Tequila makes me think of Pee-wee Herman, Mexico, and worms. What does it make you think of?
It makes me think of Mexico, certainly. It makes me think of flavor; it makes me think of the desert — I’m from Southern California. When I first had great tequila, I thought about walking around the national parks that are in the desert in Southern California. You hear people in wine talk about terroir, a taste of place. I don’t think I’ve ever felt that more specifically than when I drink tequila.
There are five types of tequila — silver, gold, aged, extra aged, and ultra aged. Do you have a favorite?
Silver. Without question. It all comes back to that taste of place. The more you work with a spirit, whether it’s putting it in barrel or adding color or adding flavors, you’re getting away from the thing that I love. In tequila you want to taste that ripe agave as it was intended from the moment it came out of the still.
It seems like the assumption would be that gold is the best.
That has to do with some of the bigger tequila houses wanting to put things on the market that looked like they were more prestigious. Gold was just a category that was created to kind of bounce off of the silver. You had the silver, least expensive to produce; the only way to make it even more economical is to add other fermentable things into it, other alcohols into it. So rather than call it another perhaps Mexican word that Americans won’t respond to immediately, they called it gold. So, you know, the color comes from food coloring.
In America we think about things with color being better. You think of your very aged bourbons, your extra aged brandies and cognacs, and Scotches. Where all of these spirits are aged, it’s generally a little cooler climate. In Mexico it’s a much hotter climate; you’re right there near the equator. So even though aging in Mexico happens much faster than in many other places, throwing food coloring in there is just about the fastest way.
When did you begin loving tequila so much, and why this over everything else?
Tequila is the thing that I drink when I do anything. I’ve always liked the kind of funnier spirits. The first alcohol that I really loved was cachaça, which is Brazil’s native rum, essentially. Although they don’t like you calling it rum. I loved it because it was funky and earthy and grassy, and it didn’t taste as bland to me as the other spirits did. I had just turned 21; I was working at a bar, and everyone was drinking vodka sodas. It’s a perfectly refreshing beverage, but for me I just wanted more. I wanted to be able to really think about what I was tasting.
Audubon has a drink called Ta-Kill-Ya, which sounds ominous. Is that one of your creations?
It is. That’s how my uncle used to talk about tequila: "Take a shot of ta kill ya." Just a silly name. But the drink itself is fairly simple, playing with an idea we had to take cocktails that were very well known and slightly tweak them, so really it’s a margarita. I hesitate to say that because margarita’s one of those infamous cocktails that is so popular that it’s a catch-all. But if you look at the base for what a margarita is, it’s good tequila, fresh lime juice, and then an orange cordial. So in this case instead of the sweet orange liqueur, we started with Campari, and then we eventually picked Meletti 1870 because it worked a little better in the cocktail.
I was recently walking around Central, just looking for a good, basic margarita, but they all had pineapple, or pomegranate, or orange juice.
We can probably list on our fingers the number of drinks that have moved beyond just a name. The margarita was this one that came up, and it’s fairly recent; the margarita is not a classic cocktail as we think of it. It came through Hollywood. Tequila really came through Hollywood. But it’s moved so much further than that.
Tell me more about tequila coming through Hollywood — how did that happen?
One, it’s Southern California. Two, I mean, vodka is very much the same way. Yes, it came from Russia, but it was made really popular by copper Moscow mule mugs that the celebrities would drink in. I want to say it was Bing Crosby who had a lot to do with making the margarita popular. It was that era of Hollywood that found this thing that they were drinking down south, making these beautiful margaritas, like this is the hip new thing.
I watched Working Girl last night. At one point Harrison Ford says to Melanie Griffith, "I promised myself that when we met, we’d drink tequila. No chardonnay, no frog water, real drinks." If Harrison Ford walked into Audubon, what would you pour him?
I’d probably pour Harrison Ford something from the Tequila Valley. I would probably pour him Fortaleza, to be perfectly honest. Beautiful tequila. It’s more earthy, it’s more minerally, I think it’s fantastic. And the tequila that we get from the Tequila Valley has this almost cement, chalky sort of character to it — it’s gritty. It’s gritty like Indiana Jones would be.