Aspen Times Weekly Cover Story: Tequila! (And Jimmy’s!)

Stewart Oksenhorn
Aspen Times Weekly

2Mezcal or tequila?

and other related facts:

Mezcal versus tequila: Mezcal has historically referred to any spirit distilled from the Mexican agave plant (also known by its pre-Columbian name, the maguey). Tequila is more specific, made from the blue weber agave plant in select regions of Mexico.

The worm: The “worm” in some bottles of mezcal is actually the larva of a moth that infests the heart of the agave plant. Its purpose is not hallucinations, but sales — it was developed as a marketing gimmick in the 1950s.

Oaxacan saying: “Para todo mal, mezcal, y para todo bien también.” (“For all bad, mezcal, for all good as well.)

Jimador: A Mexican farmer who specializes in harvesting agave plants. The jimador’s primary tool is the coa, a long, flat-bladed knife.

Otra Palabra: Spanish for “the other word,” it is the signature agave-based cocktail at Jimmy’s. A take on the gin cocktail known the Last Word, the Otra Palabra contains Del Maguey Vida mezcal, Chartreuse, maraschino cherry liqueur, fresh lime juice and agave syrup. It’s served over BFICs — the off-color term Jimmy’s uses for very large ice cubes.

Richard Betts: The former star sommelier at the Little Nell got into the mezcal business in 2009 with Sombra, a single-estate brand that comes from the rural mountain village of San Luis del Rio.

Charanda, raicilla, bacanora: Spirits made from the Mexican agave plant but that for technical reasons cannot be exported as tequila or mezcal. A related spirit if sotol, made from the desert spoon plant. And then there is agava, made from South African blue agave plants.

Mescaline: A psychedelic substance that occurs naturally in certain Mexican cacti. It has no relation to mezcal — in fact, the agave plant, though it looks like a cactus (and looks a whole lot like a pineapple), is not a cactus, but closely related to the lily family.

Margarita: There are various versions of the origin of the margarita, a cocktail typically made of tequila, an orange-flavored liquor, and lime juice. Almost all versions include a Mexican bartender and a customer named Margaret or Marjorie, and is set in the 1940s. The December 1953 issue of Esquire magazine featured the margarita as its drink of the month.

“Margaritaville”: The song almost became an anthem for Elvis Presley, rather than Jimmy Buffett. Buffett wrote the song — about both taking responsibility for your romantic failures, and drowning them in alcohol — and intended to have Elvis record it. Presley, though, died, and Buffett released his version.

Añejo, reposado, blanco: Añejo refers to a tequila aged between one and three years in oak barrels. Reposado is a tequila aged between two months and a year. Blanco is unaged, or aged less than two months.

Stewart Oksenhorn The Aspen Times

Jimmy Yeager says that, despite the reputation earned among lovers by his Jimmy’s An American Restaurant & Bar, he is not in the mezcal business, that his love for mezcal is not his primary motivator.

“My energy for this business is my love for hospitality,” Yeager said. “There’s a necessity for social experience and I find a great joy in providing that. It’s the dining and bar experience, regardless of what people enjoy eating and drinking.”

But man, does mezcal — and its relative, tequila — help in providing that enjoyment. Yeager, who has clearly done his research (both bar-side and of the more academic kind) on distilled liquids made from the agave plant, shoots down the idea that the alcohol in mezcal has mood-lifting properties different from other spirits. “It’s a myth that tequila is only a stimulant and not a depressant,” Yeager said one afternoon in the dark-wood-filled dining room Jimmy’s, a couple hours before the nightly invasion of customers would arrive. “All ethanol — which is alcohol — is a depressant. Ethanol is ethanol, no two ways about it.”

(To define more terms: Mezcal has historically described all distilled spirits made from the Mexican agave plant. Tequila is more specific; it is made from the blue Weber agave plant, and only in certain regions of Mexico.)

But mezcal, like all spirits, is only part alcohol. An 80-proof mezcal comprises only 40 percent alcohol. And something about the other elements that make up mezcal — the acetone, methanol, fusel oils and water known collectively as the “volatile compounds” — do make it uncommonly uplifting. There’s a phenomenon to consuming alcohol that any drinker will relate to: In the earliest moments of drinking, alcohol acts as a stimulant. An hour or so and a few more rounds into the evening, alcohol’s status as a depressant makes itself known.

“But with agave-based spirits, and the complex sugar that gets produced, called inulin, the complexity allows tequila to remain a stimulant longer than most others,” the 52-year-old Yeager said. “Those other parts of tequila maintain that lively, fun buzz. One feels the stimulating effects longer. But it is, in the end, a depressant.”

