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Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2011

BelAir Cantina's Tequila Society

Milwaukeeans gaining a new appreciation for an old favorite

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You wouldn't know it from the way it's typically consumed in America—either via fast, lime-chased shots or sugary margarita mixes—but tequila is a remarkably complex, versatile spirit, a drink that like brandy or wine can be made in a variety of colors, viscosities and flavor profiles. In her year as co-owner of BelAir Cantina (1935 N. Water St.), which stocks nearly 100 varieties of tequila, Leslie Montemurro learned to appreciate these complexities, but it wasn't until a trip to the Casa Herradura distillery just outside of Guadalajara, Mexico, earlier this year that she saw firsthand how tequila is made.

“I was surprised by what an extremely simple process it is,” Montemurro says. “Basically it's just cooking raw agave hearts, then letting them ferment. They stick it in a vat, add water, let it bubble, skim certain parts, and that's about it. There's natural yeast in tequila, so oftentimes they don't even have to add that.”

While at the Casa Herradura distillery, Montemurro and her business partner Kristyn St. Denis hand-selected a barrel of tequila to sell at BelAir, a double barrel reposado that had been aged for 11 months in an oak barrel, then an additional month in a second barrel.

“They presented us with three barrels to pick from, so we were able to unseal them, tap them, taste each one—it was almost as if you went to a winery,” Montemurro says. “Each barrel tastes completely unique, because of the oak barrel that they're aged in. That aging process also makes the tequila very smooth, and we picked out the one that was the smoothest. It tastes a bit of vanilla and black pepper, with a bit of white pepper spice and a little bit of cinnamon—all those flavors are picked up from the barrel, not from additives.”

The restaurant has created a unique system for selling its premium tequila. This month, it is launching its members-only Tequila Society. Priced at $150, membership includes one of 240 numbered bottles of BelAir's private-label double reposado tequila, which members (and their friends, if they decide to share) can drink off of at any visit to the restaurant, as well as a slew of bonus perks: half-off tequila flights, select $2 tacos at lunch, a T-shirt and attendance at a private Tequila Society launch party with tastings of the double reposado on Thursday, Sept. 29. It also includes attendance at one of the semi-regular tequila-tasting classes that the restaurant will be hosting soon. Each class will begin with a brief overview of the drink (including an explanation of different types of tequilas, such as añejos, blancos and reposados) and will feature a lecture from a different local tequila expert.

“We're trying to convey to people that tequila isn't a shot-only liquor, and customers seem really receptive to that message,” Montemurro says. “I've seen a change in our clientele already just in the year that we've been open. People sit at the bar and taste different tequilas as they talk to each other and to our bartenders about them. There's a big community that's very interested in tasting new things.”
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