Once upon a time, tequila had a serious image problem. Synonymous with boozy cantinas and monumental hangovers, it was the beverage of choice for fraternity debauches. Barmaids toted it around in holsters for customers to slug down in bizarre shooter rituals. And, of course, the song to which Pee Wee Herman did his memorable dance in Pee Wee’s Big Adventure was—yes—“Tequila.”

But today, all that has changed. The baby boom generation, always on the prowl for something different, has finally turned its attention from wine, single-malt Scotch, fine vodka, and gourmet beer to tequila. During the past twenty years, while the sales of almost all other liquors have declined, in some cases drastically, tequila has been the fastest-growing category of spirits in the country, more than doubling its market share. In 1994 alone, sales of the best brands, those the liquor industry calls the super-premiums, increased by 20 percent. Tequila it seems has turned into a class act. Bars now list it along with brandies and liqueurs for $5 and $6 a glass. Package stores sell the top labels for $35 to $40. Connoisseurs of wines and fine spirits order tequila straight, in snifters—the better to savor every nuance. And cooks are finding that it has a marvelous affinity for food, as both an ingredient and an accompaniment.

With appreciation has come a debunking of tequila myths: It is not cactus juice or Mexican moonshine; it does not make you hallucinate; it does not have a worm in the bottle. The truth is that tequila is as complex and subtle as cognac or eau-de-vie, that the best ones are aged in oak barrels like fine wines and whiskeys, and that it doesn’t take years of study or an arcane vocabulary to appreciate its full-bodied, salty, smoky taste. All it takes is a trip to a reasonably well-stocked liquor store—and the company of a few friends who share your spirit of adventure.

Defining It

There’s more to tequila than just clear and gold. In fact, there are four categories defined by Mexico’s tequila law, the Norma Oficial Mexicana “Tequila.”< First enacted in 1949, the NOM does for tequila what the Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée does for French wines and cognac: It sets forth which plants may be used to make tequila and where they may be grown, and it spells out government-enforced manufacturing standards.

By law, tequila (which means “volcano” in Nahuatl, the Aztec language, and also refers to a vanished Indian tribe that once inhabited the area) is a double-distilled liquor made in Mexico from the fermented juice extracted from the heart of the blue agave plant: Agave tequilana Weber, “blue” variety. Of course, there’s tequila and there’s tequila. Pure tequila is always labeled 100 percent agave; everything else is blended, legally, with as much as 49 percent cane or other sugar before fermentation. Blended tequilas can taste just fine, but they lack the full flavor of the pure agave ones.

The following four categories can be either pure or blended.

Silver (plata) tequila, also known as white (blanco), is fresh from the still and crystal clear. It is not aged, although some producers give it a little “rest” in stainless steel tanks or Oak barrels for up to 45 days. It may be bottled in Mexico, but more frequently it is shipped to the United States in tanker trucks or railroad cars and then bottled here. Silver tequila has the reputation of being harsh, and some is, but a well-made silver tequila from 100 percent blue agave can be excellent.

Gold tequila is, essentially, a creation for the American marketplace; the Spanish word oro is rarely used in Mexico. The legal designation is joven abocado (“youthful but mellowed”), and most gold tequila is actually silver tequila with caramel coloring added to impart a rich hue. Unfortunately, novice buyers often mistake gold tequila for either reposado or añejo tequila, two very different types.

Reposado, or “rested,” tequila is briefly aged in oak between two months and one year, a process that takes the edge off the rambunctious young silver tequila. It may absorb a light straw color from the oak, or coloring may be added. Either way, reposados are quite popular in Mexico. Some fanciers think they are the best tequilas; others hold that the “repose” does little to enhance the flavor. Many reposados are 100 percent agave.

Añejo, or “aged,” tequilas are the finest and most expensive, kept in oak barrels for at least one year (the word añejo comes from año or “year”). Ideally, the aging balances the natural sweetness of the agave sugar and the astringent, tannic quality of the oak. Añejos take on a natural amber tone from the barrel—usually old whiskey barrels bought from U.S. distilleries. Most are 100 percent agave.

