There’s more to tequila than margaritas and mayhem

Think fast: What’s the first thing that pops into your head when someone says “tequila?”

Shots? Spring break? Country songs involving barroom brawls and clandestine encounters with cowboys? Pee Wee Herman dancing on a bar?

Not surprising. But aficionados of the agave-based potable are pouring up a different story – one that splashes a little more stature on the liquor Americans most often associate with Cinco de Mayo, margaritas and mayhem.

“The whole ‘shot and spring break’ culture of tequila … in America is waning,” said David Hobbs, general manager of Original El Taco in Virginia Highland. “With the Internet, people are becoming more educated about the spirit. And its reputation is improving.”

What’s more, tequila makes a great component for cooking, not just for making cocktails. It’s flavor complements lots of Latin ingredients and dishes from peppers to paella. Hobbs particularly notes its compatibility with desserts. “I love to spoon anejo tequila over vanilla ice cream – it really picks up on vanilla, chocolate and caramel notes.”

To use tequila in any dish or drink, it’s important to know where to begin. For a primer, understand that tequila is made from agave. According to Harold McGee in his food bible “On Food and Cooking” (Scribner, 1984; 2004 revised), tequila and its cousin, mezcal, are both made from blue agave, an amaryllis that looks like a giant, beautiful blue cactus. Tequila is distilled from Agave tequilana in Jalisco, Mexico, while mezcal – Agave augustifolia, or maguey – is distilled mostly in and around central Oaxaca. While mezcal’s smokey flavor is beginning to take hold in the U.S., it lags behind tequila in recognition and sales, and isn’t often seen as a cocktail ingredient.