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Spirit of the Southwest : Straight Up or as the Essence of a Margarita, Tequila Is Running Strong in the Refreshment Ratings


HERE IS A PIECE of colloquial wisdom that suggests: "Look to the lands where the sun shines hot for the most refreshing drink." The Southern California sun is no lightweight, and to many who dwell in its rays, the favored hot-weather drink is the margarita. And the familiar spirit that sparks the margarita is tequila.

Some researchers believe that the margarita was created by the master bartender at the Tail o' the Cock on La Cienega Boulevard in 1954. The Nichols clan of the many La Paz restaurants--also now merely a memory--produced their own version, in smoky crystal goblets, salt-rimmed, creamy, cold, redolent of fresh lime and lemon, tantalizing and satisfying, both sweet and sour, with an egg-white-foamy crushed-ice head that lasted until the last drop was savored.

The margarita, one of the most popular mixed drinks in history, is a connoisseur's call at Rebecca's in Venice, where it's made with the rare Chinaco Anejo aged reserve tequila. True aficionados, it is told, will sip Cuervo 1800 with a reverence usually reserved for Grande Fine Champagne Cognacs.

Jose Cuervo has been the big name in tequila since 1795, when Don Jose Maria Guadalupe de Cuervo became the first to be granted an exclusive permit from the Mexican government to produce vino mezcal in the village of Tequila, in the state of Jalisco. Jose Cuervo tequilas have dominated the market in the United States, sales in 1987 having shown a 25% increase while other distilled spirits have reflected a decline. More than 90% of all tequila that is manufactured ends up being shipped to the United States.

Long ago I learned the tradition of the any-time-of-day tequila ritual in Mexico. It's taken neat, a straight shot with quick dispatch. Salt goes on the webbing between the thumb and index finger of the left hand. A fresh-cut lime rests readily within reach. Begin! Drink the tequila; lick the salt; suck the lime! Ole! The warm glow begins. That would be for the "silver" non-aged tequila; for the softer oak-aged "gold," snifter sips are in order; time gives these reposado (rested) spirits their mellow finesse.

All of this born of the shards of a desert cactus? It cannot be so easily dismissed. This truly indigenous American spirit remains a part of our continental heritage, with the earliest distillations in Jalisco made at the same time that Shakespeare was composing his sonnets. Getting the whole story turned out to be worth a special journey.

With notebook, cameras and palate at the ready, I flew to Guadalajara on the quest for the truth about the mezcal called tequila. At once, the cognac corollary. All tequila is mezcal , born of the desert-growing agave tequilana Weber. But only mezcal produced in specific regions--primarily the state of Jalisco, near the village of Tequila--may be called tequila . ( Mezcal , produced in the state of Oaxaca, is a powerhouse distillation, often bottled with an indigenous caterpillar from the agave-maguey , a gusano , in the bottle; one observer said that one sip was like "10 yards of barbed wire.")

Forty miles northwest of Guadalajara, on the high benchlands of extinct volcanoes, lies the little village of Tequila, settled in 1656 by an Indian tribe of the same name that has since vanished. But for more than two centuries this place name has been given to the distilled spirit eked from the blue agave, now grown in multi-acre plots of this semi-arid landscape, rimmed with mountains.

As an ornamental plant of the lily family, genus amaryllis , it is not unknown in California. The radiating corona of leaves, like a cluster of swords, is both formidable and handsome. Each blade is edged with a puncturing scallop pattern of needle-sharp thorns. The convex-concave surface reveals a subtle cameo design in blue-gray variations. Ancient Aztecs made a great many things from this ubiquitous plant, including sweeteners, paper, needles and cloth.

The moment of harvest--the time to cut the "pineapple" out of the center of each plant--is 8 to 12 years in the coming. The plant dies with the harvesting. As anyone who has ever observed the time of blooming of a century plant knows, the flowering stalk--or pollen-bearing quixote --shoots toward the heavens with an extraordinary thrust, and the leaves, which had been so protectively vigorous, wither and fall in writhing ruin. The heart of the mezcal agave is cut out just at the moment of maturity, precisely when the rush of sap to the base of the plant occurs.

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