Unlike wine, tequila does not improve but rather goes “off” if barrel-aged for more than about four years; nor does it age in the bottle. And there are no tequila vintage years, because tequila is harvested year-round and the quality of the crop is consistent.

Tasting It

The best way to get to know tequila is to drink it, and the best way to do that is to throw a tequila tasting.

Limit your tasting to six varieties; more than that and it will be hard to keep them straight. Serving them in classic tulip-shaped wine glasses will concentrate the aroma, which is part of the pleasure. (If you use shot glasses, people will start slamming them down, and there goes your sophisticated atmosphere.) Give your guests pencil and paper so they can make notes on their favorites. The point is to sip and savor, discuss and compare.

Have plenty of food to eat before and after the tasting—chips, salsa, guacamole, fresh corn tortillas—but don’t have anything too salty. To clear your palate, drink cool water and eat some bread or tortillas between samples.

In selecting the brands, try for a range of qualities. To establish a benchmark, you might start with the best-selling Jose Cuervo silver. After that, to taste the difference between pure and blended silvers, sample Herradura silver, a 100 percent agave tequila prized by connoisseurs. Your third brand might be Sauza Conmemorativo, which is not 100 percent agave but is aged in oak to a notable smoothness. For your last choices, concentrate on añejos. Number four could be El Tesoro añejo; like Juan Valdés’ coffee beans, El Tesoro’s agaves are harvested at perfect ripeness. Your final selections could be Centinela and Patrón, two other excellent and deep-flavored brands.

One final tip: The tequila market has its own odd vocabulary. “Premium” ($20 to $30) means good and “super-premium” ($35 to $40) means excellent. Unfortunately, a few undistinguished brands fetch even higher prices; so called “ultra-premium” cost a bundle, but the tequila inside the fancy bottles isn’t necessarily superior. Better keys to quality are “Made in Mexico” and “100 percent agave” on the label.

Rating It

Which tequila do connoisseurs drink?

Considering the nationwide popularity of Southwestern and Mexican cooking, we figured the cuisine’s leading chefs and restaurateurs might know a thing or two about tequila. So we placed a call to the following people: Robert Del Grande of Cafe Annie and Arnaldo Richards of Pico’s, Houston; Dean Fearing of the Mansion on Turtle Creek and Stephan Pyles of Star Canyon, Dallas; Mark Miller of Coyote Cafe and Miguel Ravago of Fonda San Miguel, Austin; Jay McCarthy of Cascabel and Rick Gonzalez of El Mirador, San Antonio; Mick Lynch of Cafe Central in El Paso; and Grady Spears of Reata, Alpine. (We also asked Bruce Auden of San Antonio’s Biga, who confessed that he doesn’t drink tequila.) Most of those polled specified the mellower añejo or reposado in their favorite brands.

The winners in the tequila sweepstakes were (drum roll, please): First place, Herradura, with seven votes. Second, Patròn, with six. Third, El Tesoro, with five. Chinaco—once the hardest tequila to find, because production was unpredictable, but soon to be available again—got three votes, and Centinela and Sauza Tres Generaciones got two each. After that, the scoring evened out with Jose Cuervo gold, Dos Reales, Porfidio, and several other Sauza products (Conmemorativo and Hornitos) netting a vote apiece.

Making It

The long, spiky leaves of the blue agave plant look like a freeze-frame explosion; an entire field of agaves is a series of starbursts arranged in tidy rows from roadside to horizon. Despite their needlelike tips, the 250 to 300 species of agave are not cacti but rather members of the lily family, relatives of yucca, amaryllis, and sansevieria. A blue agave blooms just once, eight to ten years after it takes root, and then it dies. If it is harvested too soon, it will be unripe. If it is harvested too late, the heart will have formed its once-in-a-lifetime bloom stalk and will be no good for making tequila. Timing is everything. Moving gingerly among these plants, workers known as jimadores (“harvesters”) carry long-handled tools with spatulate chopping blades called coas. Spotting a suitable plant, the jimador shears off a few base leaves and uproots the plant with his foot. With rapid, precise strokes, he then slices off the remaining leaves. The end product is a fifty-to-one-hundred-pound green globe that strikingly resembles a pineapple and is, in fact, called a piña. After they are cut, the piñas are loaded onto donkeys or tossed into trucks and delivered to the distillery, where they begin their metamorphosis into tequila.

