Thursday, September 8, 2016

Comments on Comments about Tequila.

A variety of bottled tequilas. Photo in the public domain.
Huffington Post published an article of assorted odd facts about tequila. I agree with some of it, find some of it interesting, and disagree with a small part, but not big enough to go get drunk on tequila about. I've worked enough as a journalist to know that writers face a daily deadline, so their work holds a bit of expeditiousness, so the fact checking may sometimes suffer, and a piece is inevitably a bit redolent of sensationalism. Despite that close deadlines allow little time to look things up, journalism makes no room for weak words like maybe, perhaps, kinda, sorta. No, the journalist must pound the desk with Biblical authority and leave no room for doubt.

I usually try to get a blog out every day, but, fortunately for you, gentle reader, I feel no shame about taking a day off now and then, particularly since being well rested makes for a somewhat better blog. I have the luxury of doing some fact checking, but my only resources are the same that anyone has—Wikipedia and Google, mostly—so my presentation of facts is often superficial. The internet is a caveat emptor market anyway. On the other hand, truth is very important to me, particularly in writing, and if my options boil down to my babbling without knowing what I'm talking about, I'll just cut that passage all together.

When I taught writing to English students in Korea, I taught them to avoid all words of doubt (like perhaps, maybe, might, etc), which leads the attentive student to ask, what if I'm not sure enough to assert a fact unqualified by doubt? My answer is that it means I haven't done my homework and I need to research some more so I can make more definite points.

©2015 MW.
Yet my training lies more in the English Department rather than J School, and I was raised on the British novel of the early twentieth century, which means a great deal of stream of consciousness (a la Virginia Woolf, for example), so I love to free associate, which I believe can make for an interesting piece. An article like this in the Huff Post, bless their little fact checking hearts, provides me with a dry and desiccated skeleton on which to hang fat and juicy stories.

A usage note: whisky is a British spelling, and whiskey is the American and Irish spelling. Linguistic differences between the US and Britain are rooted in the coincidence of the invention of the dictionary, which standardized spelling, and the American revolution, which happened at about the same time as the dictionary. In making dictionaries of American English, the Americans, infected with revolutionary spirit, often chose contrarian spellings just to be different. This was an unfortunate choice, but I have to go with the American English of my education because I would make tons of mistakes and look terribly foolish if I were to attempt emulating British usage (as much as I would like to do so). Some people get upset because Americans tend to spell Scotch whiskey with an E, when it's a distinct beverage from any American whiskey, but that's a problem for a bar or for another day.

1. Tequila is plant-based.

I suppose Huff Post is proud of figuring this out, but I've been searching my brain high and low for a liquor that doesn't originate from a plant. And from what else would I originate a liquor? Meat?!

There are about a half-dozen that seem most common—as opposed to the regional liquors from around the world—but I think a more realistic historical perspective is that these are the regional liquors of the Europeans who colonized the world and who took their liquor with them. All of these are also plant-based:

  • Brandy—generally made from distilled wine, usually grape wine.
  • Gin—a distillation of pungent comestibles like juniper berries, coriander, bay leaves and ginger
  • Liqueur—the primal liqueur was intended to be a medicine. Liqueurs are an alcohol base infused with all sorts of foods like coffee, nuts, herbs, flowers, nuts.
  • Rum—a liquor made from sugar cane that the British and French introduced to the Caribbean islands as the economic base for colonization.
  • Tequila—the fermented and distilled juice from the pineapple-shaped heart of the blue agave cactus.
  • Vodka—seems to start with kitchen scraps like potato peels with the objective of having nothing left but ethanol and water. Some vodkas have added flavor, and many have impurities.
  • Whiskey—Whiskey and Brandy are the big two of European liquors. Brandy is a distillate of wine, and whisky the distillate of beer. Wine comes from grapes, which grow better in southern Europe, while beer comes from grains, which grow better in the north (it's more accurate to say that northern Europeans just have too cold of a climate for grapes because everyone grows wheat). So the whiskey vs. brandy question is a north-south issue. Scotch whiskey derives from malt, and terroir informs each distillery's product. Not only does each place's malt have its own subtleties in the malt's flavor, but the peat cut from the ground to smoke and dry the malt also speaks of place. The spring water used to make beer with the malt also lends terroir, as do the barrels, usually from Portugal, which add dimensions of oak as well as the sherry that was previously aged in the oak. But OK, I'm supposed to talk about tequila and not my obsession with whiskey that happened as the result of a religious experience in a bar near the Pike Place Market. Funny thing, sometime later when I was catching up with my dad and telling him where I'd been, he picked up on Seattle and said he'd been there during his "whiskey drinking days." We didn't spend enough time for me to find out what these whiskey drinking days were, but I have since learned that the USS Colorado, a battleship on which he was stationed during WWII, hailed from Seattle.

