Posted on November 22nd, 2011
If you have to begin Portland Cocktail Week somehow, this isn’t a bad way to go about doing it. At least, according to the notes that I’m looking back through now, from several thousand miles (and glugs of alcohol) away.
We’re well aware of the reams of electronic press that have now wound their way out into the atmosphere, as we recount our time in the foggy Pacific Northwest weeks after the fact, but, some things are slow sift in the blood. One of them is ‘where IS tequila valley, anyway?’.
But, first things first. Those warm nuts. I was seated, courtesy of my generous cocktail editor’s travel miles, on the wide cushy seat of my first-ever first-class cabin accomodations, listening to a businessman who was traveling on to Singapore inform me that, in said destination, it “wasn’t about the food I’m eating, it’s about the MEETING that I’m HAVING.” I stopped talking to him shortly thereafter. For me, it’s always about what I’m eating, hombre. And then the tiny warm white porcelain cup of mixed nuts arrived, and I was too lost in rapt contemplation of it and the fact that these things still happened on airplanes to even care about either of these things. And so my cocktail week notes began, with a hastily scribbled, but bolded and underlined exclamation in black pen: WARM NUTS!!
I will admit, dear reader, to having mixed, if not warm, feelings about attending. On the one hand, there was the unbridled enthusiasm that I had for a well-crafted drink and the company of one Lena Webb, and the novelty of air travel that included full meals and leg room. On the other, was the strange sensation of returning to the scene of a recent badly-ended long-term relationship, and the rabbit-hole quality of being a tourist in the city where it had all begun (and subsequently, stopped). The argument being, of course, that if things got too sticky, there would be a veritable ocean of libations on hand, proffered willingly by skilled artisans, to conquer the potential of self-schadenfreude.
Which is why waking up in a hotel room with a reproduction of Pablo Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ on the wall felt just about right.
Lena and I had survived our first evening of empty stomachs and cold drinks (as chronicled here), and one of us (hint: not me) had even mustered up the gumption to go and run in the hotel gym early in the morning. I blearily stared at the day’s schedule of events, and read the following: ‘Tequila Roadshow. Noon.’
Everyone, I know, has that one spirit that they had the ugly denouement with. The baby, you hurt so good but it is so over speech. Tequila and I had parted ways over a abandoned Nalgene bottle my freshman year of college midway through the ill-thought-out depths of an ‘around the world’ party. Mexico was where I had gotten off the bus, and I had never really returned any of tequila’s calls since then. I was hesitant to reach out. Had it been long enough? Had I forgotten details sufficiently? Can this metaphor get any more strained? We were going to find out.
Showered (the Westin has a particularly pushy sign in its showers, that both encourages and then disparages your use of the ‘heavenly’ dual showerhead, informing you that your pleasure is responsible for the death of millions of cute polar bears and baby seals but sure, linger on, you heartless shampoo-er) and dressed and stuffed with the bread pudding breakfast sandwich of my dreams, we wandered over to the Jupiter Hotel and tried to look casual about picking up press passes. Yes, we do this all the time. No, we are not high-fiving.
Then, it was back through a white-tented corridor whose air began to feel weighted with the perfume of a thousand open bottles of strong things, and on through a doorway into a warm room where the scents intensified and coalesced into one unmistakable fragrance: agave. Tequila. Lots and lots and lots of tequila.
Sparkling rows of petite glasses filled with tastings of the various (and numerous) offerings lined long white tables, catching the light. It is no great stretch to say that attending a professional bartender’s event as a member of the press is rather like finding one’s plump pigeon self set down amongst a clatter of baton-lele equipped peacocks, each more artfully disheveled, more tattooed, more tightly jacketed in denim than the last. I was wearing a puffy vest and Dansko clogs. Give me the red pill, I thought. Or, at least, that ‘breakfast Paloma’ that everyone else is drinking. (It was delicious). I overheard someone behind me asking someone else ‘well, did you read my Yelp review?’. It was beginning.
Tequila, it turns out that we simply met at the wrong time in our lives. I was too young. You weren’t prepared to give me the best of yourself. Mistakes were made. A plastic jug is not, by any stretch of the imagination, proper barware.
Because, as I learned, there is proper barware that will open tequila up to you in an evolving panoply of scents and textures. That there is a proper way to stand (turned slightly to the side, nose down in the glass) that will bring each note hidden in the liquid to your waiting nostrils, and let them linger there. That the proper glass inspires the taster to pause and savor, rather than bolt and regret. There should be ten different glasses for ten different tequilas. The moods are mysterious, and many. There is, somewhere in Mexico, a place called tequila valley. And, professionals will reach strange thesaurian heights trying to outdo one another with their tasting notes, until the great weight of them begins to verge dangerously close on verse:
Dirt, yeast, dill, and clay no
beaver, are you tasting
a pine and
I was awash, at the end of the eight-glass flight, in sensation. The burning deep in the throat. The hum of other people’s syllables. My own notes, growing ever more voluble, across the page of my notebook, with emphatic ‘ROASTED PINEAPPLE’ and ‘OLD MAN IN FUCK-ME BOOTS SMOKING A CIGAR’ keeping company with the names of each of my trembling bright glasses. There was jasmine and honeysuckle, caramel and caraway, and one that strangely tasted only of salted black licorice to my untutored palate. Tequila! I never knew.
Maybe Thomas, one of the presenters, all well-lit by this point in the seminar, simply said it best, when he threw an arm around one of his comrades and said, ‘The glass is different, the river is different, WE are different’. He was likely talking about terroir. But, tequila, I thought, he has the right of it. We are not who we were. There can only be now. And now, I am ready.