It used to be that all tequila distilling was a primitive, labor-intensive operation. And indeed, some distilleries, including the modern giants, Jose Cuervo and Sauza, still cook the piñas in traditional stone-walled ovens for as long as 36 hours, followed by more hours of cooling. Yet other larger distilleries are highly mechanized: They use autoclaves—essentially giant pressure cookers—that steam the piñas rapidly. Here, as in other aspects of tequila making, the traditional distilleries claim to make a superior product, drawing an analogy between a spaghetti sauce that takes thirty minutes to make and one that is slowly simmered for hours. Others say that either method can be effective in experienced hands.

Before piña is cooked, it has the smooth, firm texture of a turnip of jicama and a slightly bitter, herbal taste. Once it has been baked, it is surprisingly like a sweet potato in color, flavor, and consistency. All its starches have turned to sugar, transforming the vegetable into a strange, fibrous candy.

The next step is to extract the juice. Newer distilleries crush the piñas with modern machinery; a few older ones use a large circular stone called a tahona. Once crushed, the piñas are repeatedly washed with water to separate the juice from the fibers, and the resulting liquid is transferred to fermentation containers, either huge stainless steel vats (in the modern plants) or small wooden ones. Sugar syrups may be added at this stage if the tequila is to be a blend. The next ingredient is yeast, commercial or wild; the type influences the style or taste of the finished product. As fermentation proceeds, the brown beery liquid simmers and roils. At the end of the process, which can take a few hours to a few days, the sugars have been converted into a mild alcohol—not yet tequila, but getting closer.

The missing step is distillation, which can take place in traditional copper stills or stainless steel ones. The fermented brew is heated to boiling, and the resulting vapors are condensed to a clear liquid of about 40 proof. The “heads” and “tails”—alcohols produced during the first and last stages of the process—are discarded because they contain harsh, even toxic impurities. Then the “heart” of the distillate is piped into a second group of stills to be finished.

The crystal-clear alcohol that comes out of the still is, finally, tequila. At 110 proof or higher, it is strong stuff, which is why distilled water is added to dilute it to 80 proof. If it is to be aged, it is transferred to oak barrels; if not, it is bottled (in either Mexico or the United States) and ready to be sold.

Explaining It

Confusion reigns, at least among norteamericanos, over the differences among pulque, mescal, and tequila. Many people think that the first two are primitive or semi-finished stages of the third (tequila interruptus, so to speak). This rowdy, rotut image persists even though pulque and mescal are quite distinct and can be good, bad, or indifferent.

Pulque (pronounced “pool-keh”) has the most ancient lineage, having been consumed in Mexico for more than two thousand years. Rich in nutrients, it was prized by the Aztecs, who reserved it for the aged and infirm as well as for nobles, warriors, and nursing mothers. Anyone else caught sneaking a drink could be sentenced to death. Until the twentieth century, pulque occupied an honored place as the drink of revolutionaries, artists, and great landowners. Today it is regarded as the solace of poor folk. In the rest of society, Tecate and Coca-Cola have taken its place.

Like tequila, pulque is made from the juice of agave plants (but not Agave tequilana Weber, “blue” variety). Unlike tequila, it is extracted from living plants instead of those that have been harvested and cooked, and it is fermented but not distilled. To put it politely, pulque is an acquired taste. White, foamy, and thick, with an alcoholic content of between 4 and 6 percent, it has an herbaceous or a vegetable flavor that is simultaneously acrid, sweet, and salty. Because it doesn’t take well to bottling or storage, it must be consumed fresh and in the vicinity of where it is produced—primarily Mexico’s Central Plateau.