2. Tequila is technically a mezcal.

Huff Post makes this idea more complicated than it needs to be. Mezcal differs from distillery to distillery, but tequila is a subset of mezcals. That's not hard, is it?

3. The machete used to chop agave leaves is called a coa.


4. The men who use the coa are called jimadores.

The verb for harvesting agave is jimar (heemár), from the Nahuatl xima (sheema). I've always loved how there is so much Nahuatl in the language and culture of Mexico because Nahuatl serves as a vestige of a pre-Columbian past when the New World was a separate planet from the Old. The suffix -dor works like the -tor in English: one who jima (heema).

5. Only the agave heart, which resembles a pineapple, so it's often called a piña, is used to make tequila.

Many drink tequila, but few have the agave heart. Long before those logistical miracles of Lollapalooza tours, I attended concerts at which a dozen bands or more would serially show up on a stage in a huge field not too far out of town and play music in the beating sun. Two of those were called Sunday Break, which I miss, and Sunday Break II, which I attend on 5 September 1976. It is out FM 2222, an alliteratively numbered farm-to-market road kinky with curves through the Hill Country—now, as if it has been ironed, it has been widened, straightened, and disgustingly domesticated to serve all the houses that now scar the hills. Because the traffic would be just too nightmarish, I hitch out there with a knapsack containing two gallon milk jugs full of frozen water, and with thousands of concert goers funneled into more or less the same narrow highway, I get a ride from from some people in a VW microbus almost right away, and I light a joint to share with them as a way of saying thanks. We make good time at first, but the road becomes increasingly congested as we get further out.

We crawl up the last big hill in stop-and-go traffic—there's a barbecue place up there with a fantastic view (still is, though it's changed owners and names several times) across the hills back toward town­—then we're at a crossroads with Ranch-to-Market 620 (the ground by the time you get this deep into the Hill Country is too hard scrabble for anything but cattle). Finally we are nearing the parking lot, and it's time to avail myself of my free-wheeling transportation. I thank the people in the Microbus and walk across the parking lot to the gate. They spend another half hour just parking their bus.

Steiner Ranch (now full of houses with lawns of St Augustine Grass) is off RM 620 near Lake Travis, below the Mansfield dam. Boats, sails scooped, tack out of the wind across big blue Lake Travis. A helicopter ferries the performers to the concert. Through the searing afternoon I hear The Band—their songs sound the same as on record, but they wear cut-offs and tank tops and seem utterly lethargic in the heat. Chicago, who, despite the heat, dress and perform like they are playing an outdoor concert on a cool summer evening at Ravinia. About England Dan & John Ford Coley I remember nothing (stoned at this point?).

Then in the late afternoon, Fleetwood Mac, touring in the wake of the eponymous Fleetwood Mac (1975) and Rumours (1976) albums, take the stage: fantastic. This wakes me up.

The lighting bars form a giant rectangular proscenium arch, and the stage has no backdrop, so I can look at the band and at the sky behind them. Looming steely gray thunderheads pile up and huge bolts of lightning leap from cloud to cloud—if I could be there among the clouds where the music takes me to watch those bolts it would be like seeing flooding rivers of electrons.

Stevie Nicks, who is wearing a puffy black dress with sleeves nested within sleeves within sleeves, says, "This is a story about a Welsh witch." As they go into Rhiannon, the experience is as visual as aural. She raises her arms and shakes them, and she disappears into this great fluttering of cloth.

