August 3, 2011 at 1:54 PM
"I have never experienced anything like the New Mexico International Tequila Tasting..."
In the twenty or so years I have been a bartender, I have never experienced anything like the New Mexico International Tequila Tasting (NMIITT). Last year, Mike Morales, Editor of Tequila Aficionado and founder of NMIITT, approached me about being a judge or “Catador” for this event, but I had no idea exactly what I had signed on for.
The NMIITT is the Southwest’s biggest tequila cata (tasting) sponsored by the American Academy of Tequila, and is a blind tasting of different tequilas based on each one’s appearance, smell, and taste. There are 20 possible points for each tequila presented to a panel of catadores who evaluate each tequila not knowing bottle or brand.
I arrived Friday morning at Nativo Lodge in Albuquerque ready to dive in. After checking into my room, I sought out the event room. When I walked in I stopped short as I saw the other judges in the room. Suddenly I became a little anxious as I was in the presence of some of the most influential tequila aficionados in the country. I took my place at the table after introducing myself to the other catadores. I felt like a kindergartener in a room of PhDs as we began to know each other face to face.
Mike Morales came into the room and after a few short introductions, he explained what we were about to do including a couple of surprises that he would reveal at the end of the tasting.
Scorecards were handed out, and we settled in to begin. First came the blancos. Thirteen of them in total! The intensity of what we were doing came to fruition for me: this was going to be a challenge not only on the palate but one of endurance as well. Don’t worry, each one of us had spit buckets!
We scored each one of the blancos with some conversation between us. We tasted some amazing distillates and some that were pure trash (and you would be as shocked as I was if you knew which ones were the worst of the lot). The Catadores pressed on as we finished the first category.
Next came the reposados. This is my favorite category of tequila, and come to find out most of the judges’ share the same tastes as me. That made me feel good. We dove in looking, smelling, sipping, spitting and writing our scores. One by one we tried 19 different reposados. The conversation began to loosen up as we moved on. Various grunts of “mmm” and “eww” were muttered around the room as we went to our regiment. Then the breaking point of familiarity came as one of the judges, The Queen of Tequila, found sample number 23. Her ever so slight sexual overtones about this tequila made the entire room erupt in teenage angst.
Repos complete we started in to the anejos and extra anejos. We were several hours into this tasting with minor bathroom and stretch breaks in between. No food is allowed, however, so as not to taint the palate (crackers only)! Each judge pressed on, tired but determined. The alcoholic contact high was making all of us sillier form glass to glass. For relief and entertainment we went from teenagers to sub-pubescent behavior as we threw coaster and cracker packets across the room at one another. The guys flirted with the one lady in the room, and took turns ribbing each other as guys will do (everything the Barman does, he does with fresh fruit, neeee-yaaahhhh!) Funny thing was, this entire event was being filmed for an independent documentary about tequila, and like a parent coming into the room, the moment the film crew popped in, suddenly we all quit or shenanigans, acting professional and back to the facade of seriousness.
After 8 ½ hours of tasting, a couple of late arrival entries, and 68 different distillates, the official judging was over! Hungry, fatigued, and worn, we all moved out of the room ready for a bite to eat, and yes a drink.
Now, Mike had mentioned there were some surprises to this cata. Well here they are. First, this was the first official cata sponsored by the American Academy of Tequila that included Sotol, the native spirit of Chihuahua, Mexico. Only three are available in the U.S. and two were represented here. The second was this was the first time organic tequilas were rated in their own category. Now these tequilas and stool have been seen at other judging events, but never at an official Cata. We made history twice in one day!
Next day came the public tasting, where we tasted each tequila again, but this time we knew what we were trying and had an opportunity to chat with the makers, and their representatives. This is when the winners were announced (for a list, see my previous post). Then a third surprise came from the film crew. They wanted drinks! They wanted to film some of us making drinks with tequila. So they asked Daniel Gonzales (bar manager at Nativo Lodge), Jay Silverman (Beverage Manager at Agave NYC), Jason Lerner (co-founder of Masa Azul in Chicago), Mario Marquez (highest ranked certified Catador in the U.S.) and little ol’ me to make a drink.
So we did just that. We each took turns concocting a cocktail behind the bar at Nativo, and presented it to the onlookers: The Queen of Tequila leading the pack again with her subtle sighs of excitement as she passed each libation to the other ladies around the bar.
Sunday came and we said good-bye, each of us heading back to our lives and jobs, with the experience of a lifetime in our memories and in our hearts.