Phoenix Tequila Festival Begins With Margarita Challenge, Ends In An Anejo Blur

The fourth annual Phoenix Tequila Festival at U.S. Airways Center brought shots upon shots of reposados, anejos and blancos to the Valley this past weekend for all of the tasting we could handle. In our circles at least, tequila has a bad reputation for mindless shots chased with lime and salt with little flavor disparity or appreciation to speak of. However, the festival, which featured tequilas made all over the U.S. and Mexico, proved to be a prime place to dive in head first to the tequila tasting world.

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Kicking off the day on Saturday, we hit up the Margarita Challenge. The competition featured seven local mixologists trying to wow the crowds and a panel of judges with their takes on the classic tequila-based cocktail. Armed with massive immersion blenders, infused spirits, fresh juices and herbs and unexpected liqueurs, the competitors whipped out sample after sample of their entries.

More simple examples included tamarind, basil ginger and watermelon, which had drinkable, but not necessarily groundbreaking flavors. Richie Moe of Citizen Public House, who was probably the most well known mixologist in the line-up, competed with a "black and blue" margarita, which combined reposado tequila, roughly chopped blueberries, (sulfuric...) black salt, blended limes, peppercorn and mate syrup and a few other fruit juices on top. While the consistency was perfectly pulpy for a blended drink thanks to the limes, the whole drink was very bitter with mild spicy undertones.

Our favorite of the seven margaritas came from Herb Box's Thea Sommers. Her Cactus Heat margarita, which is now available at the Scottsdale restaurant, combined pineapple and vanilla bean infused tequila with pineapple and lime juices, Tuaca, jalapeno slices and agave nectar with a cinnamon, cayenne and sugar rim. The result was a strong vanilla aroma, paired with a fruity and lightly spiced and spicy undertone with an impossibly smooth finish. This might be the closest thing we've ever drank to a holiday-spiced margarita and we highly recommend that you stop by Herb Box and try it out for yourself.

In the end, Richie Moe took top honors, with Modern Margarita's watermelon and honey margarita coming in second and Sommer's Cactus Heat only coming in third. Although we felt we should demand a re-sip, there was plenty more tequila to taste, both straight up and in cocktails so we moved onward.

As we said before, tequila tasting is a new art to us, but the tequila makers at many different booths from different distilleries were more than happy to school us on the agave-based liquor. One of the first samples we had was from Roger Clyne's Mexican Moonshine. Their anejo offering was smooth, with a distinct vanilla flavor from aging. The Mexican Moonshine anejo recently took the gold medal at the Spirits of Mexico tequila event, and it's easy to see why because it's so easy to drink straight-up.

Other stand out distilleries included Quinta de Gomez's chili-infused tequila concoction from their organic wares and Tequila Tierras' anejo and reposado made in Mexico from 100% agave. Overall, we learned that it's easier to distinguish complexity and flavor in the "rested" varieties, almost like whiskey, than the blanco tequilas, which vary in smoothness but not much else to our inexperienced tequila palates. We do have enough sense to stay away from Dulce's honey tequila, which was so sweet it would surely smack you with a hangover the next day, and kitschy Donkey Piss tequila, which is all gag, no substance.

Around 4:30 p.m., after hours of tasting margaritas and doing mini-shots of tequila, the crowd turned from connoisseurs to a bunch of borrachos. We aren't exaggerating when we say the hoards would randomly start screaming, clapping, cheering and whistling for little reason more than everyone else was doing it. The ten tasting tickets, which were only sometimes requested so you could surely sample more than ten on top of the complimentary Margarita Challenge samples, had done the crowd in. We were abruptly halted in the thoroughfares by couples who opted to make out with no provocation. All ending sloppiness aside, there was certainly a lot to learn and enjoy at this year's tequila festival.

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Heather Hoch is a music, food, and arts writer based in Tucson. She enjoys soup, scotch, Electric Light Orchestra, and walking her dog, Frodo.
Contact: Heather Hoch