Welcome to the Intoxicology Report, a drinking journey with a few recommendations and a few lessons. This column is dedicated to my experience consuming one variety of alcohol for seven days straight. Ahead of National Tequila Day on July 24th, we begin with the spirit from our southern neighbor, and a favorite of 20-somethings everywhere. Shots!
I begin the week contemplating my history with tequila. It is a sordid business. The last time I drank large quantities of the Oaxacan pride, I whiled the night away in a bathtub with a couple, taking lukewarm shots out of Solo cups with the tops removed by kitchen shears. However, fresh off a week in the country (taken to steel myself against the doldrums of the New Orleans summer) I am prepared to rise from the bubbles of past experience to drink another day.
I share a cab from the airport with a young man who is quite possibly the most neurotic person I have ever encountered. He had the slender, elastic frame of someone who spends a lot of time fidgeting. When I mention the Experiment during the ride, he ignores me and goes on a tangent about the Stoics. He believes in moderation to an extent that I do not. I take this as a sign.
I find myself first at Sidney’s Saloon, my regular spot. I struggle for a moment and decide to begin with the most banal of sticky tequila drinks, the lowly margarita. To switch it up, I have mine with mezcal, and upon the first sip, feel the back of my throat twitch with dread. It was as delicious and regrettable as ex sex. I had three within the time it took for my companion to arrive.
Another hour passes, and my laughter, already Joan Rivers-esque, begins to sound like a siren, making my stomach vibrate and my teeth ache. We decide to ride a wave of nostalgia and order tequila sunrises. The sugar and the liquor and the thick heat hit my tongue in different places and produce a high that crests and then falls within the same minute.
I wake up for work at 6 AM with a stabbing sensation in my right temple. It persists all day and I start to fantasize about scooping my eye out with a melon baller.
Instead of that method, I park my bike at R Bar, where I stopped because a sign outside advertised tequila and mezcal specials – and I needed a special. The dim lighting and the hum of the AC felt like home. I ordered something called “Agave Gardens.” It arrives as a spring green frozen affair with an array of garnishes and conjures images of spray tans and neon spandex. One draw through the straw, and my doubts vanish. The sweetness was tempered beautifully by cucumber and jalapeno, and it was heavy on the smoky mezcal. The Experiment looks brighter and I have another. I add a couple of shots of Casamigos (Clooney-approved!) on my way home and end the night with the satisfaction of a drunk who has managed to keep a secret.
I venture out around sunset to Casa Borrega, a tequila and mezcal mecca on Oretha Castle Haley, where the drinks, much like the decor, are at once vivid and vaguely familial. I start with the Mezcalinda, which walks the tightrope between puckering and tongue-tingling with aplomb. It includes both “spicy-infused” reposado tequila and mezcal. If you want a head rush akin to that from a good cigar, this is your move. I follow it up with the one savory tequila drink on their cocktail menu, the Santa Sangre, which is a hotter riff on a standard Bloody Maria (a tequila-based Bloody Mary), with the addition of pico de gallo. The euphoria of the first day returns – but I attribute that to tomato-based burn at the back of my throat.
I spend the rest of the evening close to home, unwisely pounding shots followed by Modelo Negro – is this cheating? I make one too many jokes about Patron, acrylic nails and the prevalence of high-pitched screaming as a mating call in the Quarter and stagger home with the grace of a rusty propeller.
Vicious daggers of sunlight cause me to wake with a jolt. My mouth feels arid and fermented. Many hours later, I don my most obnoxious sunglasses and choke down a single paloma at Good Friends. I have never less wanted to be around “friends,” good or otherwise, but the cadence of the place lifts my sickly spirits. I get another to go and suck on the lime as I walk.
I place myself in the capable interior of Bar Tonique, a place I never feel quite adult enough to sit in for more than an hour. Weeknights and Sundays feel more welcoming – fewer polo shirts and performative masculinity, more focus on what’s in your glass.
A dealer’s choice order gets me one sweet and smoky concoction garnished with a grapefruit rind that I consume quickly enough to scare myself, plus a variation on one of my favorite cocktails, the Aviation, with mezcal instead of gin. I top it all off with an El Diablo, a lesser known classic, but eye-catching and refreshing. It’s built up with voluptuous color from the creme de cassis and stomach-pleasing ginger and lime, you know, for your health.
On the penultimate day of my journey, the thought of more agave-based spirits makes my lips curl back like a threatened animal. I feel as though I can smell tequila streaming out of my pores – which could have been true, I elected not to ask my co-workers.
Given this mood, I return to the start, Sidney’s, and settle into the task at hand. I’ve always had a generous masochistic streak, which I credit for some of the best nights of my life in this great city. As such, the scrappy collection of regulars, my bartender that fateful day, and myself work together to arrive at my first drink for the evening. It’s uncovered in a handwritten book behind the bar – the East Village cocktail – made up of blanco tequila, lemon juice, Gran Marnier and yellow Chartreuse, shaken and served in a coupe glass. It is the precise color of urine and tastes like being the last person picked in gym class. Three gulps eliminates the threat. I clear my mouth with a couple of shots of Milagro and a paloma.
In a city not known for a wealth of tequila joints, I decide at the last minute to end my week back at Casa Borrega and challenge myself to finish the other two-thirds of the cocktail menu with the help of a friend. While working through the drinks, we learn that our bartender, Iris, is indeed the eponymous inspiration behind the drink comprised of reposado tequila, cucumber, lime, ginger and agave nectar. She recommends it with El Silencio mezcal instead, which is a great example of the genre that I would recommend for added punch to what is otherwise a drink a tad too sweet for my taste.
With the Iris safely in our glasses, we are joined by Hugo Montero, a true evangelist of the tequila/mezcal gospel. He tells me that the cultural significance of mezcal and tequila for Mexicans is extra special because tequila and mezcal are the only spirits native to the Western hemisphere, and that’s something to celebrate.
“You can make gin or vodka or whiskey anywhere,” he explains gesturing to demonstrate. “But only in very specific conditions can you produce mezcal. And besides, it’s good for you, the men on tequila – they go all night!” Consider me a convert.