Tequila, despite being one of the most popular spirits in the world, is also among the most misunderstood. If you’ve had the spirit, you’ve most likely had it in a Margarita or imbibed tequila cruda, the classic shot-with-salt-and-lime combo served at dive bars the world over.
The thing is, if you’re served tequila with salt and lime, it’s probably not tequila — at least not totally. Pure tequila, produced primarily in Jalisco, Mexico, from the blue weber agave plant, has a flavor profile ranging from bright and green to earthy and fruity. These tequilas offer rich complexity you won’t find in the rail “tequila” being served up with salt and lime.
“It’s probably not 100 percent agave,” Jessie Wohlers, general manager at Leyenda in Brooklyn, says. “If you go to a place and they’re offering up limes with their shots of tequila, my guess is it’s not 100 percent tequila; it’s a blend of agave and other additives, like sugars and fructose. It’s not a great product — it’s a cheap product. It’s what a lot of places have on their rail. The filler makes it hotter, less rich, and less enjoyable.”
Like many drinking rituals, Wohlers believes the salt and lime tradition is steeped in tradition — a tradition created by and for bad tequila in the early days of distillation.
“In the beginning, like most spirits, [tequila] was totally disgusting, crazy, firewater. [It was a] gnarly mess,” Wohlers continues. “Across the board, anything served with a lime or salt was to kind of hide the flavor of this extraordinarily horrific spirit … and people stuck with it. The idea was honestly just to hide the flavor of a product that was really terrifying.”
Another pro tip: Tequila is meant for sipping, not shooting.
“In Mexico today, Mexicans sip their tequila because they’re proud of it,” Wohler says. “It is a sipping spirit. A lot of people will drink out of brandy snifters, to get its full flavor profile and aromas.” At Leyenda, tequila, mezcal, and other agave spirits are served in tasting port glasses, with a bulb-like shape “that goes into a flute and tapers out so you do get a little of the aroma,” Wohlers says. “You can swirl if you want, and it’s the proper size for a 1- or 2-ounce pour, if you want to drink it neat.”
You do want to drink it neat, she adds. “Ideally, we want the guest to try the agave spirit on its own, neat, and if they decide it’s more aggressive than they’re used to, or they have a personal preference to drink it chilled, then they can add ice to it.”
However, she notes, the drinking ritual is in the hand of the imbiber. “Our job is to educate guests and make them comfortable and happy,” she says. “If people come in partying and [order a round of shots] and want limes, they get limes. It’s a bar, at end of the day. We’re not going to judge anybody. Nobody needs to force fancy on people.”
That said, she hopes more patrons will be open to a better tequila experience. “A lot of people that ask for limes typically don’t know what’s out there, or how far agave spirits have come, and that they’re meant to be enjoyed neat and sipped and not taken as shots,” she says.
Whatever the case, give pure tequila a chance. “To shoot [bad tequila] is to shoot yourself,” Wohlers says. “I would highly not recommend it.”