agave version can be clean and peppery.

Next is joven or abocado (young and smoothed), sometimes called gold or oro. It's basically the same as blanco, but coloring is added to make it look aged. Such is the case with Cuervo Especial, the U.S.'s best-selling tequila, which is just white tequila with caramel coloring added. Cuervo, the first licensed manufacturer of tequila, also makes a range of premium tequilas. Try a sip of their Traditional next to the Especial and taste the difference. Traditional is a reposado (rested), and is aged from two months to a year in oak barrels. Last but not least, is anejo (aged or vintage), which is aged in Mexican government-sealed barrels for a minimum of a year. The complex woody character of a fine anejo is wasted in a margarita.

That said, it is summer and it is Texas and it would be neither without margaritas. I'll be spending my 90 degree evenings with a locally imported Buscadores reposado and 30-30 anejo, a nice bargain I've recently discovered, close at hand. Taste a little first. Then mix equal parts tequila, Cointreu, and fresh-squeezed lime juice. Shake with ice and pour into a salted glass. If you are pregnant, you're out of luck. But here's another recipe. Stop by your local Sonic for their lime slush and ask for extra lime. It's not tequila, but it's cold and it will get you through July.

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