Kimpton’s National Manager of Bar Education Mike Ryan offers some spirited history and a Tequila primer to celebrate Cinco de Mayo. You can also follow him on Twitter @gastronautmike.
After we’ve put away our lightsabers and stormtrooper helmets — May the 4th be with you — it’s time to think about May 5: Cinco de Mayo. We’ve all seen the ridiculous beer commercials and maybe we’ve even made some terrible, terrible decisions on Cinco de Mayo. But what’s it really all about? And almost as important, what awesome Tequilas should we be toasting with?
First of all, Cinco de Mayo is not Mexican Independence Day; that’s Sept. 16. The Fifth of May marks the anniversary of the Battle of Puebla in 1862 when Mexican troops defeated a larger and better-armed French force. Although the army of Napoleon III eventually overran Mexico City and deposed President Benito Juárez, this small victory resonated with the Mexican people — and with the United States, as well, which was embroiled in the Civil War.
It wasn’t until 1867 that the French were finally expelled from Mexico, but the Battle of Puebla helped establish and bolster a sense of national pride for many Mexicans. It was seen as a Mexican David defeating a French Goliath — this was a time when the French army was one of the most feared fighting forces in the world.
So now you know why we should lift a glass — and hold a moment of silence for the honored dead who fell defending their country. But what should we be drinking?
Tequila, obviously. There are so many brands out there, in so many bottles and expressions, and there is so much marketing behind a few of them that the process of sorting out the bad from the good from the truly great can be a bit intimidating. So in honor of Cinco de Mayo, we’ve assembled a few fantastic Tequilas and mezcals that truly speak to the heritage and history of Mexico.
First things first: Tequila should say “100% Blue Agave” on the bottle somewhere. If it doesn’t, it’s a mixto — not a true Tequila, so skip it. Also, each and every bottle of Tequila bears a NOM (Norma Oficial Mexicana, or “Official Mexican Standard”), which allows you to trace the bottle back to a specific distillery. If you like a particular brand, look for others from the same NOM. They won’t always be in the same flavor profile, but it’s a great way to explore.
Here are five agave distillates that live in my home bar:
Tequila Fortaleza — NOM 1493
Fortaleza Tequila is a tiny — but powerful — brand, distilled by Guillermo Sauza in the town of Tequila in the state of Jalisco. It’s a throwback to the traditional methods of Tequila production: Agave hearts (called piñas for their resemblance to pineapples) are roasted in a brick horno, or oven; ground using a tahona, a large stone wheel; and pot-distilled. The valley agaves they use bring a light sweetness, offset by a rich herbaceousness and green, peppery quality. If you want to taste the essence of Tequila, this is it.
Tequila Ocho — NOM 1474
Ocho is a collaboration between Tomas Estes (who literally wrote the book on Tequila) and Carlos Camarena, a third-generation Tequila distiller. Each Ocho release is comprised of agave sourced from a separate rancho, the idea being that you can see the difference in terroir from field to field. Amazingly expressive and wide-ranging, each rancho brings different characteristics to bear. The only commonality is very, very high quality.
Tequila Cabeza — NOM 1414
Cabeza is the product of a lengthy collaboration between the Vivanco family and the gentlemen behind The 86 Co., a spirits company by bartenders, for bartenders. Dushan Zaric, of Employees Only restaurant and bar in New York City, developed the recipe with the Vivancos over a period of years, distilling and tasting and distilling again. The Vivanco family has been agaveros for a long time, so they control the agave from ground to glass, rather than purchasing it on the open market. This Tequila is bottled at 86 proof, bringing a little more power to your cocktail.
Tequila Siembra Azul — NOM 1414
David Suro-Piñera is the mastermind behind this lush, fruity Tequila, rooted in the classic techniques. David has long been a proponent of artisanal, traditional Tequila methods, and the technical data on the Siembra Azul website — accessible to all, not just geeky industry insiders — is a breath of fresh air.
Del Maguey Chichicapa Mezcal — NOM 041X
Ron Cooper was long an agave evangelist, as well as an artist, and he is rightly hailed as the godfather of mezcal in the United States. His exquisite line of mezcals pays homage to the traditions and culture of Oaxaca, and of Mexico in general. Chichicapa is a great bottle to start with if you’re just beginning to dip your beak into the wonderful, intoxicating (literally) world of artisanal mezcal.
And whether you’re a connoisseur or a newbie, if you’re intrigued by the world and culture of Tequila and mezcal and want to learn more, I highly recommend a visit to the Tequila Interchange Project website. You’ll get the latest news and issues concerning the sustainable, traditional production of Mexico’s emblematic spirit.
— Mike Ryan
Tomas Estes’ book has been out of print almost since the day it was released. But if we’re going to refer to anyone as “who literally wrote the book on Tequila,” and you’re talking about a book released in 2012, you’ve got a major blind spot. The best book ever written about tequila was, literally, “The Book of Tequila” by the late Bob Emmons. First published in 1997, second edition in 2002. If you haven’t read it get a copy. It’s also out of print, but I managed to snag some copies from the publisher several years ago. Don’t pay the $95 asking price for a new one on Amazon! Either buy a used copy or I’ll sell you one of my new ones for the $38 I paid for it. ¡Salud!