Washington - There's something about tequila that activates the revelry gland, whatever part of the brain it is that responds to a bottle of Cuervo by bawling "PAAAAARRRTY!"
No one bawls "PAAAAARRRTY!" when they see a bottle of Glenlivet.
Is it some dormant memory of Cancun, Mexico vacations past? Did we all come of age in a Texas honky-tonk, where swallowing the worm at the bottom of a bottle was a means to prove we had hair on our chests?
Me, I don't want hair on my chest. I want to have a good cocktail. I want to sip good spirits. And if you're offering me a drink that requires me to first salt my palate, knock back a shot with my eyes closed, then suck on a lime to get rid of the taste . . . well, partner, sign me up for a hard pass.
I'll go drink tequila somewhere they know better.
Adequately explaining the difference between tequila and mezcal is tricky. Tequila is a kind of mezcal, one that can be made only in the Mexican state of Jalisco and a few other places; it must use only agave tequilana, not other agave species.
Mezcal can be made across a wider geographical range of Mexico, from a range of agave species. The differences in ingredients, terroir and production processes result in a bit of a head-scratcher: The mezcal sold as "tequila" doesn't usually taste like the mezcal sold as "mezcal," and "mezcals" can taste very different from one another.
Agave spirits break drinkers into camps. There are the haters, who once drank too much tequila and decided the experience was representative and that all tequila sucks.
There are drinkers who have discovered "premium" tequilas. "Premium" is a confusing term, used by the industry to reference more expensive bottles, but often understood by drinkers to mean "better." Many premium tequilas are beautifully bottled, celebrity-endorsed and brag of their multiple distillations and resulting smoothness.
And then there are agave nerds. These days they, too, may express contempt for tequila - but for different reasons. As the tequila business boomed over the past decades, many producers moved away from their rustic roots, getting swallowed up by multinationals and shifting to more industrialized processes to meet volume demands. These shifts have gradually changed tequila.
In Mexico, beyond limes and salt and margaritas, tequila is often served with sangrita ("little blood"), a nonalcoholic chaser of citrus and chile that's sometimes part of a "bandera" - shots of lime, blanco tequila and sangrita, three colors echoing the Mexican flag.
How should you drink these spirits? It really depends what you want to get from them. Hopefully the answer isn't "drunk."
If you're aiming to taste the spirit, neat is the way to go, says Suro, the restaurateur and tequila executive. "Friends of mine in Mexico, they argue that the traditional way to drink tequila is in a caballito" - a taller, slender shot glass - "with a lime and with salt.
And I say, but why? What's the reason to put it in a glass where it has absolutely no room to breathe? You pretty much eliminate all the potential that a good tequila has to offer to us, not just for taste but the aromatic characteristics." (The jicara and copita used to serve mezcal, by comparison, have wider mouths that allow more aromas to circulate.)
And the orange slices and sal de gusano that accompany mezcal? He likes them as a delicious snack, but for him, they have nothing to do with tasting the spirit. "When I have a mezcal that came from an agave that took nearly 20 years to develop, and it has hundreds of... elements for me to discover, I really don't need the distraction of lime or orange or gusano salt," he says.The Washington Post