Give tequila another shot

Mexican wave: Quality tequila is a smooth, glorious, life-affirming drink.
Mexican wave: Quality tequila is a smooth, glorious, life-affirming drink. Photo: Chris Hopkins

If you're a person who has vowed to never drink tequila again because of ''that night'' (and believe me, plenty of us have been there - the blackouts, the undies around your neck), you need to take a deep breath and get a grip.

Because that stuff - that evil, clear, methanol-tasting drain cleaner that can be kept down only with the aid of salt, lemon and a crowd of friends chanting moronically - is not tequila, no matter what the label on the bottle says.

Real tequila, made from 100 per cent blue agave, a succulent member of the lily family that grows in five states of Mexico, is a smooth, glorious, life-affirming prince of a drink that's to be sipped, not shot, and has all the nuance and subtlety of a great whisky.

Until recently it was hard to get real tequila in Australia, hence the ubiquity of ''that night'' tales of youthful intoxication. But a combination of the stratospheric rise in popularity of all things Mexican and some hard work by uber-passionate tequila evangelists has meant the right stuff is finally available at a bar near you - and if it isn't, you might like to ask them why.

The bar manager at Bondi Mexican joint El Topo, Brett Harris, has been spreading the good word about tequila since he began working at Cafe Pacifico, one of Sydney's original tequila temples. Asked if it's appropriate to shoot tequila with salt and lemon, his answer is immediate: ''Never, unless it's shit and you don't want to taste it.''

After he gets over his disgust at even having to consider the question, Harris, who has 40 to 50 labels of tequila on offer behind his bar, warms to the subject of separating the good from the bad.

There are two basic grades of tequila: the good stuff, which is made from 100 per cent agave and is labelled as such (rule No.1: pay attention to the label); and Tequila Mixto, usually just labelled ''tequila'', which has a maximum of 51 per cent agave, with 49 per cent sugars from other sources, usually but not exclusively cane, and mostly unspecified.

There's a strict code of tequila enforcement in Mexico (by the Norma Oficial Mexicana), so the products of those labels that pass the test have been distilled according to long-standing artisanal practices in regions as tightly controlled and regulated as in Champagne.

Adding another layer of artisanal romance is mescal, a variation on tequila in which the pineapple-shaped agave pina (core) is slow-roasted in hangi-like fire pits for up to five days so the resulting drink takes on an intense, smoky peatiness that is something like the tequila equivalent of an Islay malt.

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Nick Reid, Melbourne-based co-owner of Tromba, a 100 per cent agave tequila company he founded with friends in Mexico and Canada, likes mescal but prefers the taste of Blanco tequila, the freshest and purest form, which is bottled before it is 60 days old. Reid believes that in this tequila you can taste ''the beautiful place with the rich history'' in which the agave grows.

Blanco is one of the four main types of tequila differentiated by the ageing process. Reposado is aged for up to a year in oak barrels; Anejo spends up to three years ageing, often in old bourbon barrels; while with Extra Anejo, the tequila spends more than three years in the barrel.

Traditional tequila making has the same proud, slow grandeur of traditional winemaking and whisky distilling. It is equally nuanced, so you can understand passionate tequila lovers such as Brett Harris wincing at the thought of using 100 per cent agave in a margarita.

Harris may be a bit of a purist, but he's right in a way. Grow up, try it straight, forget about the undies around the neck and enter a whole new world of agave-infused happiness.