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Gabriela's Restaurant Owner on a Mission to Bring Respect to Tequila

By Emily Frost | January 22, 2013 7:29am

UPPER WEST SIDE — An Upper West Side restaurateur is on a mission to revamp the way Americans, or at least those who visit his bar, think of tequila.

"It's the greatest spirit in the world," said Nat Milner, 44, owner of Gabriela's Restaurant and Tequila Bar on Columbus Avenue at West 94th Street.

Milner, a self-taught tequila expert, has 150 different varieties of the liquor on his menu — the largest collection on the Upper West Side, he claims.

"Tequila has had such an explosion," Milner said, though admitting that many New Yorkers aren't aware of the spirit's finer qualities.

His goal is to teach Americans that they've been imbibing a poor version of the liquor if they're drinking anything less than a tequila made with 100 percent blue agave.

Much of the tequila available in the U.S. is made with just 51 percent agave, the minimum amount to still be considered tequila, Milner said. This version, which is known as "mixto" in Mexico, flooded the American market in the 1920s.

It's only now that drinkers are becoming familiar with 100 percent agave tequila and are starting to see it as a more complex, sophisticated spirit to be savored much like a fine wine or a whiskey, Milner said.

Gabriela's bartenders, who are well-schooled in the ins-and-outs of tequila, can offer beginners a flight at the bar to get them started. But, for more fun and a more in-depth introduction, Milner plays off the concept of wine tasting classes by offering a one-of-a-kind tequila tasting event.

The restaurant has three private rooms where groups of friends, colleagues or even bridesmaids can have their own class taught by Milner. 

"'Mom's Night Out' is really big for all the class parents to get together," either for a tasting or just for margaritas, Milner said.

Michael Waterman, 36, an Upper West Side resident, thought the tasting class was ideal for diners out on a date.

"I think it would be great for a group of couples," said Waterman, 36, who said next time he'd bring his wife and others. "It's fun to have something that's 'dinner plus.'"

A party with top-shelf tequila, a private room, light appetizers and a tequila seminar costs about $75 a person, Milner said. Ordering full entrees would cost a bit more, he added.

Or, "we can keep it to just a simple flight and education for around $30 a person," Milner said, and then guests can add their own choices of appetizers or entrees if they wish.

Milner starts the tasting with fresh fruit margaritas so that the group can have something to sip while he shares the history of tequila. He teaches tasters to slowly warm up their mouth by first wetting just the tip of their tongue and then taking progressively larger sips, so that they can truly taste the tequila and not get overwhelmed by its alcohol content.

And he divulges the special technique for smelling tequila — the opposite of how you'd smell a wine. 

"Because the heavy alcohols come off the bottom, tilt the glass to get the light, fruity notes of the tequila," he said. "If you put your nose right into the glass, it just smells like alcohol."

Milner may also break out a kit that guides tasters through "The 50 Aromas of Tequila." Tasters smell the contents of a small bottle and have to guess the scent. They then waft the scent in front of the tequila to better understand the mix of aromas and tastes that contribute to a fine tequila. 

Tequila, Milner said, "deserves an equal space in the liquor cabinet."

An Insider's Guide to Tequila:

Tequila is made from an agave plant, which is grown for seven years before being harvested and used for its juice. The juice is then cooked, fermented and barreled to make tequila, Milner said.

Agave plants are harvested at two different altitudes: the highlands known for producing sweeter, fruitier tequilas — and the lowlands, which contribute to tequilas known for their earthiness. 

Like champagne, tequila has to come from specific regions in Mexico to be considered authentic tequila, and its production is heavily regulated by the government.

Milner said there are three main types of tequila to look for:

blanco tequila is one that is clear in color and has been aged for only about a month. This tequila "tends to be the most agave-forward," Milner said. With a blanco tequila from the lowlands, you will get a "yammy, earthy, not super sweet aroma," he said. A blanco would go nicely with a seafood ceviche, he said. Milner recommends Siete Legues Blanco.

♦ A reposado is a tequila that's been aged for at least two months but less than a year. Artisanal reposados are often aged in French oak barrels to give them an elevated taste. Reposados can be paired nicely with a mole enchilada, Milner said. Reposados tend to give off notes of honey, butter and caramel. One taster remarked that "this is almost akin to drinking a smooth bourbon." Milner recommends the restaurant's own brand, Gabriela's Reposado Single Barrel 536, by Casa Noble.

♦ The last type of tequila is called an añejo, a tequila that's aged for at least a year, but less than three years, in oak barrels. Añejos pair well with rich foods or with dessert, like chocolate cake. Milner recommends the Riazul Añejo. "It's something you'd never expect a tequila to taste like — like candy," he said.