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The grand opening of chef Richard Sandoval‘s new Mexican eatery El Centro D.F. this week promises to bring tequila consumption in the District to new heights of agave-based euphoria. Some 200 different varieties of tequilas and mezcals are said to be available daily.
Still haunted by the curse of José Cuervo from our college days, Young & Hungry called on the Sandoval group’s “tequila librarian,” Courtenay Greenleaf, to better educate us on a more refined approach to imbibing the stuff, beyond the silly American co-ed tradition of “lick it, slam it, suck it.”
“The more sophisticated way, obviously, is sipping your tequila,” Greenleaf says.
“Sipping it slowly,” she continues. “And it does take some time, if you have in the past, you know, done shot after shot, and you’re trying to chase it with the salt and the lime….Even if you have your favorite red wine and you poured that into a shot glass and just down it, you’re not going to get all those elegant nuances that are there on different levels. So, it does take some training of the palette, just like if you are starting to sip wine and comparing different wines.”
Where to start at such a heavily stocked bar as El Centro’s? First, make sure whatever you’re drinking is the real-deal 100-percent blue agave kind. The other stuff, known as mixto, is only half pure, well, 51 percent. Still. “What you are getting is a lot more sugar,” she warns.
Of the four aging categories—blanco (bottled immediately after distillation), reposado (aged in barrels less than a year), añejo (aged at least one year), and extra añejo (aged more than three years)—Greenleaf generally recommends that newbies kick things off with the older stuff.
“For new tequila drinkers, it’s nice to start with maybe an añejo or extra añejo, because you’re able to really identify those nuances from resting in the wood so long,” she says. “You’re getting a lot more oak, vanilla, caramel. Your palette’s able to really recognize those sweeter nuances that have been imparted from the barrel, and the agave is still there but it’s not as prevalent.”
Once you get a handle on the sweeter kinds, work your way down to a reposoto, “which is obviously not rested in the barrel as long, so the agave is more prevalent,” she says.
Finally, then, you’re ready for the purest form, the blanco. “It is the strongest on the palette,” she says. “Most aficionados, that’s what they enjoy. They want to taste the fruit, the terroir, the distillation.”
Of course not everyone enjoys the older-to-younger progression. Some tasters find an añejo too sweet. “They’ll think it tastes almost like a bourbon or cognac,” she says.
If sweetness isn’t your thing, better to go with the blanco.
“Every palette is different,” says Greenleaf. “I’m a strong proponent of saying there’s no right or wrong.”
Regardless of where along the aging spectrum you do your sipping, at least try to have some respect for the process. “It’s a beautiful amazing spirit,” she says. “It takes the agave plant anywhere from eight to 12 years to reach maturation before it can be harvested. It’s not like a wine where it can be harvested every year from the same vine. So you’re looking at possibly upwards of a 15-year process.”
“You can shoot it, of course,” she laughs. “But I’m here to advocate for sipping it. Enjoy it as you would a cognac or scotch.”
With so much tequila on hand, you’d think El Centro might try to incorporate a little bit of the stuff into the cooking, as well. But, while Sandoval and company have been known to spike their sauces at other locations—at Masa 14, for instance, chef Antonio Burrell makes a tequila caramel sauce for his banana cake—there are no boozy recipes planned for El Centro. So far.
That’s a shame. At Sandoval’s La Biblioteca de Tequila in New York, where Greenleaf is based, they sometimes make tequila-infused snow cones with fresh shaved ice. “We’ll do a flight of three,” she says, “with house-made syrups. One is a tamarind, one’s a hibiscus and we also do a fresh strawberry puree.”
The adult version of the childhood treat really packs a wallop. “They’re very popular,” she says.
Sounds like a delicious option for hot nights on El Centro’s rooftop. Are you listening, Richard?
Photo by Photomag/Creative Commons