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Tequila Unleaded – it's a black thing

Jean Barker experiences the taste of real tequila and lives to tell the tale.

by: Jean Barker: Food24 | 21 Aug 2009

When I first drank tequila, it only came in one colour – “white” – and tasted as bad as it made you feel the next morning. We made sure it tasted even worse by swallowing it with salt and lemon, and occasionally sun cream licked off a fellow-student's sweaty and unwashed body (let's just say I went to varsity in Durban and leave it at that).

I never – surprisingly because by 25 I had plenty of other weekend warrior wounds – got to the stage where I swore I'd never touch the stuff again. But I've also never been crazy about it. It just tasted so damn kak. Even the local one, patriotic though I am. That was the problem.

I could never figure out how they drank those double shots in movies. What was wrong with vodka? Well it turns out that the reason they can do it without their faces turning completely upside down is because they're not drinking the lighter-fluid we have been forced to force down while punching the sky to Bon Jovi at 2am.

Half way there? Or too far gone?
We've had cheap imported gold tequila in South African bars for a while, and it tastes alright with a slice of orange, I suppose, provided your taste buds are deleted by a night of drinking, cigarette smoke, and maybe a chilli popper or two.

But it's still an unpleasant experience. Very goal-oriented – as in “The night's a little slow, and you could be cuter. Let's have a tequila!”

Turns out, we haven't really been drinking tequila all along. Not proper tequila anyhow. The tequila we've been drinking is the doos-wyn version of the drug. What you want to be drinking is something pretty different. I first drank the real thing at a friend's place, out of a brandy sniffer. And although it still smelled like tequila (or lighter fluid), the taste was smoother, fragrant and not at all reminiscent of puke.

And so began an expensive journey of the taste buds. I spent nearly R400 on the next bottle I drank over December (but I saved almost as much on KFC) and even discovered a double-filtered, significantly nicer kind for just R200-odd that I now take to those “Mexican” evenings people have.

I also did some research online and learned that there are various types and qualities of tequila, and the good ones are made from the sugars of this succulent called the agave, which is not a cactus. It has sharp, hard, pointy leaves that symbolise the imaginary torture-plant you'll feel trying to grow out of your aching skull the next morning if you have too many shots.

The agave fruit is hand-harvested and looks like a mixture of a pineapple and a pine cone. Proper Agave is pure agave, but even most good tequilas cheat a bit by adding some cane or other sugar.

The more often it's distilled and the longer it's fermented – either plain so that it's clear or on oak so that it goes pale or dark gold – the smoother and better it tastes. Just like whiskey or wine. I've compiled a 0-4 level tequila purchasing guide. Use it. It works.

And you don't have to be a tequila snob to notice the difference. At the recent Cuervo Black launch, I stupidly bought a round of tequila gold just before they unveiled their new product. I did my usual tequila routine, which goes like this: “Want one?” Cool. “How many? Who are you?” No, fine. “Right, lets go”. Oh wait... “Why isn't there any orange?” Oh, fine. “Right, let's go!” Followed by “Ow! I hate you! Yuk! Bastard. %^&*$!” Well at least that's over!

The Cuervo Black, though not pure Agave, is a completely different drug. Smooth, with an almost caramel taste and a darker colour, it obviously costs more. But I'm hoping the next time I'm feeling idiotic enough to say “You know what we need...” the bar I'm in has plenty in the fridge. And fresh orange. And a taxi number.

Jean Barker is the editor of entertainment, so she gets out a lot. You can read her columns here or just sign up for the Channel24 newsletter here and get them delivered to your inbox every Friday.

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