Compared with pulque, mescal (“mes-cahl“) is a youngster, a mere four centuries old at best. When the Spanish colonized Mexico in the sixteenth century, they brought with them the ancient art of distilling. They soon applied that art to the agave, a plant with proven potential for alcohol production.

The making of mescal is almost identical to the making of tequila; and, indeed, tequila was once called vino mescal or “mescal wine,” reflecting the fact that it is essentially a highly refined mescal. The main differences are that the two liquors use different species of agave plants and that mescal is distilled once rather than twice. The Mexican government does not regulate mescal production, so the quality varies. Some mescals are subtle and complex; most are not. To smooth the harsh, typically smoky flavor, fruits and spices such as lime, prickly pear, pineapple, almonds, and cinnamon are frequently added.

Mexicans regard mescal as a tonic, a diuretic, a digestive aid, and an aphrodisiac, and they consume almost all the mescal that is made, though a few American bars are starting to stock it. (Austin’s Coyote Cafe, for instance, carries two brands.) In short, mescal is what tequila was twenty years ago; a drink for the daring. But given America’s enthusiastic adoption of Mexico’s music, dance, and food, we may be seeing a lot more of it soon.

Drinking It

Although a margarita contains simple ingredients, a good margarita is anything but simple.

Your best choice for tequila is silver. It has a fresh , bright taste, and it lets the shimmering, light green color of the lime juice shine through. Gold tequila is a good second choice; if you’re used to a slightly sweeter flavor, you may even prefer it. Either way, 100 percent agave tequila provides the most intense flavor. The choice of brand is up to you, but buy a decent one. On the other hand, don’t use an expensive aged tequila in a margarita. Would you cook with Château Lafite-Rothschild?

Triple sec is the generic name for any triple-distilled clear liqueur produced from the skins of curaçao and other oranges. Read the label to find one that is made with natural, not artificial, flavorings. Better yet, buy Cointreau, the most famous and exotic triple sec. Grand Marnier—orange liqueur blended with cognac—is touted as the connoisseur’s choice, but too much of it can overwhelm a margarita.

Ironically, the most important ingredient is often the hardest one to get: good lime juice. When they are in season, use sweet little round Mexican limes (Key limes are the same thing). Big, dark green Persian limes can be bought year-round, but they are often sour and thinly flavored. If you do use them, bolster their sweetness with a dash of simple syrup (see any general cookbook).

Now for the recipe. Everyone has a favorite, but in case you don’t, try this Mexican version, which produces a margarita that is a little less sweet than most American ones:

1 1/2 ounces silver tequila
1/2 ounce Cointreau
3/4 ounce fresh Mexican lime juice

Before serving, run a lime wedge around the lip of a pretty, flared stemware glass and twirl the outer edge lightly in a saucer of kosher salt. Shake the drink with ice (preferably smallish cubes) and either strain it or serve it with the ice.

What about frozen margaritas? Don’t even think of making one. You are a grown-up.

Debating It

Who created the margarita, and when? It would be easier to identify the missing link between man and ape. So many margarita candidates have been put forward and so little hard evidence has been offered that the origin of the now-ubiquitous drink will probably never be known.

The most frequently told version is that the margarita was first made in the forties by an unnamed bartender in Palm Springs, California, to mimic—but soften—the classic combination of a shot of tequila accompanied by a lick of salt and a bite of lime.

A favorite story among Texans is that a bartender named Pancho Morales invented the margarita on July 4, 1942, at a Juárez bar named Tommy’s Place (“The Man Who Invented the Margarita,” TM, October 1974). Supposedly, it all began when a woman requested a Magnolia (brandy, Cointreau, and an egg yolk topped with champagne). Morales was a little fuzzy on the recipe, so he improvised—and his ersatz creation was a big hit.

Another popular theory cites society hostess Margarita Sames (formerly of Dallas, now of San Antonio), who claims to have concocted the drink for Christmas houseguests at her Acapulco hacienda in 1948 (“Barroom Brawl,” TM, July 1991).

