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Sunday November 25, 2012

Hold the salt, this is premium tequila

Salud: The popular
way of drinking tequila
– neat, from a shot glass
with a flat rim and a
wedge of lime. Salud: The popular way of drinking tequila – neat, from a shot glass with a flat rim and a wedge of lime.

Our columnist has another tequila sunrise as the classic cocktail series heads towards the sunset ...

TEQUILA has a bad reputation. Most people seem to think that it is vile-tasting, incredibly potent, and can get one drunk faster than other spirits but in fact, most tequilas, especially the good stuff, have the same alcohol level as vodka, whisky and most other spirits.

It is the reputation for “tasting bad” that actually helped popularise perhaps the best-known way of drinking tequila – in a shot glass with salt and a lime wedge. However, this method was only created because in the past, the quality of tequila was so bad that drinkers needed the salt and lime to mask the awfulness of the spirit.

Today, the premium tequilas available worldwide are a lot smoother and flavourful then those early spirits. Therefore, it’s a bit of a waste to drink tequila with salt and lime these days, especially since you won’t get to taste the drink properly.

For the classic tequila cocktail session, I enlisted the help of Shawn Chong, the 2011 winner of the Diageo Reserve World Class Malaysian National Finals, who also represented the country at the Global Finals in New Delhi, India, last year.

Currently a freelance consultant and lecturer, Chong reckons that tequila is not a simple spirit to drink, and that many Malaysians still need getting used to it.

“It’s definitely not for beginner drinkers – the raw vegetable flavour of agave is more of an acquired taste,” he said. “It’s not exactly hard to make drinks out of it, but some people find the flavour hard to accept, especially when I use 100% agave tequilas.”

Tequila can be separated into two categories – the pure 100% blue agave (the cactus that tequila is made from) tequilas; and “mixto”, which is a cheaper-to-produce blend consisting of 51% pure blue agave tequila and 49% grain spirits.

Like rum, tequila is available in aged and un-aged categories, with three basic grades – blanco (an un-aged white spirit that is bottled immediately after it is distilled); reposado, or “rested” tequila that is aged in oak barrels between two and 12 months; and añejo which is aged for at least a year, but usually for an average of three years (there is also an extra añejo category for tequilas that are aged a minimum of three years).

According to Chong, the flavour for tequila cocktails may vary depending on the type and grade of the spirit.

“If you want your drink to have a bit more bite and more of the oomph from the tequila, then you should use a blanco. The reposado and añejo tequilas are a lot smoother, and can actually be drunk on their own,” he said.

Of the six spirits we’ve covered in the classic cocktail series so far, the list for classic tequila cocktails was probably the hardest to compile. Unlike vodka, brandy, whisky, rum and gin, there are significantly fewer tequila cocktails that can really be called “classics”.

“Tequila was not exported as early as whiskies and brandies, and was more of a local product in Mexico. That’s probably why there are fewer classic tequila cocktails,” said Chong, adding that like any other spirit, a good basis to start from when making a tequila cocktail is to have a sweet and sour component.

“Also, you could try to use the by-products of the tequila, for instance, using agave syrup instead of sugar syrup. There’s one cocktail, the Tommy’s Margarita, which uses just tequila, agave syrup and lime juice. To me, that is a drink that really pays respects to the tequila.”

o All the cocktails featured in this article were made by Shawn Chong at Hoofed (18A Lorong Rahim Kajai 14, TTDI, Kuala Lumpur, Tel: 03-7728 8567).

Now that the classic cocktail series is over, Michael Cheang is ready to try new things again. Is there a particular drink you would like him to feature, or a question you would like him to answer? E-mail: star2@thestar.com.my, with the heading: TIPSY-TURVY.


There are actually two versions of the Matador. The first, which was originally published in a 1937 book called Café Royal Cocktail Book, was made with tequila, vermouth and orange Curaçao. The other more “modern” Matador, which Chong made for me, is made with tequila and pineapple and lime juice.

