Nightlife

Tequila gospel

mythology, mixology and rediscovery of an ancient spirit with brand master Kevin Vanegas

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Kevin Vanegas, a senior tequila ambassador for Cuervo and Don Julio, is part entertainer, part host, part sensory wizard. With his guidance, tequila tasting is an excellent and surprisingly refined adventure.
Photo: Bill Hughes

You may not remember the whole night, but you never forget the first time you abuse tequila. It hurts. Everywhere. You think about swearing off it for life, but at some point you just can’t resist.

Maybe it’s the liquid heat that curls around your lips and smolders, or the perfume of the blue agave’s heart, which has 400 classified shades of spicy, fruity, smoky, earthy, botanical, acidic, sweet and every other aromatic nuance the nose and palate know.

According to tequila expert Kevin Vanegas, these are elements of the popular spirit’s appeal, but the thing that makes it special is the way it connects to visceral memories that become favorite stories about everything from finding love at first sight to waking up wearing someone else’s underwear.

“It’s always tequila that has the story,” he said.

Based in Las Vegas, Vanegas is a senior tequila ambassador for José Cuervo and Don Julio and a catador, or taster, certified by the Mexican Academy of Tequila Tasters and the Mexican Tequila Academy. His mission is to share tequila’s aromas, flavors and finishes with as many people as possible, especially those who haven’t ventured beyond the “lick-sip-suck” ritual of lime, salt and a shotgun swallow more appropriate for cough syrup.

“Sometimes I feel like a tequila therapist, consoling people and reintroducing them,” Vanegas said. “I love comparing tequila and wine, but tequila is a lot more fun.”

Speaking of wine, it turns out tasting tequila is very similar, from flights served in fine Riedel crystal to elegant food pairings. At Luxor’s stylish T&T (Tacos & Tequila), Vanegas took me on a sensory adventure courtesy of executive chef Saul Ortiz and, of course, José Cuervo.

‘Before Mexico was Mexico’

To provide the right context, Vanegas shared one of tequila’s ancient legends. Around 16,000 B.C., two travelers were walking the land that is now Mexico. They watched as lightning struck a giant blue agave, the trauma releasing liquid from the heart, or piña. It fermented into what is known as vino de mezcal, or the wine of oven-cooked agave. The pair drank the vino and, as Vanegas says, “enjoyed it very much.” But then they felt strange. Suspecting they had been possessed by demons, they put a worm in the bottle to absorb the spirit, and that worm’s relatives can be found in bottles of mezcal today.

But Vanegas is not an expert on mezcal. He’s a tequila man, whether it’s cien percento, or 100 percent agave, or a so-called mixto, which contains no less than 51 percent agave. Neither Vanegas nor the Tequila Regulatory Council appreciates the term as it implies the blended spirit is somehow inferior.

“It’s like blended Scotch versus single malt. One’s not better; it’s just a different style. Both have occasions and satisfactions, and the same is true of tequila,” he said.

Vanegas speaks with the authority of Cuervo, a brand recognized and loved across the world. But not many casual drinkers know the company’s story, which began with a land grant from King Ferdinand VI of Spain to José Antonia de Cuervo in 1758—before Mexico established its independence. Cuervo was given the land to cultivate blue agave, and in 1795, he began commercially producing tequila. Ten generations later, the family still oversees production at Fabrica La Rojeña. It is the oldest distillery in Latin America, headquartered in the central Mexican town of Tequila in the state of Jalisco, where 80 percent of all tequila is made. According to Mexico’s Declaration for the Protection of the Denomination of Origin, only spirits made with blue agave grown in the states of Jalisco, Michoacan, Nayarit, Guanajuato and Tamaulipas are legit.

“I believe tequila is the most regulated spirit in the world,” said Vanegas. “The thing that fascinates me and makes me proud of Cuervo is that the company began before Mexico was Mexico. Imagine being Ben Franklin creating electricity. José Cuervo is the Ben Franklin of tequila.”

Tasting 101

Vanegas compares tequila tasting to a blind date. The polite observations of a first impression lead to the pleasant surprises of a second encounter, and before you know it you’re head over heels.

“I’m single right now because I’m married to José Cuervo,” he joked.

With four of Cuervo’s finest varieties on deck, we used a step-by-step tasting method. First, appreciate the color and texture by tilting the glass in the light. Then “nose” the spirit by inhaling the scent over the lip of the glass with your mouth closed. Cleanse the palate with water then swish and swallow some tequila, though the first taste is just a primer. When the glass is empty, nose the residual aromas or “angel’s share.”

Here’s what I tried:

• Tradicional Silver and Tradicional Reposado—The Tradicional recipe is Cuervo’s original, though modern Mexicans prefer to keep and serve it chilled. Crafted from 100 percent agave and rested in oak barrels, the taste is spicy yet smooth and the finish warm.

• Reserva Platino—Based on a blind test, the Beverage Tasting Institute awarded Platino a rating of 96, the highest ever for a silver tequila (Patron apparently got an 89). It is produced using a proprietary method called Escenia de Agave, and the flavor can range from green avocado to vanilla.

• Reserva de la Familia—Once a family secret, Reserva de la Familia was first shared with the public in 1995 to celebrate Cuervo’s 200th anniversary. Aged for about three years in French and American oak and blended with much older material, it’s sold in handcrafted bottles designed by a different Mexican artist each year. With an enduring, silky finish, its flavors include oak and toasted almond.

