Tequila, the official beverage of Mexico, is downed daily in Cancun, hence the ever-popular mantra, “Don’t drink the water. Drink tequila.”
Though the spring breakers are all about shots, shots, and more shots, the best way to appreciate tequila is to sip it slowly. This fact is one of the many nuggets of knowledge I learned at La Joya’s tequila tasting.
Located in the Grand Fiesta Americana Coral Beach, La Joya stands out from Cancun’s crowd of Mexican restaurants with its signature tequila tasting. The vertical tasting features four Herradura tequilas, allowing guests to taste how aging affects the liquor’s characteristics. Entertaining and educational, the tasting appeals to both amateur and seasoned tequila-drinkers. The best part? This special perk is gratis for all dinner guests.The degustación (sampling) takes place next to La Joya’s oval bar; oak barrels, photos of the tequila-making process, and numerous bottles of tequila set the mood. Oscar Castrejon, one of the two waiters trained in all things tequila, is our affable guide, easily bantering in Spanish, English, and French.
Castrejon invites my fellow tasters and I to sit in comfortable, club chairs that surround tables topped with a dizzying array of glasses. He starts with the story of blue agave — the only one of agave’s 236 varieties that can be used to make tequila. The plants must mature for 7-10 years before being harvested by agave farmers (jimadors). Oscar advises us to look for only 100 percent agave tequila, for those with just 51 percent are low in quality and high in next-day hangovers. Armed with agave know-how, we try the first tequila: Herradura Blanco. Oscar’s shocks us when he asks us to begin by biting a lime wedge. Turns out the three steps immortalized on tourist tees — lick it, shoot it, suck it — is incorrect. That method was created to mask the burning taste of bad tequila. The right way is to start with lime and salt, which together cleanse your palate and lubricate your mouth. Then, sip the tequila slowly; shots are too fast to truly savor any flavor.
Next, Oscar picks up a glass of a popular Mexican drink: agua de tamarindo (tamarind water). We spike the sweet, tart drink with our remaining blanco for a delightful cocktail, which is paired with a tiny bite of vanilla cheese wrapped in cactus. We move on to Herradura Reposado. A strong sniff reveals oak notes, a byproduct of being aged for eight months in white oak barrels. This time, we suck on oranges dusted in cinnamon before sipping; they bring out the spiced flavors of this middle-aged tequila. Castrejon has us pour our remaining reposado into deep red agua de Jamaica (hibiscus water). The delicious combo evokes an old fashioned — strong, yet influenced by fruit, as is our chili-coated jicama nibble.
A brandy snifter holds our third tasting: Herradura Añejo. As we swirl the caramel-colored tequila, Castrejon points out the tracks of cascading liquid on the sides of the glass. These legs, or tears, occur with aging. Nicknamed “Mexican cognac,” añejo is aged for three years, creating toasty oak and vanilla flavors. Horchata, Mexico’s cinnamon, rice milk drink, is the perfect pairing. We sip them separately to appreciate each beverage then finish with a caramel almond. With a flourish, Castrejon brings out a bottle of Herradura Ultra. To illustrate the unique flavor profile of this new tequila, Oscar pours a few drops onto each of our cupped hands and asks us to rub them together. The alcohol evaporates but a rich vanilla and olive oil aroma remains. This non-traditional scent stems from five years of aging and extra distilling.
We’ve worked up an appetite with our heavy imbibing. Thankfully La Joya’s menu brims with Mexican specialties — chicken mole, shrimp dunked in diablo sauce, and the most succulent beef barbacoa in town. A 10-piece band of soulful mariachis make for memorable dinner music. Balance the flavorful fare with the house specialty, a refreshing, frozen tamarind margarita.
Diners must reserve La Joya’s complimentary tastings in advance to ensure they get the full experience; walk-ins may miss out on the juice pairings and nibbles. Can’t do dinner? Tastings only are available for just 220 pesos ($13).
It’s time to get your agave on.