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:
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.
And, of course, I drank tequila, straight up, out of a snifter, with a glass of tepid water, the way it's supposed to be done. I sampled the fruity, handmade El Tesoro añejo ($6.50), the somewhat oakier Herra- dura añejo ($6.50), the honey-colored Hussong's añejo ($6.50), and the Cabo Wabo reposado ($6) made by that most rocking of red tequileros, Sammy Hagar. I invited friends and family to drink tequila. It got emotional: My father and I shared a very special moment when we realized that the 1921 Reserva añejo ($9) had an almost buttery feel to it, and slid over the tongue like a fine chardonnay.
I contemplated reposados. I waxed poetic, comparing the bouquet of the Centinela Tres Anos 1996 añejo ($8.75) to a breath of morning wind in the desert. For the hell of it, I actually ate something (Tommy's also has food), procuring a decent pollo “pibil” (chicken cooked in banana leaves, $10.25) for my father and a fine camarones a la Veracruzana (shrimp with tomatoes, green peppers, onions, capers, and olives, $15.95) for myself.
And then, my education moving along splendidly, I made my one foray into the world of high-end tequilas, which, like fine scotches or cognacs, can run a heartbreaking $350 per snifter. Now, for most people — such as myself — money is, unfortunately, an object. But if money isn't an object — if your IPO goes ballistic, or your lawsuit against Big Tobacco is settled in your favor, or you're the first pick in the NBA draft — well, please do as follows: Take your family on one vacation, your friends on another, help your loved ones if they need it, and then help charity, because, when you think about it, you've got more than enough money, and it's just the right thing to do.
And then get your filthy rich ass down to Tommy's and buy the house a round of the incomparable Herradura Seleccion Suprema añejo ($23). Aged for up to five years in French oak, with a color reminiscent of cognac and a bouquet that caresses the senses with all the tenderness of young love, the Seleccion Suprema will take you to another place. Just smelling this wondrous potion was an experience in itself; on first sip, it reminded me of the best dream I'd ever had; on the second, of those times when my mother used to tuck me into bed, rubbing my little back and telling me everything was going to be just fine. And the last drop was the best — after one final sniff, I eased it onto my tongue and simply waited for it to soak in.
“Sir, are you OK?” asked a bartender, a bit concerned.
I nodded, smiled. He may not have understood, but at that point it didn't matter a bit.
Well, after a tequila like that, I figured, it wasn't going to get much better, and since I'd downed some 18 double shots over the course of a week, I decided to take it down a few notches lest I find myself 12-stepping my way into the new millennium. I was at home, sober, simply reflecting on añejos, when, as happens from time to time, the phone rang:
“Could I speak with Gregory B. Hugunin?” asked the caller.
“It's Greg,” I told him. “This is he.”
“Hello, Mr. Hugunin, my name is [that of an annoying bunghole who calls people at home, at night, trying to sell them things].”
Well, as I soon explained to that young man, I don't take kindly to such interruptions. And furthermore, I added before hanging up, after another 52 double shots of tequila (and a written test), that's going to be Dr. Hugunin to you.