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Stop! Spit out the worm and back away slowly. We’re going back to la escuela (that’s Spanish for “la school”) with Ivan Iricanin, partner at El Centro DF, to learn how to drink tequila properly.  Tequila is a spirit made from the blue agave plant, and is a protected product of origin like French Champagne and Belgian genever.

The finest tequilas are 100% agave, and must be produced, distilled and bottled in Mexico by law.  Mixto tequilas may be bottled outside of Mexico, and contain 49% sugar water and/or artificial caramel colors to produce an aged appearance. “Those are the ones that give you bad hangovers,” Ivan says. So if you’re new to tequila, where do you begin?

First know that there are three varieties–blanco (white) which is unaged or aged up to 60 days, reposado (rested) which is aged 60 days to 1 year, and añejo (aged), which is aged 1-3 years.  There is a new category of ultra fine tequilas called extra-añejo, which are aged for 3-5 years.

Aging gives tequila a more mellow, palatable flavor, and you may find hints of honey and oak. Unlike harsh, unaged blancos, añejos have a smooth, polished taste like scotch.  Blue agave from the highlands such as Jaliscos yield sweeter tequilas, while the lowlands produce a more herbal profile.

Sister restaurant and neighbor Masa 14 has 80-90 fine tequilas made from 100% agave, but El Centro stocks a staggering 200, including artisanal and micro tequilas. El Centro also has 25-30 mezcals and sotol, the latter being a unique, experimental experience even for Ivan. “It tastes like moonshine,” he chuckles. Mezcal is not as smooth as tequila, and is more suitable for experienced tequila drinkers.  The main difference is its strong, smoky flavor.

Mosey on up to El Centro’s tequila bar, and tell the mixologist what you usually drink. If scotch or bourbon is your poison, he may pour you a deep, amber-colored reposado. If you’re completely new to tequila, he may offer you a horizontal flight so you may taste the difference aging makes. Choose any flight of three tequilas or mezcal, and sip alternately from the accompanying sangrita of tomato, cilantro, onion and habanero, which is sweet, spicy and sour.  There is lime as well.

How do you know what’s a good tequila? “I think that’s a personal preference,” Ivan says.  Sip or shoot? “No shooting!” he balks.  “The products that were available ten years ago weren’t of a good quality, so the only way you could drink them was to shoot or not drink at all.”

Want to learn more? El Centro offers tequila classes available upon request, for groups of 10 or more.

Bonus trivia: In 2009, Mexican scientists found a way to make diamonds from tequila. Too small for jewelry (unless you have microscopic fingers) the diamonds may be used in computer chips or cutting instruments. My question is–what brand of tequila do they keep in the lab?

El Centro DF
1819 14th Street NW
Washington, DC 20009
(202) 328-3131