But of all the people said to be associated with the margarita, the one who deserves the most credit is Vern Underwood, who first imported Jose Cuervo tequila into the U.S. in 1945 and promulgated a great advertising slogan: “Margarita: It’s more than a girl’s name.”

Eating It

Tequila will always be a party drink, but it is also surprisingly versatile. Not only can you drink it before, during, and after a meal, but you can also cook with it: It blends wonderfully with chiles, garlic, onions, salsas, and Mexican moles; it mellows the sourness of citrus juices; and it has a natural affinity for nuts and seeds. A discreet splash even adds verve to desserts.

Irrepressible Austinite Lucinda Hutson chronicles her travels through tequila country in ¡Tequila! Cooking With the Spirit of Mexico (Ten Speed Press, $24.95 hardback, $16.95 paperback, 158 pages), a chatty volume of tequila lore and some 135 Southwestern-oriented recipes, including this one for gazpacho macho.

4 large tomatoes, seeded and chopped
1 yellow bell pepper, seeded and diced
1 red bell pepper, seeded and diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 to 4 serrano chiles, seeded and minced
2 cucumbers, peeled, seeded, and diced
4 green onions, diced
1 medium white onion, diced
1/4 teaspoon whole allspice
1/2 teaspoon whole black peppercorns
1/2 teaspoon whole coriander seeds
3 cups tomato juice
3 tablespoons fresh lime juice
1 cup good silver tequila
3 tablespoons sherry vinegar
3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
4 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro
3 tablespoons chopped fresh basil

Put diced vegetables in a large bowl. Grind spices and add to vegetables along with liquids and salt, whisking in olive oil last. Chill at least 6 hours.

Before serving, stir in cilantro and basil. Serve with condiments—chopped avocado, boiled shrimp, chopped cilantro, croutons. Makes about 10 cups.

Some forty up-to-date Mexican recipes and a smattering of tequila facts make up Californians Ann and Larry Walker’s Tequila: The Book (Chronicle Books, $10.95 paperback, 120 pages), from which this recipe for drunken shrimp is taken.

24 large shrimp (about 2 pounds), peeled and deveined
2 tablespoons good silver tequila
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
3 cloves garlic
1 teaspoon crumbled dried oregano
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon paprika
1 fresh serrano chile, stemmed and seeded
1/2 cup fresh cilantro
Oil for cooking

Put shrimp in a nonreactive bowl. Purée other ingredients in a blender and thoroughly toss with shrimp. Cover and refrigerate 1 hour. Cook shrimp with marinade over high heat, tossing, until shrimp turn bright pink, 1 to 2 minutes. Serves 6.

In this recipe for fiesta frijoles from ¡Tequila!, you can arrange the corn as a golden ring instead of mixing it with the black beans. If you can’t find chile-flavored tequila, simply and 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon of crushed dried red pepper to the tequila.

For the marinade:
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 1/2 teaspoons cumin seeds, toasted and coarsely ground
2 teaspoons dried oregano
3 tablespoons chile-pepper-flavored tequila
4 tablespoons red wine vinegar
2 bay leaves, preferably fresh, crushed
1/2 teaspoon salt
5 tablespoons olive oil

For the bean mixture:
3 1/2 cups cooked black beans, chilled and drained
4 serranos or jalapeños (or more, to taste), chopped
6 green onions with some of the green tops, chopped
1 cup chopped red onion
1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro
2 tablespoons chopped fresh epazote (optional)
2 cups fresh sweet corn kernels, cold-tossed
6 Roma tomatoes, chopped, lightly salted, and drained in a colander
Juice of 1 to 2 fresh limes
Salt to taste

In a small bowl, combine all marinade ingredients except olive oil, then slowly whisk in the oil.

In a large bowl, combine all bean-mixture ingredients except lime juice and salt, then toss with marinade. Chill for several hours or overnight, stirring occasionally. (If the recipe is to be held overnight, add corn and tomatoes a few hours before serving.) Drizzle with fresh lime juice and add salt to taste before serving.