A scarf of sunset-pink clouds and the cat-whisker crescent of a new moon rode the Libra / Scorpio cusp as El Cholo celebrated a century in Los Angeles. Just as Latinas enter womanhood with a Quinceañera, El Cholo celebrated her hundredth birthday with a deluxe tequila tasting on the steps of the Pasadena Civic Auditorium featuring dozens of new brands of premium tequila and mezcal.
The aroma of cigars and a sound familiar to every Mexican home — the pat-pat-pat of skilled hands patting out fresh tortillas — ushered guests into the still-balmy evening, where white-clad mariachis struck up their boisterous opening notes from the Civic Auditorium steps.
The calm eye in the center of the storm was host Blair Salisbury, independent owner and operator of Pasadena’s El Cholo location across the street from the Civic Auditorium, on the second floor of the Paseo Colorado.
Salisbury is the great-grandson of the Sonora, Mexico-born founders who opened their doors in 1923.
A change of lease terms forced Salisbury to vacate his line-around-the-block-popular Fair Oaks Avenue address, but the planned introduction of deluxe spirits may serve as a welcoming beacon to return to the family-style comfort food and embracing atmosphere of El Cholo.
But what Salisbury wanted to rhapsodize about was tequila, not green corn tamales.
“Tequila is the fastest-growing liquor category in the world,” said Salisbury, “and I’m so proud to launch our premium selection honoring our family legacy. We are focusing on high-end, hard-to-find tequilas, and will be introducing a margarita list featuring many different flavors.”
But what Salisbury wanted to rhapsodize about was tequila, not green corn tamales.
Salisbury’s centennial curation of fine spirits will be unique to the Pasadena location.
Salisbury also shares that his restaurant is the industry’s largest consumer of Patron custom-made tequilas, formulated specially for Pasadena diners. “We’ve gone through 13 barrels,” he says. For context, a barrel contains the equivalent of 540-580 bottles, allowing for about 23 one-ounce shots per bottle. ¡Salud!
At the celebration, approximately 40 tequila and mescal brands, each with two, three or more “impressions” – meaning designations based on aging, Plata, Reposado, Añejo, Añejo Cristalino, Extra Añejo – poured tastes for guests in tiny, hand-painted recuerdo (souvenir) ceramic cups, worn around the neck on a lanyard for easy access.
Specialties from El Cholo’s menu were served as a smooth Latin jazz combo lured salseros onto the wide central plaza for some spicy partnered pasos. A kaleidoscope of bright-ribboned skirts and jeweled jackets sparked the dark as costumed couples danced the folkloric courtship steps known as Jarabe Tapatio, jarabe meaning “sweet syrup” referencing the coy flirtation of the dancers. Guests learned to make green corn tamales and experienced the new breed of tequilas which are subtle, sophisticated and often pricey.
A quick trip to the Jalisco highlands: the difference between mezcal and tequila. The corrido begins with the prehistoric-looking agave plant, which is native to the Americas. As denizens of the desert, agave are tough and slow-growing.
You see them everywhere in our region, stately, slate-colored, with formidable, spiked leaves, from the pristine grounds of The Huntington Library, Art Museum and Botanical Gardens in San Marino to freeway median plantings where the gritty species demonstrates its street-smarts by enduring decades of flamethrower heat, a steady diet of smog and little to no water.
There’s frequently lots of excitement around swallowing the worm as a final proof of courage or intoxication, take your pick.
Tequila can only be made from one kind of agave plant: Blue Weber Agave. Mezcal, on the other hand, can use any of the 40 varieties of agave plant, both wild and cultivated. Surprisingly to some, tequila must be cultivated, by definition. So, all tequila is technically a mezcal, but not every mezcal is tequila.
After mezcal and tequila are distilled, both may either be aged, or enjoyed as a clear, colorless spirit. In tequilas, this early pour is known as blanco (white) or plata (silver), while mezcal at that stage is called joven (young). Aging in a steel or French white oak barrel for two months to one year creates reposado, meaning rested, in both spirits. At this age, the spirits typically take on a caramel color as well as notes from the wood barrels often used. Tequilas and occasionally mezcals, too may be aged longer to form the darker color and deeper flavor profile called añejo. The other profile names are variations on these three core styles.
