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A degree in advanced agave studies

For National Margarita Day, study up on how La Condesa goes beyond tequila

Arianna Auber
La Condesa's Margarita la Clásica, is made with blanco tequila, Patron Citronge and a house mix of lime juice, agave and water. It is an often-ordered drink on the menu. [Contributed by Jody Horton]

The combination of tequila with lime juice and orange liqueur is simple and exquisite. Let's get a little more complex, since Friday is National Margarita Day.

Austin loves a local pint with our pizza and a glass of Texas rosé at summer barbecues. But we prefer margaritas most of all. And perhaps that iconic drink gets no better than at La Condesa, which has made the classic margarita and smart variations on it since opening downtown 10 years ago at the cusp of our city's cocktail revolution. At the time, margaritas were often created with sweet and sour mix, but the modern Mexican restaurant has been at the forefront of cocktail trends from the beginning — particularly when it comes to agave spirits such as tequila and mezcal, its smoky, trendy cousin.

Listen to general manager Josh Prewitt talk, and it's clear why: La Condesa's bar staff is passionate about the spirits that are fermented and distilled from the prolific agave plant.

"Mezcal margaritas are a big trend now because people like to taste the agave, but they are branching out from tequila," Prewitt said. "For me, tasting the agave is super important."

In addition to tequila, the sturdy, wooden bar at the restaurant houses about 90 other agave spirit options, including raicilla, bacanora and lechuguilla. The spirit sotol is available, too, although it's not derived from agave at all.

We know, that's a lot of names to throw around. Knowing more about these complex spirits just might give you a deeper appreciation for the cocktail you order the most during happy hour. Soak up a crash course in tequila, mezcal and the entire agave familia, courtesy of Prewitt and the restaurant's roughly once-a-month "Know Your Agave" class.

"Mezcal" is technically a word that encompasses all agave spirits in Mexico, including tequila. But we use that name to refer to the smoky stuff produced primarily in Oaxaca. The differences between that particular spirit, tequila, raicilla and bacanora derive from the type of agave harvested; how it's cooked and then distilled; and where in Mexico each spirit can be produced. Lechuguilla, a Chihuahuan liquor made from agave, isn't technically considered part of the family, since it's not grown in a Mexican state legally allowed to produce mezcal.

Raicilla comes from the state of Jalisco, just like tequila, but they are made with different types of agave. Far harder to find in the U.S., raicilla is roasted like mezcal, not steamed like tequila. The ancient liquor has a "funky-cheese-like quality" to it that is probably because of secondary fermentation, Prewitt said. It's the go-to choice if someone asks for weird, unexpected booze.

Bacanora is a palatable cross between tequila and mezcal. Though a type of mezcal from Sonora, in northwest Mexico, it's far less smoky, with a nice peppery backbone. Best of all, it's also very accessible price-wise.

Tequila and certain types of mezcal are best with margaritas. You can order a raicilla-based margarita if you want, but the rarity of this and other agave spirits beyond tequila means you should probably savor them neat. Plus, tequila's flavor profile is more cocktail-friendly, blending well with other ingredients. (Certain mezcal expressions, like Del Maguey Vida, have also been created specifically to pair in mixed drinks.)

Sotol tastes like "tumbleweed in a glass." But trust Prewitt; that's a good thing. The plant from which sotol is made, colloquially known as desert spoon, is prolific in both Mexico and Texas. Our own Hill Country is the site of a sotol distillery called Desert Door — and it makes a mean margarita.

Making lots of margaritas means lots and lots of limes. Citrus isn't just an essential ingredient in Mexican cuisine. Because lime juice figures so prominently in most of La Condesa's drinks, the bartenders juice the small green fruit about three times a week, with each juicing session yielding about 40 quarts.

With the zesty lime and sweet orange liqueur complementing the vegetal tequila, margaritas are multi-dimensional drinks that showcase the rustic character of the base spirit. La Condesa uses almost the same recipe for its mezcal margarita as the tequila-centric Margarita la Clásica, its house offering. Relying on the cocktail-friendly Del Maguey Vida, the mezcal version has proven popular.

Prewitt has noticed that La Condesa regulars dive into the rare bottles now, noting the wild differences between each one. But for many customers, curiosity begins with one particular drink.

"Everyone's initial introduction to tequila or agave spirits is through the margarita," he said. "They want to taste the spirit. They want to taste all the ingredients that create this balanced, harmonious thing. So for me, I've always talked about balance being the key. You want something that's not going to be too abrasive with your spirit. You can get that with the margarita if you make it with the right ingredients."