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'Tequila Librarian' Wants Drinkers to Savor, Not Shoot

By Mary Johnson | August 11, 2011 12:09pm
La Biblioteca de Tequila, at Third Avenue and East 40th Street, has a collection of 400 bottles of the Mexican spirit.
La Biblioteca de Tequila, at Third Avenue and East 40th Street, has a collection of 400 bottles of the Mexican spirit.
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MIDTOWN — Inside the year-old La Biblioteca de Tequila — Spanish for the tequila library — on Third Avenue and East 40th Street, the shelves are lined with 400 bottles of the Mexican spirit.

The store's resident expert is a 31-year-old ‘tequila librarian’ named Courtenay Greenleaf, who is trying to dispel the commonly held belief that tequila is only good for salt-and-lime-laced shots and margaritas.

In addition to tastings that she hosts at La Biblioteca, which is owned by Chef Richard Sandoval, Greenleaf has helped put together an upcoming tequila pairing dinner, which will match the flavors of five Mexican dishes with tequilas from a company called Riazul.

The dinner, which costs $75 per person, will be held on Wednesday, Aug. 17, at Pampano, another of Sandoval’s restaurants located on East 49th Street between Second and Third avenues.

Two chefs, one from Pampano and another from a Sandoval restaurant in Washington, D.C., will use ingredients like hibiscus sauce, fluke and guinea fowl to whip up five different dishes. Greenleaf will then match those flavors to different tequilas.

Some of the plates will come with a blended tequila cocktail, such as a margarita or a tequila mojito. Others will be paired with the tequila on its own, straight up.

The process is all about complementing flavors, she said.

When the chef presents her with a rich dish, like something with a mole sauce, she might pair it with a blanco tequila, which means a tequila that hasn’t been aged. The blanco can have light, citrus-like flavors that balance out rich foods.

Tequilas that have been aged a little longer, however, can almost be treated like a big, full-bodied red wine, Greenleaf added. Those go nicely with steak.

The dinners are all part of Greenleaf’s efforts to rid tequila of its reputation as a spirit better shot than sipped.

Tequila is surprisingly complex, she said, and Greenleaf is a self-taught expert. She’s been working with Sandoval for eight years as a server and a bartender. When Sandoval opened La Biblioteca last April, he asked her to become his resident tequila aficionado.

“I pretty much just put my head into the books and started tasting a lot,” she said.

Tequila is made from the blue agave plant. Some varieties are bottled right after the tequila is distilled. Others are aged up to several years in barrels, allowing them to absorb additional flavors from the wood. For instance, a French oak barrel can yield a vanilla flavor. And if the barrels have been slightly toasted, or burned, the tequila can take on a certain smokiness.

Greenleaf doesn’t drink her tequila out of shot glasses. Instead, she uses either brandy snifters or specialty glasses that resemble champagne flutes but are designed to bring out the unique flavors in the drink. 

Since La Biblioteca de Tequila opened, Greenleaf said many people have come in out of curiosity, even though they claim to hate tequila.

Greenleaf welcomes the challenge of converting skeptics. She quizzes them about what they like to drink and then creates a personalized tasting flight of three different kinds of tequila to see if anything strikes their fancy.  

Learning to savor the flavors of tequila takes time, Greenleaf said. But events like the dinner pairing on Wednesday help to spread the word that there’s more to tequila than forgotten evenings and hangovers.

The tequila pairing dinner will be held on Wednesday, Aug. 17. The cost is $75 per person.