All About Agave

In New York City, it's New Year's Eve. In New Orleans, it's Mardi Gras.

In Tucson, Cinco de Mayo is the day when we let loose just a bit more than usual. But when the date falls on a weekday, it can put a kink in your party plans.

Cinco de Mayo is on a Monday this year, which for optimists means that the celebration can get started on the weekend. And Hotel Congress has the perfect kickoff event: the sixth annual Agave Fest.

The festival will take over the hotel's outdoor plaza and parking area on Friday night, turning it into a melting pot of agave fans who enjoy drinks made from the plant.

"It's the raw material that creates the closest thing to wine in the spirit world," said Aaron DeFeo, a former Hotel Congress bartender who is now the head mixologist at Casino del Sol. "It's a spirit that showcases true terroir just like grapes do."

In layman's terms, that means the Agave Fest will have lots and lots of tequila, as well as bacanora, mescal and sotol, the perfect beverages for a Cinco de Mayo weekend. It will also feature whatever concoctions some of Tucson's top drink slingers can come up with.

At the heart of the festival is a Best Cocktail competition that will feature 2013 winner Jon Herrera of Tavolino as well as challengers DeFeo, Allie Baron of La Cocina, Brian Eichhorst of Penca, Cameron Fisher of Hotel Congress, Ryan Sunderman of Scott & Co. and U.S. Bartending Guild members David Clark and Matt Talavera. The winner earns $500 as well as bragging rights.

The rules are simple: Come up with something that will wow the crowd, because admission to the event comes with 12 tasting tickets that can be used to sample the contestants' creations (as well as nearly 50 other agave-based drinks from distillers such as Clyne's Mexican Moonshine, Three Amigos, Cielo Rojo, Corralejo, Herradura and Don Julio).

Oh, and margaritas aren't allowed.

"That's too cliché," said Michelle Armstrong, marketing director for Hotel Congress. "We wanted to push people outside of their comfort zone, both the bartenders and guests. In the past we had been the host of the margarita championships, but we wanted to do something that was more focused on agave."

Voting will be done by attendees rather than a judging panel. You'll be given a ballot and asked to pick a favorite following a taste test, which mean for once you'll be encouraged to express your opinion after a night of drinking.

DeFeo, who took second place last year and who also helped create the Agave Fest, said the competition is a great way to get the bartending community excited about agave.

"This is the best opportunity they'll have to taste great agave spirits and cocktails without breaking the bank," he said. "The atmosphere is electric; it's really become one of the best parties in town. It's the perfect segue to Cinco de Mayo."

Tickets are $40 in advance and $45 at the door, and they include much more than the drink samples. The hotel's Cup Cafe is serving its chipotle beef, potato and roasted poblano tacos (each ticket gets you two of those), and a bottomless salsa bar will feature a variety of dips and sauces.

And DJ Dirty Verbs will be spinning tunes throughout the night, including during the El Tambo after-party.

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