Like single-malt Scotch and premium bourbons, really good tequilas are increasing in popularity. Many of us had our first tequila experience in the form of shooters, accompanied by a lick of salt and a lime wedge to suck on. (Most of us also had a headache the next day, since this ritual is usually accompanied by a certain degree of machismo, bravado and one-upmanship.) Shooters can be fun (if you're willing to risk a hangover), but sipping a mature, complex, premium tequila is an activity worth trying, too. Aficionados should check out the informative, beautifully photographed new book, "Tequila: The Spirit of Mexico" by Enrique Martinez Limon (Abbeville Press, $35). Here are a few basics to get you started this Cinco de Mayo, and a few recipes to try with any type of tequila.
What is tequila? A clear or golden-colored liquor made by fermenting and distilling the sap of the agave plant, a succulent related to the amaryllis.
What determines the taste of tequila? Soil, climate, altitude, harvest date, number of distillations (two or three), and additions if any made to the tequila.
What is mixto? The word describing tequila that is not 100 percent pure agave. A mixto tequila may have added coloring and/or sweeteners and/or flavorings.
What are the best tequilas? Aficionados choose 100 percent agave tequilas, since they are superior in flavor, aroma and body.
How do you drink tequila? A premium tequila is usually enjoyed neat either chilled or at room temperature in a tall, narrow shot glass called a caballito.
What is a sangrita? A spicy, nonalcoholic drink made of orange and tomato juices, that is enjoyed between sips of tequila.
What are the types of tequila? Blanco or plata (white or silver): The most common type of tequila. It is less than 60 days old and may be bottled just after distillation. Some brands let the blanco tequila "rest" in oak barrels for added smoothness, but it cannot "rest" in oak for more than 30 days.
Joven abocado (young and smoothed, also called gold, or oro): Similar to blanco, but with coloring and flavoring added to make it look aged. The industry term for this kind of tequila is mixto (mixed), distinguishing it from 100 percent agaves.
Reposado (rested): This tequila is aged from two to 12 months in oak casks or barrels. The aging generally makes the taste richer and more complex.
A¤ejo (aged, or vintage): Tequila aged in government-sealed barrels for a minimum of one year. The barrels can hold no more than 350 liters.
What will a premium tequila label say? Look for "100 percent agave" or "100 percent agave azul" or "cien por ciento de agave azul." They all mean that the tequila is made only from the blue agave plant, with no other ingredients added. The letters "NOM" on the label means Normas Oficial Mexicana, which means the tequila meets government standards.
Recipes: Margarita 1 part fresh-squeezed lime juice 1 part tequila 1/2 part orange liqueur, such as Cointreau, Triple Sec or Grand Marnier Pour over ice in a rocks glass rimmed with kosher salt.
Tequila Martini 3/4 ounce tequila 1/2 ounce dry vermouth Stir or shake with ice. Strain into chilled martini glasses; garnish with an olive.
Low Rider 1 1/2 ounce tequila 1/2 ounce triple sec splash cranberry juice Serve over ice, garnish with slice of fresh orange or drop a few cranberries into the glass.
Acapulco Blue 1/2 orange slice 3/4 ounce tequila 1/2 ounce blue Cura‡ao 1/2 ounce simple syrup 1 splash club soda Place orange slice in glass that has been rimmed with lime juice and salt. Add ice, tequila, blue cura‡ao, syrup and club soda. Stir lightly, then garnish with a slice of orange.
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