Oh, and about the worm.
There’s frequently lots of excitement around swallowing the worm as a final proof of courage or intoxication, take your pick. It’s a gag, pun intended. The “worm” is actually a butterfly larvae (gusano de maguey, aka Aegiale hesperiaris), an insect that feeds on agave varieties associated with mezcal, not tequila. Today you may encounter the plump caterpillar as a fried snack, or dried and ground up with salt and chile flakes as a condiment, served with an orange slice. Even in its increasingly gentrified form, the agave inspires fearlessness.
Nick Oliver-Ronceros, Creative Director for Valor Bebidas, which launched in July 2023, comments “Tequila definitely has a party spirit, and it’s made for celebration. What’s different with our brand is that we’re about celebrating and savoring this actual moment, not escaping into somewhere else.” Nick designed the company’s graceful logo around the colibri, chupaflor, or hummingbird, an essential pollinator of agave plants.
The hummingbird has been revered for centuries in the Nahuatl culture as a sacred messenger. Nick adds, “We like to say that whenever you are visited by a hummingbird, someone is thinking of you and sending love and good intentions.”
The pollination aspect also carries ecological significance. It takes several years for an agave to mature, but some planters naturally want to speed up the process. They may harvest at two or three years instead of up to seven, then pump the blend full of sugar and additives for taste.
This hurry-up approach may exhaust the soil, and some environmentalists express concern regarding the long-term impact on local ecosystems. These resource-intensive practices are in fact destructive, and ultimately shut out hard-working jornaleros (day-laborers) and jimadores (harvesters) in the scramble to meet the exploding world-demand for tequila.
Jeremy Oliver-Ronceros, Director of Operations for the Valor brand, adds “Not only are we additive-free, we’re also celebrity-free! The boom of glamorous celebrity-based tequilas has pushed some brands into rushing the process.”
Max Shamooil, Founder and CEO of NUDA tequila, challenges tequila-fanciers to “drink different.” Offering four impressions of NUDA’s a triple-distilled, ultra-suave tequila – Silver, Reposado, Añejo, and Extra Añejo, Shamooil suggests something that the kegger crowd wouldn’t dream of: slowly enjoying a couple of fingers of tequila – no ice, no lime, no salt – before, during and after a meal, and deep into a refined evening. Long, slow tears sliding down the interior of the sipping glass signal the silky mouthfeel of the product. “Rushing is not the Mexican way,” says Shamooil. “In the States, tequila has been viewed as this uncivilized beast, but that’s just not the case. Tequila is always adventurous, but the best way to enjoy it is really not rough at all.”
Rico Austin co-founded Tres Cabo Amigos, maker of Bajarriba Tequila, captured in a spectacular vessel modelled after the winding Baja coastline that was named 2023’s Bottle of the Year by Tequila Aficionado. Bajarriba is distilled and fermented in keeping with the authentic Mexican tradition of using deep well water and the mature eight-year-old agave piñas (agave hearts) which are cooked in hornos, or adobe-style brick ovens. Bajarriba Tequila is made in the highlands of Jalisco at 7,000 feet elevation, and is in the process of getting certified as a non-additive tequila from NOM 1107.
Chill and easygoing behind his twilight shades, Austin says, “I have my PhD in tequila,” and adds “This new generation of tequila drinkers is educated and discerning. And premium tequilas like ours really come into their own when you take it slow.”
Maybe so. Keeping pace with the onslaught of new tequilas are tequila-tasting glasses in an array of shapes intended to elevate and extend the experience. For some of us, tequila will always retain a half-remembered call of the wild, the cosmic love-child of blistering border town sun and impossibly starry nights spattered with UFOs, untouched by public lighting for a hundred miles in any direction.
Tequila still summons a whiff of campfire woodsmoke, the funk of outlaw horse leathers. Will it always?
A generation ago, a visit to many Mexican homes often involved a pour of imported cognac, brandy, or whiskey as a gracious gesture of proper hospitality. Does the current reinvention of tequila, finally placing it on a par with fine European spirits, endanger the indigenous authenticity of agave?
As if in confirmation, the unmistakable foothills song of a coyote, followed by the call of a second, finds us as we make our way a bit unsteadily across the spreading dark.