Yeager — and his staff, who he is quick to share credit with on the establishment’s achievements — have made the most of that period of extra invigoration. In a town known for its bar and dining scene, Jimmy’s has, from its opening in 1997, taken a place near the center. The Open Table website recently ranked Jimmy’s among the country’s top 100 restaurant bars. Yeager takes special pride in this accolade, as the ranking was based on a sample of 5 million reviews. Last year, Food & Wine magazine ranked Jimmy’s as one of the 50 best bars in America and not surprisingly, the brief write-up focused on the extensive mezcal and tequila list. In 2006, USA Today listed Jimmy’s as one of the great places for “margaritas and more.”

Yeager himself puts his bar a little higher. Some 15 years ago, when mezcal was still shaking off its image as a cheap, slightly exotic and mysterious product, there were two places that took the stuff seriously: Jimmy’s and Tommy’s, a Mexican restaurant in San Francisco operated by Yeager’s friend Julio Bermejo. “At the time, when the press talked about tequila bars, they talked about Tommy’s and Jimmy’s. And a few others,” Yeager said.

In Yeager’s opinion, Jimmy’s gets the nod over Tommy’s: “I believe we have the finest list in the country. Because Tommy’s doesn’t hold a candle to my mezcal list. If I’m prideful of anything, it’s this.” Yeager pointed to a row of emerald-green bottles with eye-catching folk-art labels he had assembled on the bar — all single-village mezcals from Del Maguey, a company that taps into the methods of the indigenous Zapotec population to make its product. “It’s the single best collection of mezcal in the country.” (He concedes that Tommy’s has the better tequila list: “It’s the most esoteric collection in the world. Including Mexico.”)

But Bermejo has one distinction that Yeager cannot claim. Bermejo is the only person named as an official U.S. tequila ambassador by the Mexican state of Jalisco.

As a teenager in the suburbs of northern New Jersey, Yeager lied to his parents, telling them he had joined the football team, so he could work in restaurants. He worked at Mövenpick, which specialized in Swiss cuisine, and at a drive-in. In one place, he apprenticed in the kitchen during the day, and worked front of the house at night. “I loved being a kid in an adult world,” he said.

At Syracuse, he studied accounting, finance and behavioral psychology, figuring that hospitality was more about having fun than making a living. Directly out of college, he went for a year-long trip around the world, hitting 26 countries before he landed in California. He got married and worked four years in financial services: “The adult thing,” he explained. “But I got divorced and went right back into the bar business.”

Despite his interest in food and drink, Yeager, like everyone else in 1983, cared little about tequila. At that time, a prehistoric age for American culinary culture, Scotch was the only spirit considered high-grade, worthy of one’s attention and a few extra dollars. Yeager was tending bar at Stanley’s in the well-to-do Sherman Oaks neighborhood of Los Angeles, when a man named Bob Denton came in trying to interest Yeager in tequila.

“At the time there was no — zero — 100 percent agave, high-quality tequila in this country,” Yeager said. “I said, I’m not into that stuff. At the time I was more of a whiskey drinker.”

But Denton was on a mission; Yeager credits him with being the person responsible for bringing good tequila north of the border. He poured some Chinaco, a brand made only of blue agave — not like lower quality tequilas that can be as much as 49 percent corn — and Yeager was hooked. “It was so different than all the shitty tequila in the country,” Yeager said. “I said, ‘OK, I’ll buy it. This is a well-made spirit.’”

As it happens, just a week later, while working his other job on a ranch in Ventura County, Yeager met Bing Crosby’s son in the course of a horse-buying deal. At the Crosby house, Yeager spotted some Herradura, a high-end tequila favored by the Crosby family. Yeager bought some bottles for Stanley’s. Then he added El Tesoro, a brand whose roots go back to the early 1800s, to the list, and he was off and pouring. An economic depression in Mexico in 1986 caused a sharp decline in output, but when Yeager got to Aspen, in the early ‘90s, tequila was about to enter its expansion phase, thanks in good part to Patron, which promoted its product as a premium spirit without referring to it as tequila.

Yeager saw a crossroad as he was about to turn 30. “I was sure I didn’t want to stay in L.A. I didn’t want to go back East,” he said. “It was an early midlife crisis.”

In January 1991, he came to Aspen and didn’t leave. He gravitated toward jobs at both ends of the food chain — flipping burgers at the Sundeck on top of Aspen Mountain, and waiting tables at the private Caribou Club. By the summer of 1992, he had become the dining room manager at the Caribou and the following year he became a partner in the business. Under his guidance, the Caribou opened the Alley Café, a tiny, chic spot that stayed open around the clock.

