An afternoon spent at a tequila tasting in Mexico amid the sunshine changed the way I thought about the drink.
If travel teaches you anything, it is this: that one man’s hangover-inducing, paint-stripping, memory-erasing spirit shot is another man’s artisanal specialty. Chances are you remember it well. The indignity of licking the back of your hand. The coarse salt, the shot so bitter it brings tears to your eyes. And then, for the grand finale of culinary masochism, the abrasive acid of sliced, wilting, lemon.
On second thoughts, perhaps you don’t remember it well. Tequila, after all, is the kind of drink that only ever turns up fashionably late.
Apart from in Mexico, where it waltzes in for afternoon tea.
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Perhaps not surprisingly, the home of tequila has no idea of the wild and wayward behaviour its signature drink gets up to overseas. At home, it cultivates a more refined image, the sort that takes place over a leisurely tasting session at a luxury boutique hotel like the Viceroy Riviera Maya.
Waves flirt with the shore, the sun shines overhead and the tequila twists and tilts its reflection through the clear glass shots lined up by the nachos.
Our tasting session begins with a talk about champagne.
Tequila, like champagne, is territorial. It only earns the name if distilled within an area of approximately 40 square miles around the town of (wait for it) tequila and in the highlands of Jalisco.
Fermented from agave, a scrawny, scraggly-looking plant, it further earns its classification depending on whether it is pure (100% agave) or whether it has been mixed with other sugary alcohol treats (mixtos.)
Next up is the prickly topic of ageing.
Blanco, the newest, freshest kid on the block appears in bottles barely minutes after distillation. Next up is joven (young), then reposado (rested), while añejo tequila matures for at least a year and more likely three in oak bottles shipped in from the whiskey regions of north America and Europe.
Each progressive tequila takes on a darker, duskier, smokier colour and taste.
Salt and lemon are entirely optional. And no-one’s licking anything.
Instead, blood red and lizard-green sangrita beckon from blue and white ceramic cups. Made form habanero peppers and crushed coriander respectively, the flaming spices augment (or is that disguise?) the twang and tang of true tequila. Guacamole and crisp, dry nachos finish the experience off.
My favourite, by far, is the caramel coloured añejo. It carries a sweet, smoky flavour that settles the rather rambunctious scarlet sangrita.
While the wind whispers across the waves and dignified chatter floats through the breeze, it’s hard to bring my earlier tequila “tastings” to the forefront of my mind.
Then again, given the difference in the surroundings, never mind the taste of the stuff, perhaps that’s just as well.
If you’re wondering why there’s no worm in any of these pictures, I have a tale that may disappoint you. Worms live in the bottles of mezcal, another Mexican drink, rather than in the intoxicating world of tequila. And yes, I did ask, and yes, I felt foolish when I heard the reply.
Then again, I suppose there’s nothing stopping you from adding your own worm straight to your drink…
Disclosure: I experienced this tequila tasting thanks to the Viceroy Riviera Maya hotel in the Yucatan and British Airways. All thoughts on tequila, worms and nachos remain mine, all mine.
Hi, I'm Abi, a doctor turned writer who's worked with Lonely Planet, the BBC, UNESCO and more. Let's travel more and think more. Find out more.
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