Ah, Agave!

Agave Fest, May 4, 2012

Tequila has a long history, going back to the age of the Aztecs, who used to make a similar beverage they called octli using the agave plant—long before the Spanish arrived in Mexico in 1521. The first official "tequila" was made near its namesake town (Santiago de Tequila) in Jalisco, Mexico, when the Spanish conquistadores ran out of their own brandy. Around 1600, Don Pedro Sánchez de Tagle started mass-producing tequila in Jalisco, and the product that's popular today was first shipped out of early-19th-century Guadalajara. Spain's King Carlos IV granted the Cuervo family the first license to make tequila commercially.

But too many people think Cuervo when they think tequila. Cuervo may be a popular tequila brand, but it's far from the only or the best agave-based liquor. And as Southern Arizonans, we should all know all about the best agave-based liquors—and what can be done with them.

Enter the Agave Fest, held at Hotel Congress, appropriately on the weekend of Cinco de Mayo. Some of our town's best bartenders will use some of the world's best agave-based liquors (more than 40 of them—tequilas plus other liquors made from the agave plant, like sotols and mescals) in an Iron Chef-style competition—while the audience gets to taste some of the stuff they're pouring.

There will be a "tequila tower"—a sort of mini-Mayan temple that Hotel Congress built—that the bartenders will ascend; in it, they'll be given certain ingredients (maybe simply pineapple juice and tequila, maybe some more difficult fixings) and challenged to transform them into a wonderful agave-based drink that will be tasted by judges.

"They'll be like bartender gods," said David Slutes, Hotel Congress's entertainment and booking director. "They climb into this tower and it's a really fun competition because if you're told you have to use pineapple or fried chicken—well, you have to do it. Margaritas are verboten."

Could you make something delicious out of sotol and cherry juice—or fried chicken? At the Agave Fest, you won't have to—but you might get a taste of something like that—and whatever the bartenders make, we promise it will be good.

We know that because the bartenders competing in the tequila tower—and serving guests—will be among the top members of our own town's chapter of the U.S. Bartenders' Guild. In fact, the Agave Fest is put on to benefit this very worthy cause: Funds from the fest will go toward the guild's Tucson's chapter, whose president is one of Arizona's best bartenders, Aaron DeFeo.

It just so happens that the Agave Fest is DeFeo's brainchild. A Tucson native, DeFeo used to mix magic at Club Congress and now does drinks for the Casino Del Sol Resort and Casino. He says the Tucson chapter of the U.S. Bartenders' Guild deserves way more coverage than it gets—and he's right. Where would Tucson be without this collection of amazing local drink mixologists? Where would bargoers go, and what on earth would they imbibe?

(Tucson drinkers, know this: The Tucson chapter of the U.S. Bartenders' Guild is your friend. Know it; use the talents of its members; give it money.)

And of course, if Tucson had an official city liquor, it would be tequila—so frankly, no Southern Arizonan should miss out on the Agave Fest. What could be better than helping fund a local group of those who serve us drinks—and drinking the finest agave-based liquors in the process?

"This event lets people feel a little less guilty about drinking tequila because they're not just drinking cheap shooters somewhere," DeFeo said. "Tequila is my favorite spirit, so I wanted to expose people to something better than they're used to. Tucson should be a hub for tequila, but it wasn't. Most people still think of José Cuervo when they think of tequila, and we want to change that. That's why we started this festival."

DeFeo invented the event four years ago, with the first fest attracting about 100 people. Last year, the festival drew 200 to 300 folks, and this year it's expected to bring 300 to 400.

"When I worked at Hotel Congress, I wanted to expose our clientele and staff to as many spirits as possible," DeFeo said. "The Agave Fest started off as a small idea and spiraled out of control."

Of course, the Agave Fest isn't all about liquor—you have to have food with your drink. So it will be paired with a mini-taco festival featuring six different types of tacos (three from Hotel Congress' Cup Café, three from Maynards) that the Tucson Weekly staff (including our restaurant-expert editor, Jimmy) actually tasted themselves and deemed the best to serve.

Carne asada with roasted cucumber and salsa fresca, anyone? (The hotel's Slutes proclaimed that particular taco "freaking delicious.")

Oh, and of course there will be music—appropriately headlined by the Latin Funk Project (which plays Latin music with some funk in it, obviously).

"I think this is probably the premier tequila Cinco de Mayo party in Southern Arizona," Slutes said. "It's a lot of fun on so many levels—great competition, great drinks, great food, great music. It's the perfect way to kick off the Cinco de Mayo weekend. Hey, Cinco de Mayo should be all weekend long."

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