Serious Eats: Drinks
Drinking the Bottom Shelf: What to Do With Cheap Tequila
I know a great many cowards who avoid particular liquors due to traumas endured in the formative years, but I am made of sterner, thirstier stuff and harbor no such grudges. The booze and I developed a strong bond from the start, and though it's possible that some dark day this or that schnapps will trigger a recovered memory of shame and vomit, on principle I'll drink whatever you put in front of me. This includes the most commonly cited bogeybooze: cheap tequila.
By cheap I mean tequila that isn't 100 percent blue agave. Seems any fermented and distilled spirit from the right part of Mexico can call itself tequila if it's made of 51 percent blue agave. I'm no purist, and the zero-proof agave nectar the bar snobs hounded me into buying last year doesn't tickle me in a particularly fancy way, so I began my tequila exploration optimistic that I could find a good mixed-breed for under $20. I was wrong.
I remain convinced that one could add any number of worthy organic compounds to agave to produce a spirit nice enough to drink naked, but I am no longer confident that anyone actually does. Tequila producers are understandably reluctant to disclose exactly what their other "natural flavors" are, but my research suggests that mutton, canned cheese, and ketchup are among the more popular agave-stretchers.
Jose Cuervo gets most of the credit for convincing college kids that tequila is nasty. I have no qualms with this arrangement, because until my student loans were paid off I had no business knowing that a shot of Don Julio Anejo was worth every penny of the $15. My only beef with Cuervo is that for cheap tequila, it's not very cheap. A 750ml bottle of Jose Cuervo Gold at my liquor store runs $23. One of my favorite bartenders, Jen from Bleecker Street Bar, drinks Sauza Gold—her awesome coworker Rhea big-times it with Sauza's Hornitos, but we'll get to that in 2019 when I'm finally promoted to the "Drinking the Top Shelf" beat—which goes for $18 per 750ml, so I got some of that too.
I preferred the Sauza for the usual reason: It has a humbler flavor profile and therefore fewer opportunities to go wrong. So I guess I'm a Sauza man now, but that endorsement comes with the significant caveat that it's not good enough to enjoy uncut.
While we wait for a wise mixto-maker to use huckleberry jam, oatmeal stout, or some similar delicacy to take the rabid bite out of the tequila mutts, we can take comfort in knowing there are a lot of ways to help out mediocre tequila. You don't want to mask the taste entirely, because even the worst tequila has some redeeming qualities lurking underneath the aggression. It's the anti-vodka in that way. There's nothing worth preserving about cut-rate vodka, so we're lucky it's so easy to smother with whatever's in the fridge. Cheap tequila, on the other hand, rewards a more judicious mixer and punishes the slob who thinks Gatorade and pickle juice can bail him out of a bum base.
The simplest way to fight through the creepy vegetal sting of low-born tequila is to go the lime wedge and salt route, but I don't like that because it's kind of barbaric, plus it veers away from drinking and toward eating. Eating's fine and I do it all the time—I'm winning a one-man deviled egg-eating contest at this very moment—but I don't like to demean my drinking sessions with a lot of biting and chewing.
But the citrus idea is a good one. And please use real fruit. A casual observer might rightly consider my life to be one long shortcut, but I swear to you that fresh-squeezed fruit is the most important element of your tequila drink. I'd rather have the ugliest Don Crappio from the darkest corner of the dingiest bar with fresh citrus than a high-style anejo with supermarket margarita mix.
I like to fortify my lime with grapefruit. You know those puny ones the banana cart guy sells for fifty cents? They fit inside the orange-squeezer. A shot of Sauza Gold, half a grapefruit, a whole lime, and a few ice cubes is a good time. And if you're celebrating a major life event such as a birthday, graduation, or deviled egg-eating-contest victory, cut up a jalapeno and toss it in the shaker, too.