High Spirits: Tequila bar at El Jefe
La bebida de lo del corazón salvaje
In the spring of 1993, I took a trip with six college roommates to Daytona Beach. We stayed at the Howard Johnson’s, a sky rise that towered at least six stories over the broad, hard-packed, car-lined beach. Jimmy Buffet even played one day for the mob of half-dressed college kids that crammed the concrete pool deck. Daring co-eds on plastic-slatted lounge chairs slurped shots of Cuervo off strangers’ stomachs, preceded by a lick of table salt, and survived by an acidic suck off a hard lime wedge. Some of these shots contained, inexplicably, a petrified mealworm. No wonder tequila terrified me. Until now.
In the past decade, celebrity interest in tequila has elevated the infamous margarita mixer in the same way that the farm-to-table movement has glorified the humble Brussels sprout or transformed a Portobello mushroom cap into “steak” on some menus. Actor George Clooney founded the Casamigos brand in 2013. (Five years later Clooney and partners sold the company to British beverage magnate Diageo and stand to make as much as $1 billon off the sale.) Rap star Sean (P. Diddy) Combs owns DeLeon tequila. Maroon 5 crooner Adam Levine co-owns Santa Mezquela with rocker Sammy Hagar. It’s a popular spirit, and with good reason: believe it or not, real tequila tastes good.
Tequilas are produced with varieties of depth and flavor in mind. Blanco is white tequila. It’s light and smooth and is usually mixed into a cocktail. Reposado is a honey hued, medium mellowed variety, which has been aged in oak barrels. The richest of the tequilas is the añejo variety, which ferments for a lengthy age in small whiskey or bourbon barrels. There’s even an extra añejo for those that like their tequila deep and rich as cognac.
Tequila is a variety of mezcal. Americans can think of this classification in the same way that we consider whiskey and bourbon. Bourbon is a type of whiskey. Tequila is a type of mezcal. While mezcal can be made from more than 30 varieties of the agave plant, tequila must be made by steaming the heart (the piña) of the Weber blue agave plant. Tequila has an appellation of origin standard. A government agency, the Consejo Regulador del Tequila, oversees authenticity. The spirit can be produced only in the Jalisco region of Mexico and small parts of outlying states. Thanks to the cultural significance of tequila, the Valles Region of Jalisco State is on the list of UNESCO World Heritage sites.
Maryland native Sharon Strauss recently traveled to the region to taste tequilas. She equated her visit to a trip to Napa. Strauss noted that tasting tequila with different foods brings out different notes in the spirit, like chocolate and orange flavors. Stateside, Sharon prefers añejo tequilas Cava de Oro ($87.99) or Don Julio 1942 ($99.99).
If a pilgrimage to Jalisco isn’t in the cards, try heading to El Jefe Mexican Kitchen and Tequila Bar. It’s right on the border … of Rt. 50 West, in Stevensville (the parking lot abuts the highway). For those interested in trying a flight of tequilas, ask to sample shots of the Casamigos blanco, reposado and añejo trio. It’s a great way to experience the differences in each variety. El Jefe even has a signature tequila, a reposado with hints of honey and smoke, made especially for the restaurant by Patrón, and chosen by owner Martin Hernandez and general manager Sarah Acosta. Customers can try the tequila for $9 a shot, or they can buy a whole bottle and even have it engraved.
Not ready to try tequila straight up? No problem. Bartender Megan Penn will shake up a frothy signature margarita, made from an inhouse mix of fresh lime and orange and nothing else. And while the tequila isn’t made on Kent Island, the salsa is. It’s delicious, in a rich, slurpy, garlicy, spicy way. The salsa is served in a short glass bottle alongside a paper-lined, red plastic basket of crisp, warm, salty tortilla chips. No wonder everyone wants to go to Mexico, er, Stevensville.
In spite of the massive collection of authentic tequilas lining the wall behind the bar at El Jefe, Penn says that there aren’t too many takers for the cognac-like añejo sipping variety. After all, she says, “Kent Island is a pretty laid-back environment. People here are used to having their drink in a plastic cup.” Which is a step up from the Cuervo body shots of days gone by.