The gift of the maguey is now worth getting

Your first shot of tequila might have been at the Cadillac Bar in Nuevo Laredo with a motley assortment of college freshmen, each eyeing the ominous bottle as Bob Seagren would eye a crossbar set at 18 feet. Things have changed since then. Now tequila is the fastest growing spirit in the United States, the new vodka.

Tequila sales in the U.S. have soared from a hundred thousand gallons in 1960 to more than six million last year. It all began in California, which now consumes 35 to 40 percent of the nation’s annual tequila imports. (Texas is second, with eight percent.)

In the late Fifties, Young’s Market, a major Los Angeles liquor distributor, contracted with Mexico’s Jose Cuervo to market the juice of the maguey. “The first thing we had to do was overcome the tequila image,” recalls Vernon Underwood, now chairman of the board of Young’s Market. “Everyone here thought that tequila would make you fall over drunk after about three swallows. I conferred with the McHenry family, which was running the Tail O’ The Cock restaurant here in L.A. We knew that tequila would never make it straight, so we took the ingredients that the Mexicans traditionally used separately with tequila, salt and lime juice, and mixed them in a glass. We experimented with a lot of combinations, then settled on just the basic ingredients, plus a little triple sec.” The result was the Margarita, now an industry legend.

The Margarita was an instant hit with young Californians, and ultimately with the college crowd all over the country. More than half the national tequila sales are to drinkers under 25 years old. At first it was a drink that young people could call their own. No one wanted to get bombed on martinis or Scotch-and-soda and be cast in the establishment mold.

But according to the bartenders, the Margarita is not the exclusive province of the young around here. I was told that Margaritas are popular with older drinkers, too. (A bartender at elan defined older drinkers as those over 25.) Most of the sales appear to be to drinkers in the 25-to-45 age bracket. The Dallas phenomenon is attributed to the tremendous influence of Mexican restaurants. People like to order “authentic” cocktails to go with ethnic foods – sake at the Royal Tokyo and a Margarita at Chiquita. But the difference between the two is that sake is a horrid drink while the Margarita is tasty and refreshing, ideally suited to this climate. Mariano’s alone sells 700 to 800 gallons of Margaritas each week. The Dallas-Fort Worth market is third nationally in tequila sales, compared to 5th place in bourbon, 13th in Scotch, 14th in vodka, 16th in rum, and 21st in gin. We’re not even in the top 50 in brandy (Wausau, Wisconsin, is 48th).

Seventy-five percent of the tequila imported to this country ends up in Margaritas. Heublein has made a valiant and expensive effort to popularize the Tequila Sunrise, made with orange juice and grenadine. The effort succeeded in California, and was even honored with a record in its name by the Eagles. But according to Martin Golman, president of Max Golman Wholesale Liquors, the Tequila Sunrise has been a dismal failure in Dallas.

The tequila which is now sold in this country bears little resemblance to the border-town firewater of years ago.

Now most imported tequila is just SO proof. But it’s still made from the same basic raw product, the Aauve tequilana, one of the family of bluc-grcen fleshy plants known as maguey. The Indians of Mexico drank a milky beer called pulque, made from the sap of one variety of maguey, at least as long ago as the 16th century. Another variety, not as fine as that used for tequila, is made into mescal, a fiery potion that tastes as bad as tequila did 25 years ago. Mescal was outlawed in this country for many years because it was bottled with a worm from the cactus as a certificate of authenticity.

Most tequila comes from maguey plants harvested near the town of Tequila, in the state of Jalisco, about 35 miles northwest of Guadalajara. The plant looks like what Texans call the century plant. It lakes the plant eight to ten years to reach its prime for baking and distilling into tequila. Huge pineapple-like hearts, usually weighing 50 to 100 pounds, but occasionally as much as 400 pounds, provide the sugar for fermentation. In the old days the Mexicans would harvest “green” maguey before it reached its prime, then distill it with primitive equipment and sell it to dumb tourists. But when the U.S. market took a sincere interest in tequila, competition grew keen, and the product improved immensely. Now the plants are carefully cultured and harvested at maturity. Factories are government-inspected, and most producers distill their products two or three times. Some of the tequila is aged six months to five years. Aging in wooden barrels produces a deep golden hue, promoted by Heublein in their “Cuervo Gold” ads. (The gold color can also be produced by adding a touch of caramel, however.)

While the U.S. has been taking to tequila, the Mexicans have tired of it. Mario Leal, owner of Chiquita, asserts that tequila has never been a big deal in Mexico, where most drinkers prefer cerveza. Brandy is next in popularity – a single make, Presidente, outsells all brands of tequila combined. It is making inroads in California, so next summer’s cooler may be brandy-and-soda.

The Straits Of Laredo

Dallasites Jack and Paula have vivid recollect ions of their first Margaritas several years ago at the El. Rio Hotel in Nuevo Laredo. “We were lying around the pool and it was about KM) degrees,” Jack recalls. “They were serving frozen doubles in the same Styrofoam cups that they used for milkshakes. They were delicious.”

Before the sun had set, Jack and Paula were bombed. After staggering back to the room, Paula became violently ill. Jack, concerned about her health, called the front office for help. “I figured that this had happened before, and they would have something they could send us. But I don’t speak Spanish, and I couldn’t make the guy understand what I wanted.” Finally, Jack put it as simply as he knew how, with no waste of words. “Sick, dammit, sick! Margaritas! Sick!”

“Oh, si si senor,” the evening attendant responded eagerly, as pleased as Jack at the apparent linguistic breakthrough. “We fix you right up.”

About 30 minutes later, there was a rap on the door. Jack was in the bathroom, so Paula struggled over to receive the anxiously awaited antidote. Jack then heard an unearthly half-scream, half-moan and rushed out to find Paula sprawled face down on the bed. At the door stood a bewildered busboy, holding a tray loaded with six sparkling, lime-green Margaritas.



In the public interest, I have conducted a new series of experiments with tequila. Using the Cuervo silver and gold as basic ingredients, I am pleased to report that both are line products, well suited lor cocktail mixers.

First, I tried the spirits in the traditional fashion: a dash of salt followed by a small shot of tequila, then a suck of lime. The results were surprisingly tolerable, the gold seeming a shade more mellow than the silver when taken straight. I found the results more acceptable with the salt and the lime preceding the spirit, so that the tequila does not play the role of uninvited guest even for an instant. I must add, however, that the traditional method seems a ridiculously complex way to drink spirits.

I found the Tequila Sunrise (tequila, orange juice, and grenadine) very refreshing. The Margarita needs no testimonial. I also tried a Margarita with vodka, which in my opinion lacked personality. (My research associate preferred the vodka Margarita, describing it as “clear and sharp” compared to the tequila Margarita, which she described as tasting “somewhat mildewed.”) Overall, tequila seemed perfectly at home with any citrus or tomato juice. The only disaster was the Tequini (tequila and vermouth), which I did not finish and regretted that I had even constructed.

In my opinion, the worst innovation in the development of tequila-based beverages is the frozen Margarita. I must be eccentric, considering the thousands of gallons of these alcoholic Slurpees that are sold in Dallas each month. But I find that the particles of ice dull the palate and obliterate the subtle pleasures of the fruit of the maguey. Particular caution is in order at class establishments which feel obliged to construct a cocktail as if it were to be photographed rather than consumed.


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