Tequila: Give it a shot

MICHAEL RIETMULDER | Updated 5/9/2013

Despite its spring-break image, tequila is a “phenomenal spirit.”

Bartender Samuel Gleeson poured a Centinela, part of Barrio’s tequila flight of the month in downtown St. Paul.
Photo by NICOLA LOSIK

Lick it, slam it, suck it.

That’s how most Americans experience tequila in their formative drinking years. However, between the lick of salt and the lime-wedge chaser, the taste of tequila is hardly experienced at all.

“It’s so ingrained in the tequila culture that you’re never going to get away from that,” said Mike Juarez-Sweeney, general manager of St. Paul’s popular tequila bar Barrio. “I would try to steer people away from that, but you’re still going to get that group of girls that wants to do it, which is fine.

“At least they’re drinking tequila and not doing Jäg bombs.”

Despite being typecast as a spring-break spirit where body shots are de rigueur, tequila comes in a wide world of offerings that are better sipped from a snifter than sucked out of someone’s navel. Don’t waste your time with a lesser libation when celebrating Cinco de Mayo on Sunday.

“Tequila is a phenomenal spirit,” said Steve Dennis, co-owner of Dennis Brothers Liquors in Cottage Grove, a destination store for tequila connoisseurs. “It should be regarded and contemplated in the same fashion as any of the other world-class spirits that are out there.”

All tequilas are made from the succulent blue agave plant, predominantly found in the Mexican state of Jalisco. But there are two major types: mixtos (literally, “mixed”) and those using 100 percent fermented agave juice.

When selecting a sipper, leave the mixtos to the sorority girls. Mixtos like Jose Cuervo Especial can use as little as 51 percent agave, supplemented with grain alcohol, sugars or additives that can induce the horrendous hangovers associated with tequila, Juarez-Sweeney said.

Furthermore, there are four tequila classifications based on aging: blanco (or silver or plata), reposado, añejo and extra añejo. Dennis, a tequila buff of 25 years, said he considers only añejos (aged one to three years) and extra añejos (more than three years) fit to sip.

As tequila ages, its natural flavors — which run the gamut from caramel to peppery — become more pronounced and its notorious boozy bite is softened, Juarez-Sweeney said. It also takes on character from the oak barrels in which it’s aged.

Extra añejos “have much more in common with a fine cognac in terms of how they drink,” he said. His personal pick: Herradura’s extra añejo SelecciÓn Suprema.

For rookies, he recommends reposados. Aged between two months and a year, they are less rich and oaky than añejos — and typically less expensive. One of his favorites is Asombroso’s La Rosa Reposado, which is aged in Bordeaux barrels and swirls with fruity and chocolatey notes.

Blancos, aged up to two months (or not at all), embody the “true essence of the agave,” Dennis said, tasting peppery and vegetal. Because they’re cheaper, they are most often used in margaritas.

While aficionados like Dennis might spend as much on fine tequila as college kids do on textbooks, he said he doesn’t mind the south-of-the-border spirit’s party-shot image.

“Tequila is associated with people having a good time,” he said. “It puts you in that fun/tropical/forever-summertime type of mind.”

Barrio St. Paul

Where: 235 E. 6th St., St. Paul, 651-222-3250, www.barriotequila.com

Dennis Brothers Liquors

Where: 7155 Jorgensen Lane S., Suite 150, Cottage Grove, 651-458-8932.