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A Chat with Tequila Master Francisco Alcaraz

By the time the Eagles released "Tequila Sunrise," the first single from their second album Desperado in 1973, tequila -- the distillate made from blue agave cultivated in Jalisco, Mexico -- had already entered into the American cocktail vernacular.

The recipe for the tequila sunrise is believed to have been developed at the swank Biltmore hotel in Phoenix, Arizona at the height of the first American cocktail craze in the 1930s and '40s, the same time that the now ubiquitous margarita first probably appeared in cantinas of the upper reaches of the Baja California Peninsula, just across the border from San Diego (where I grew up in '70s).

"When we drink tequila in Mexico, it is still served in the same way as when I was a young man," said master distiller Francisco Alcaraz, when I reached by phone the other day at his office in Jalisco.

"We serve it straight, with lime and salt, or with sangrita [a chaser often made with fruit juice -- orange or tomato -- and grenadine, spiked with chiles or hot sauce]. And it is always served with some kind of snack. It's something that you drink with friends while you're watching a soccer game, paired with nuts, [sliced] cucumber or cheese, or jicama."

Francisco has seen the tequila industry change radically since he was first approached in the late 1980s by U.S.-based investors who asked him to create what many now consider the benchmark for premium tequila, Patrón (whose corporate offices are based in Las Vegas).

By the late 1990s, remembered Francisco, "mixologists [in the U.S.] had started mixing tequila with nearly everything, even watermelon," he said with a gently sardonic chuckle.

And while North American cocktail culture continues to push the envelope of how tequila can be "applied" in mixology today, its use in long and short drinks tends to blur the focus of tequila's essence -- a "terraceous" or earthy quality, as Francisco likes to call it.

"Everything starts with 'silver,'" Francisco told me, the second distillation of the blue agave. While silver can be destined for oak aging (to be labeled as reposado or añejo, depending on the aging regimen), silver is tequila in its purest form and it's where "the herbaceous and citrus" and even "mushroom" (umami, savory) notes of tequila can emerge.

Francisco's certainly not complaining about the current tequila craze on this side of the border: From his early days as a government tequila inspector in the late 1960s to his current reign as master distiller, he has seen tequila evolve in a way no one could have imagined in the pre-mixology world. Today, he travels across North America leading seminars and tastings for consumers, media, and trade.

But it's when he talks about the nuance tequila's unique terroir -- its volcanic subsoils and its varied macroclimates -- that he really seems to get excited.

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"The sugar content in the lowlands tends to be lower," he told me, "and so you'll find more earthy notes in tequilas produced from fruit grown there. The highlands produces agave with more sugar content and so you get more fruity notes."

As much as I love a great margarita (or even a hair-of-the-dog tequila sunrise), I'll think twice before I blend his tequila into a long drink.

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