Tequila Diplomat

Before trying the Reserva de la Familia, we looked each other in the eye and toasted in Spanish: Hacia arriba, hacia abajo, hacia al centro, y hacia el centro. Vanegas recalled the first time he tried it, standing in the Cuervo cellar in Tequila, drinking with the family. They had a hand in picking him for the ambassador position.

At 30, he is one of the brightest faces of the company in the U.S., where he flies from coast to coast and beyond to host events for celebrities and everyday drinkers. His roots are in bartending, a trade he learned at Columbia University’s School of Mixology. He worked his way through the New York City restaurant scene, a path that puzzled his parents.

Having left Nicaragua to give their three children “a better future,” Vanegas’ parents set strong examples. His mother was the vice consulate of Nicaragua, and his father was an accountant who managed his own sports entertainment consulting business. They wanted their youngest to become a doctor or a lawyer, and when he pursued a career in bartending, they weren’t sure what to think. Even after he secured a great position representing Cuervo and Don Julio, they didn’t really understand his work. After six years, they finally came to a tasting.

“It was a breath of fresh air for me to finally have recognition from the family. They finally got it, that I was not just a bartender, or drinking tequila for a living, but an actual spokesperson and the new face of José Cuervo in New York.”

Now that he’s conquered Vegas, what does Vanegas want to do next? He wouldn’t mind becoming the leading expert on tequila in the U.S., which is a top consumer of Cuervo products and tequila in general. But Vanegas insists there is room for learning and a lot more growth.

“Tequila is like champagne or cognac, but six years ago when I was doing tastings people thought I was crazy,” he said. “Nowadays people are doing tasting clubs and there are true aficionados. Who wants to go wine tasting? It’s 2011. It’s all about tequila.”

Tequila Fun Facts

• The Consejo Regulador del Tequila, or Tequila Regulatory Council, is on hand from seed planting to final production, making sure that every detail of every bottle of tequila is done exactly right. There are 80 agents throughout Mexico who oversee 50 government-approved distilleries that make about 1,200 brands.
• Blue agave is grown in volcanic soil permeated with minerals, and the lowlands are said to produce spirits with strong herbal aromas while the highlands are known for spirits that are more fruit-forward.
• There is no Bible of tequila, but there is a law.
• During Prohibition, tequila was prescribed to cure influenza.
• Agave is in the lily family (read: NOT a cactus).

Eat, Drink and Be Surprised

You’d think after so much learning and drinking and drinking and learning that the night would be over, but Vanegas had yet to demonstrate tequila’s impressive attributes in cocktails and paired with the culinary delights of its homeland.

T&T executive chef Saul Ortiz worked with Vanegas to create a menu, and it hit the bull’s-eye from the first course. Guacamole spiked with tomato, onion, cilantro and Serrano chile was minimally seasoned, allowing the fresh avocado to shine and the tomatillo salsa to accent without overpowering. The chips were hot and crisp. And the drink was one of the best I’ve had. With the clean, sharp flavors of muddled cucumber and cilantro, the Spicy Lover gets its sweetness from agave nectar and fresh lime and its kick from Cuervo Platino and a hint of T&T spices.

Shrimp ceviche came next. The tender, sweet seafood was marinated in a citrus broth with chopped anise tomato, tomatillo, cilantro and toasted sesame seeds. It paired nicely with the bold Cougarita, an electric red drink with a peppery rim that smacks you like lips on a hot woman. It’s sweet and extremely drinkable but still has class due to Tradicional Silver, muddled raspberries, strawberries, a hint of spice, agave nectar and fresh lime.

The next course changed my opinion of two classics: carnitas and the Manhattan. I’ve had carnitas at a thousand taco trunks and Mexican restaurants, and my dad used to mix my great grandmother a Manhattan every night (she always gave me the cherry soaked in bourbon and vermouth). I have to hand it to Ortiz for his Tres Carnitas. The slow-roasted pork is marinated in spices and citrus and served with a green tomatillo salsa cruda and bell pepper slivers pickled in Sprite. The pork is juicy and rich and melts in your mouth. I was skeptical of the Manhattan made with Reserva de la Familia, but the fine tequila made it surprisingly smooth, and the boozy cherry at the bottom was delicious.

For dessert, we tackled a dark Mexican chocolate brownie with cajeta and ancho powder. It would have been decadent by itself, but Vanegas pulled out the big gun—250 Aniversario. One of a limited first production run of only 495 bottles worldwide, it retails for more than $2,000. There are only five bottles in the entire state of Nevada, and T&T has one of them. It was created to commemorate Cuervo’s 250th anniversary. Despite how much tequila I had already consumed, I finished this one to the last drop. As Vanegas suggested, it can definitely hang with cognac. You taste cherry, dulce de leche, Bananas Foster, figs and maybe a little bit of heaven.

Vanegas calls tequila “heaven in a glass,” and he is working hard to send that message to people who have been on the other side. His passion and enthusiasm are infectious, the right qualities for a brand ambassador. As a bartender, he could look into the eyes of new patrons and know exactly what they wanted. Judging by my experience, he’s still on his game.

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