Though my first job out of college was supposed to be writing this column (well, at least according to my parents), I instead took a 12-year detour to discover liquids of all kinds, which involved heavy research in a lot of bars. But lest you think I was resting on my elbows munching peanuts all those years, I must tell you about my stint behind the bar at one of the most popular restaurants in Hoboken, New Jersey, called East LA. Four nights a week, for five years, I shook, strained, and salted hundreds of margaritas for waves of insatiable revelers. These were no ordinary margaritas: They were so strong the management imposed a limit of three per person. Limits, of course, encourage excess, and watching people try to exceed their limits proved to be a fascinating sociological experiment. My hypothesis? Tequila, consumed unchecked, could turn Mister Rogers into Pee-wee Herman.
Patrick Sullivan, co-owner and bar manager at the B-Side Lounge in Cambridge and 608 in Somerville, describes it this way: “People like margaritas because they make you feel good and it’s got everything to do with tequila —it’s got kind of a hallucinogenic effect.” Liz Moses-Dunson, bar manager at Bomboa, agrees. “It’s sort of like absinthe,” she says. “It’s hallucinogenic.”
Coincidence? I think not. Nor is tequila’s purported psychedelic allure much of a secret anymore. According to a report by the Distilled Spirits Council, tequila consumption has increased 112 percent since 1985, making it the fastest-growing distilled spirit in the country. That may sound like great news for the tequila industry, but there’s one giant problem: Producers can’t keep up with demand.
Unlike vodka, for example, made with potatoes or grain, tequila is made from the fermented sap of blue agave plants grown in a precisely delineated area in the five Mexican states of Guanajuato, Jalisco, Michoacán, Nayarit, and Tamaulipas. Think of it the way you think of Champagne or Cognac, each of which can be made in only one specific place to be considered the real deal. Problem is, it takes eight to 12 years for each blue agave plant to mature. To be called tequila, blue agave must make up at least 51 percent of the distillate. The remaining 49 percent is typically sugar cane, though other raw products may be used. Just remember this: Tequilas labeled “100 percent blue agave” are unequivocally the best.
Hold on, though: There’s no need to go on a bender. The tequila drought has, ironically, caused the tequila industry to finally regulate production, forcing producers to play by the rules and improve quality. That means makers of great tequila will have less competition from less-than-virtuous concocters of “tequila” made from wild agave plants grown out of bounds. So if you’ve never tried tequila, or swore the last time you fell off a barstool that you’d never try it again, it may be time to take another look.
A good place to start would be Bonfire, the Latin steakhouse that features 55 premium tequilas, which it uses to make 3,000 drinks a week, according to beverage director Glenn Tanner. What’s so special about these margaritas? To begin with, the mix, composed of freshly squeezed lime juice, powdered egg whites, and simple syrup (super-sweetened water). Unlike an everyday margarita, Bonfire’s is made with Cuervo Gold (instead of East LA’s Montezuma Blanco), Cointreau (instead of Triple Sec), and that homemade mix (instead of Rose’s Lime Juice). “It’s big,” says Tanner,”and it’s worth it.” But isn’t that what Pee-wee said?