This deceptively masculine-sounding drink turned out to be a pretty and refreshing cocktail, with the sweetness of the pineapple juice balancing out the sourness of the lime, while at the same time, helping to accentuate the more subtle, grassy flavours of the tequila.


The one tequila cocktail to rule them all. Margarita is one of the best-known cocktails in the world, and not just among tequila drinkers. While there are dozens of differing opinions about how the drink was originally created, the recipe remains roughly the same – two shots tequila (Chong used Don Julio Reposado), one shot of Cointreau triple sec, and one shot of lime juice.

“The original Margarita is actually a sour cocktail, and only uses these three ingredients, but I tend to add a little bit of sugar syrup in mine because Malaysian drinkers prefer their drinks sweeter,” said Chong.

“The salt rim is the classic garnish for the Margarita. Back in the day, it was used to mask the flavour of the tequila. Today the salt is actually not needed because we have better tequilas, but we still put it anyway.”

According to Chong, there are many different types of Margaritas in the market, made in various different ways.

“The original Margarita is served straight up, but in Malaysia, people tend to drink it with ice, either on the rocks or frozen (by blending all the ingredients together).

“The balance of the drink is also important – in terms of flavour you want the tequila to be present and complemented by the sweet and sour. Some places don’t use fresh ingredients, just a generic sweet and sour mix, so it won’t be as balanced.”


The Submarine is more of a party drink than a classic cocktail, but I couldn’t resist including it here because it is just so fun to make.

To star, get a rock glass with a flat bottom and turn it upside-down over a shot of tequila. Make sure the bottom of the rock glass is wide enough to accommodate the entire rim of the shot glass.

Then, without allowing the tequila to spill out, turn the whole thing upside down so that the tequila is still trapped inside the now-upside-down shot glass at the bottom of the rock glass.

Finally, top up the glass with beer, preferably a Mexican beer like Corona. As you drink the beer, the tequila will slowly seep out into the beer, not just making it tastier, but slightly more potent as well.

Be warned though, this is not a drink to be taken lightly!

El Diablo

Something of a forgotten classic, says Chong. El Diablo was mentioned in the classic book Trader Vic’s Book of Food and Drink as early as 1946.

It is made with Jose Cuervo tequila, Crème de Cassis (blackcurrant liqueur), fresh lime juice and ginger beer, all shaken with ice and strained into a Collins glass with a lime wedge garnish.

While the combination of the blackcurrant and fizz of the ginger beer gave this drink a nice devilish sensation in the mouth, the flavours did tend to drown out the tequila somewhat.


One of the more popular cocktails in Mexico, the Paloma is basically a long version of a margarita, according to Chong.

“It’s like a margarita, but with more bitterness and complexity because of the grapefruit juice and the lower ratio of lime juice,” he said.

Originally made with a grapefruit soda (as opposed to fresh juice), Chong’s Paloma consisted of Jose Cuervo tequila, lime juice, grapefruit juice and a splash of soda, served in a rock glass.

The result was a wonderfully tangy and zesty drink, with just the right amount of bitterness and sourness mixing nicely with the vegetal flavours of the tequila.

Tequila Sunrise

This drink is probably better known for its presentation than the taste, and it certainly looks almost too pretty to drink!

Made with orange juice and tequila, the final ingredient of this drink is grenadine syrup, which is allowed to settle at the bottom of the glass so that the contrasting hues of red and orange evoke the image of a beautiful sunrise.

It may look pretty, but don’t try to drink this before stirring it, or you’ll just be getting the taste of the grenadine syrup at the first sip of the straw. When mixed together, however, the tanginess of the orange juice and the sweetness of the syrup blend nicely, and actually help draw out the flavours of the tequila.

The Tequila Sunset is another variation of the drink which substitutes the grenadine syrup with blackberry brandy instead.


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