Besides the fact that he was 14 at the time, Manny Contreras's first sip of tequila was far from typical. Raised in Mexico City, where his family owned and operated bars and restaurants, he received his first copita of tequila from his father, who wasted no time honing his son's palate.
Fast forward 18 years (he's 32 now) and Contreras has done such a bang-up job of developing his taste for tequila that he was awarded "maestro tequilero" certification of by the Academia Mexicana de Catadores de Tequila earlier this month.
There are fewer than 500 maestros tequileros in the world, and Contreras is one of only two in Canada. He studied for years before his final test, which included tasting over 1,000 tequilas over four days to win his certification.
How did he live to tell the tale, let along pass the test in the 90th percentile? "With a pint of water for every ounce of tequila," he laughs.
In his current role as resident tequila expert and manager at upscale King West tequila y tacos joint El Caballito (220 King West, 416-628-9838, elcaballito.ca), Contreras leads revelatory private tastings in the bar's low-lit tequila cage.
Despite Canadian proclivities, quality tequila is not intended for shooting. Its subtleties only reveal themselves if you take your time.
As we sniff and sip, Contreras shares some golden rules of tequila appreciation.
When tasting, do stick to a three-step process: examine the spirit's colour and nose before actually taking a sip. Though colour varies depending on aging (premium tequilas range from unaged blancos to oak-kissed reposados and full-fledged añejos and extra-añejos), the liquid always seems to radiate the greenish glimmer of agave. Always start with younger, lighter spirits and work up from there.
Smell with your lips parted to dispel boozy fumes and detect nuances. Sniff slowly and steadily; don't nose a spirit the same way you would a wine, Contreras warns.
Nose your tequila from right to left, near and far to pick out different notes. Contreras aerates certain tequilas to soften their acetone edge; like all quality spirits, tequila evolves in the glass, and there's no need to rush.
The initial sip is like "kissing" the tequila - coating your mouth, acclimating your palate, getting acquainted. Cradle the tequila in your mouth for at least 10 seconds to understand its complexities, finally swallowing it to get the full effect.
Contreras stresses the importance of incorporating blind tastings into his program, excluding pre-existent brand associations and letting your senses do their work. This yields surprising results: I like what I'd expected to hate, and what's revealed as a super-premium brand tastes pretty much like vodka.
Over an hour passes, and the tasting table fills with empty glasses and pages of quasi-legible notes as we share thoughts, examine bottles and drink some incredible tequilas.
Shockingly, I don't feel drunk - but I sure am happy. That's a common side effect of good drink in good company.
"Tequila is not for drinking alone," Contreras says as we clink our last copitas. "Tequila is for sharing. All the time."
Contreras leads private tastings at El Caballito. Book an appointment at email@example.com.