By Anna Roth
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According to one legend currently circulating at Tommy's Mexican Restaurant, it all began as follows: Many centuries ago, a storm swept over the plains of western Mexico, and a thin finger of lightning bridged the gap between heaven and earth, touching a large, spiny plant. Stricken, the plant lay dying, its very molecules transformed by this infusion of unimaginable heat. Yeasts growing on its leaves altered its chemistry further. Later, a man wandered by, and, for reasons known only to him, sank his hands into the fibrous heart of that wounded succulent and discovered a liquid never before known to humankind.
Before I go on, I should point out that legends ought to be valued not so much for their historic accuracy, but rather as windows into the human soul. No one knows when man's relationship with fermented agave truly began, but if I were the one writing the story, it would end like this:
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Upon tasting that liquid, a sort of sweet, milky brew, the man noticed a strange and not altogether unpleasant sensation coursing through him. He would tell others about this discovery -- but later, because within the liquid he detected traces of something finer. Inspiration came in the form of a word, one that captured the feeling like no other. Tilting his face skyward, his eyes shining with joy, the man cried out: "Tequila!"
Of course, it probably didn't happen that way. What we do know is that Native Americans were drinking pulque -- the fermented sap of the agave -- long before the Spaniards arrived in the 16th century bearing disease, Christianity, and the miracle of distillation. Pulque was soon distilled into fiery vino de mescal, ancestor of some of the worst rotgut on the planet (cheap mescal), but also of the unparalleled spirit that, in the late 1800s, took its name from the small village of Tequila.
Bold, yet subtle, and imbued with a certain dusky bite not found in fruit- or grain-based liquors, tequila, for me, goes way back. However, despite my numerous tequila-related experiences -- lost-in-the-desert tequila experiences, six-hour-love-affair tequila experiences, I-should-have-bought-the-good-stuff-please-God-make-it- stop tequila experiences -- my lime-and-salt knowledge of this spirited spirit pales in comparison to that of my hairstylist, Christine, who drinks only 100 percent pure blue agave tequila, straight up, hopefully not on the days I come in.
As Christine was telling me awhile back, Tommy's Mexican Restaurant is one of her favorite haunts, both for its unbeatable range of tequila (145 brands, said to be the largest selection outside Mexico), and for its educational opportunities: When you sample 35 different tequilas at Tommy's, you become a Tequila Master; after another 35 (and a written test), a Tequila Ph.D. Since I've always wanted a doctorate in something, I decided to go for it -- then did the math, then doubled it, since Tommy's pours 2-ounce shots. With 140 ounces of tequila ahead of me, it was going to be one heck of a great week.
My descent into alcoholism was forestalled when Julio Bermejo, whose parents own Tommy's, explained that I would be limited to three double shots per visit. A tequila connoisseur of the highest order and frequent pilgrim to the distilleries of Jalisco (home of Tequila), Julio, I soon learned, is on a mission to steer the drinking public away from cheaper, mixto brands that may be up to half sugar-derived alcohol (such as Jose Cuervo Especial) toward the joy that is high-end, painstakingly refined, 100 percent blue agave tequila.
"Now that's a campaign I can support," I thought, as I purchased my official blue agave card ($5) and got things started with a Patron añejo ($8.75 a shot, $53 a bottle at your local Safeway). Served in a cavernous brandy snifter, the Patron cascaded over the palate in a ticklish sort of way, yielding a lucid, comfortable warmth that spread from my stomach and through my chest. Sensing that a special tequila moment was at hand, I looked to my left, then noticed something familiar about the man next to me.
"Aren't you that guy from the Gold Club ads?" I asked.
The man denied it, then blushed, then gave me a free pass to the Gold Club, with his picture on it.
Ah, the magic of tequila.
Of course, one Patron does not a Tequila Master make, let alone a Tequila Ph.D. Over the course of the next week, I studied tequila, noting the difference between the spirited blanco (unaged, or silver) tequilas, the more refined reposados (aged for two months to a year), the villainous joven abocados (young and adulterated, often with color added), and the miraculously smooth, more pricey añejos (aged for more than a year in government-sealed oak barrels).
I learned the basics: that tequila is drawn from the monstrous, baked heart of the agave tequilana weber azul -- a member of the lily family that, by law, must be grown within five specific states of Mexico to become tequila. I learned of an impending shortage of agave. I surfed the Internet, seeking tequila -- according to one Web site, the Nahuatl goddess Mayahuel had 400 breasts that oozed pulque (my kind of woman). I dreamed tequila, breathed tequila, drank some of the finest margaritas in the city, made with fresh, hand-squeezed limes so that, on busy nights, Tommy's bar is infused with a fine, citric mist.