In June of 1997, Yeager opened his namesake restaurant and despite titling it “an American Restaurant & Bar” — rather than, say, Jimmy’s Cantina — and serving steaks, crab cakes, trout and the like, the emphasis on tequila continued. Around the time he was launching a spacious, ambitious dining spot, he also began traveling to Mexico to investigate the production of tequila. In the spring of 1998, he visited remote Zapotec villages in southern Mexico with sommelier Steve Olson and Olson’s wife, Melissa, to participate in the making of artisanal mezcals. Yeager has since returned to Mexico every year or two, typically bringing a handful of Jimmy’s bartenders and managers to get involved with the tequila-making process. Yeager befriended the families that produced Siete Leguas and Tapatillo, and the owners of Herradura.

“I created these relationships in Mexico. That’s one of the things that brought national attention to me and the restaurant,” Yeager said. “At the time, nobody was going down there. There wasn’t a market; there was no interest. For me, it was a big advantage to understand the market, the different spirits.”

Ron Cooper based his Del Maguey label on the thinking of a winemaker. Driven by the concept of terroir, the idea that a particular spot of land lends distinctive characteristics to a bottle of booze, Del Maguey identified its different mezcals with individual villages — “which were totally unique,” Yeager said.

Jimmy’s stocked four of Del Maguey’s mezcals from the beginning. In February of 1998, Yeager got a call from Cooper, who wanted to know why Jimmy’s had sold more Del Maguey in eight months than anyone else had in more than two years.

“My response was that, other than drinking it myself, I found the people who drank European grappa, eau de vie and single-malt Scotches to be the natural client for the mezcals. Because of their earthy, smoky, unaged characteristics,” Yeager said.

That summer, Yeager helped spirits get the ultimate spotlight, introducing a premium cocktail component to the Grand Tasting Tent at the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen. “We taught people how to use premium ingredients in cocktails,” he said. “And at the same time, showed the world what good mezcal was.” Cooper and his Del Maguey mezcals have been a fixture at the Jimmy’s booth under the Grand Tasting Tent for 16 years.

Approximately 85 percent of Yeager’s personal drinking involves tequila and mezcal. (For the record: 50 percent mezcal, 35 percent tequila, 10 percent gin, five percent other.) He enjoys the tequila buzz, but focuses more on the taste.

“Intrinsically, agave has tremendous flavor,” he said. “Like wine, the flavor of the actual agave is influenced by the terroir. The top producers are tasked with bringing out these flavors inherent to the plant. That I find very attractive, very complex.”

Going further into the numbers, Yeager estimates that 90 percent of the mezcal he drinks is unaged; that is, relatively unaffected by the barrels that hold the liquid. “What I’m after is exploring what the agave itself has to offer,” he said.

Yeager often gives seminars on tequila, but his approach is not to be elitist or overly academic about the subject. “I often say, the only thing I like more than educating people on tequila and talking about it is drinking it,” he said. “The most fun seminar you can have is my seminar on tequila.”

Not everyone who drinks with Yeager ends up better for the experience. In the mid-‘00s, Yeager got a call from a man who sat on Mexico’s tequila regulation board. The man was on his way to New York, but wanted to stop for a day in Aspen to meet “this gringo named Jimmy.”

“There was a myth surrounding me that I drank Mexicans under the bar and sent them back home to Mexico,” Yeager said. “He wanted to drink with me. And I drank him under the table, just for fun.” (Yeager adds that he knows the episode that gave rise to the myth, but he doesn’t care to reveal the details. It does involve many shots of mezcal and a very drunk Mexican.)

Some would argue that the most fun you can have at Jimmy’s doesn’t have much to do with tequila. Late on Saturday nights, tequila drinking and even food service have been shoved aside by dancing. Yeager had had a fascination with Argentinean tango.

“I took a class, then two months later was in Buenos Aires,” he said. “In January of 2000, I invited some friends up, pushed the tables aside. It’s been a fun Saturday night for the last 13 years.”

In 2008, Yeager had a change in philosophy regarding tequila. By then he had observed that most every big city had a few bars that featured walls of tequila. “Which I found boring,” he said. So Jimmy’s pared its selection down from 140 tequilas and mezcals. “So we’re no longer the biggest. We’re down to the ones I really feel strongly about.” He then counted the agave spirits on Jimmy’s menu. There were 90 of them.