During 1975–1980, Fleetwood Mac's live performances of "Rhiannon" took on a theatrical intensity not present on the FM-radio single. The song built to a climax in which Nicks' vocals were so impassioned that, as drummer and band co-founder Mick Fleetwood said, "her Rhiannon in those days was like an exorcism" (Wikipedia).

I'm listening to Fleetwood Mac and Rumours right now, and they're still incredibly strong albums on which every song counts: there's no slog.

Peter Frampton, for whom I haven't cared since Humble Pie, sings his hit songs about his hit songs and being on tour—I mean how vapid can he get? Tell me about your thirty days in the hole! Never in the history of star-making machinery has the mechanism been so transparently vain, avaricious, and musically dull.

The Steve Miller Band, who are OK, but not so strong that they've weathered well in the onslaught of years as have Fleetwood Mac.

Promoters, who need 100,000 groovy hippies at this show, estimate that only 45,000 are here and promptly go bankrupt.

Night falls and the concert comes to an end, and everyone begins the slow trudge back to the cars. I start negotiating with my water—one jug is still unopened and still has a light chill—for a ride back into town. Somewhere in the distance I hear an unmistakable voice. It's my cousin Jane. She shouts, "Does anyone have any TEQUILA?" I hear (or sense) a slight moan around me. The music and especially the heat have drained us all, but my cousin Jane has the agave heart.

Mandelbrot animation. Licensed under the
GNU Free Documentation License.

6. Tequila does not contain psychedelic properties.

Did you know that coming from a cactus, tequila actually shares certain mild forms of alkaloids that made other cacti famous? For this reason, tequila's affects people a bit more than the equivalent amount of alcohol does. I checked, and the Web disagrees with me. They say there was a tequila bubble in California because those wild and crazy Californians thought tequila harbored psychedelic properties, but studies revealed there weren't. I stand by what I said though and wonder just how much tequila these students of tequila drank.

The Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) near
Mexico City is one of the country's greatest schools, and
the campus is famous for its murals. Photo by Ivan Hernández.
Licensed by CC by 2.0.

7. You can turn tequila into diamonds.

But why would you want to? Huff Post reports that physicists at the Autonomous University of Mexico—bored physicists or perhaps drunk physicists—figured out the alchemy to transmute tequila into small industrial diamonds. But there's a great deal of carbon in sewage, so wouldn't it be more productive and useful to convert shit to diamonds and drink the tequila?

8. Serious tequila aficionados generally don't do shots.

But here's the thing: tequila usually isn't aged. A few distilleries age their tequila as a kind of gimmick for people who don't understand the difference between tequila and whiskey, which actually needs ageing to mellow enough to be drinkable. From the moment that tequila is bottled, it's done. It does not get better with age like a woman or a fine wine. It's a simple being, and to aspire to its being something we can stand around, sip, and taste, is an absurd bit of pretentiousness.

9. A bottle of tequila can last unopened for years.

And why not? What could grow in it.

10. Some tequila is still made using ancient techniques.

I suppose I must pay five to ten times as much to drink tequila made by some ancient Aztec technique, but I made a discovery about tequila. To my tastes, tequila is jagged, but if I pay more money, I can get it smoother. But the trick is to buy mezcal, which is much smoother but costs the same. Any questions?

11. To be called tequila, it must be produced in Mexico.

Who in any other country would want to make it? I mean it's good, but let's just go to Cancun and have some fun. That's a pretty basic vacation.

12. Real tequila doesn't have a worm in it.

No, certain varieties of mezcal have the worm, though. It's a test to see if the liquor has achieved its proof. Now, if you've read this far, and if you can be the first person to post in the comments of this blog that you have delivered me via YouTube indisputable and documented truth that you have eaten the worm from a bottle of mezcal before 11:59 p.m. Central Standard Time (US) on Sunday, the 11th of September 2016, then I will send you $25. Drink for free! ☺

13. There are different kinds of tequila.

Uh, really?

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