This piece originally appeared on Travel+Leisure.
“Tequila,” says bartender Ted Gibson, “is all things Mexico—the life, love, and passion. It comes from the agave plant, which literally stores up the sun’s energy. When you drink it, you feel good inside.”
If you’re like me, however, every shot of Patrón calls to mind a dozen shudder-inducing flashbacks of tequila-drinking nights gone awry. Remember those novelty t-shirts: “One tequila, two tequila, three tequila…floor”? Not so far off the mark.
But Gibson, head bartender at Rancho Valencia, a lush resort outside San Diego’s city center, is part of a growing movement of bartenders who are recasting tequila in a more propitious light. “Before, it was small-batch bourbon. Now, it’s single-barrel tequila,” he says. “People are substituting it for more traditional base spirits and making some very interesting cocktails. It’s an exciting time.”
To demonstrate his point, Gibson offered to give me a tequila crash course at the hotel’s agave-centric bar, the Pony Room, which has one of the largest tequila selections of any bar in America. Here’s what I learned:
Most tequila comes from Jalisco on Mexico's western coast. “Highlands” tequila is grown in elevations above 6,000 feet, and yields a higher sugar content, with a fruitier, more rounded flavor. “Lowlands” tequila, grown on the valley floor, produces an earthier, spicier, more vegetal spirit.
Only the heart of the agave plant (the piña) is used—to harvest it, the leaves must be cut away so the piña (which can weigh up to 300 pounds) can be uprooted. After being baked in an oven and then smashed, the juices are then extracted for distillation.
Where to start?
For tequila novices (like me), Gibson recommends starting with a Blanco Old Fashioned(above), which he calls “the most honest expression of agave flavors.” Also known as “silver” tequila, blanco is minimally aged (as little as ten days, or up to two months)—by contrast, reposado and añejo tequilas sit in the barrel for up to one year and three years, respectively.
Stay away from “gold” tequila. Despite the top-shelf implications, these are cheaply made tequilas, and their amber hue is actually the result of unnatural sweeteners and colorants. (It's these added sugars that lead to the nasty hangovers most people associate with tequila!)
No, not the wine-based fruit punch. The Pony Room prides itself on its housemadesangrita, a tangy crimson elixir that tastes a little like a fiery Sour Patch Kid mixed with chile powder and fresh pomegranate juice. Served in a shot glass on the side, it cleanses the palate after a peppery sip of tequila blanco.
Another tequila condiment? Worm salt. It’s tequila salt fortified with dried, ground-up worms called gusanos.
It's not all about tequila
Unlike tequila, mezcal is made from burying the agave underground and roasting it for up to five days (hence the Scotch-like smokiness). To start me off, Gibbons pours a snifter of Del Maguey Crema de Mezcal, a delicious, nectar-y blend. Despite my drunken scribbles (“tastes like a melted slush puppy with smoke”), I enjoy it tremendously and ask for a second.
Thanks to San Diego’s year-round growing climate, fresh-picked ingredients like edible flowers, rosemary, lavender, lemons, and Valencia oranges are sourced right on the property and incorporated into cocktails.
Join the club
Members of the hotel’s All Agave Club can track their progress through the bar’s entire collection. Each new tequila earns a stamped entry in a custom leather-bound ledger. The first one to complete all 100 spirits in a year wins a free trip to Mexico to continue the imbibing on native soil. The bar also offers bimonthly agave spirit tastings (served with light bites).
The bar’s most exclusive tequila is Clase Azul Extra Añejo; only 100 bottles of the three-year-aged spirit are released each year. And at $276 per each two-ounce pour, it’s also the most expensive on the menu.
Taste the rainbow
Upping the ante, Gibbons serves me a tequila-ified take on a Moscow Mule: serrano pepper–infused tequila, a splash of ginger beer, some lime to temper the spice, and a few drops of Angostura bitters. I sip out of a copper cup, savoring the bright flavors. A couple next to me, having witnessed the whole experiment, leans over and order two of the same. The husband teases me, “We want your job!”