Making the spirit bright

Michael Sanchez, owner and manager at Maria's Mexican Restaurant in Ralston serves up a dessert margarita. The drink is one of several signature items Sanchez is installing at the restaurant, which has been a staple in downtown Ralston for nearly 40 years.

When it comes to tequila, just about everyone’s got a story.

The bane of undergraduates, the scourge of holiday parties, the very nectar of regret.

“Tequila’s got a reputation,” said Michael Sanchez, owner and manager at Maria’s Mexican Restaurant in Ralston. “There’s always that one night you had it and it’s never been the same.”

But Sanchez, in the nearly three years he’s been at the helm of the city’s renowned eatery, is doing a lot to reverse course on the esteem of Mexico’s most famed libation.

Simply enough, it starts with just putting the product out there, Sanchez said.

When he took over day-to-day operations at the restaurant named for his grandmother, Maria’s had four brands of tequila. Now, the bar features nearly 100 different labels.

He’s also undertaken an autodidactic education on the spirit.

“It’s a huge part of Mexican culture,” Sanchez said. “I’ve taken it upon myself to learn as much as I can about it. There’s a designation for a tequila aficionado much like a sommelier for wine and I’ve given some thought to going after that.”

Last month, Sanchez began imparting his knowledge with a new project at Maria’s — the restaurant’s first-ever tequila tasting.

The private event featured some general facts about how and where tequila is made, how it’s regulated and how it’s categorized.

“I don’t know if there’s a spirit more regulated than tequila,” he said. “It’s a pretty rigorous process.”

Sanchez dispelled a number of myths for those in attendance, including the age-old beliefs tequila contains a worm in the bottom of the bottle and salt and lime are necessary vehicles for the liquor. He explained much of what is believed about tequila actually adheres to mezcal, which is the more prominent drink choice in Mexico.

He also showed there’s more to the drink than just a shot or a margarita and said tequila is enjoying increased popularity, much like vodka did a decade ago.

“Tequila’s had a huge resurgence,” Sanchez said. “I’d even call it an emergence. You’re seeing more varieties, more brands. In large metro areas around the country, you’ll definitely see lots of different kinds and people are more knowledgeable about it.

“Ten years ago, you’d ask your server and they’d maybe know a brand name. Now, any server is probably going to be able to rattle off more than a dozen and what different cocktails can be made with tequila.”

The tequila larder at Maria’s now includes representatives from the main tequila classifications, including blanco, reposado, joven, anejo and extra anejo.

In addition to upping the selection at Maria’s, Sanchez has also been infusing tequila with 15 of his own special concoctions — using everything from oranges and cinnamon to jalapenos and marshmallow.

The results have been, well, spirited.

Sanchez said he and his bar staff are able to make a different margarita out of each tequila and, beyond margaritas, he’s also added different tequila cocktails to the mix, including the mangria — a mixture of margarita and sangria.

Using the marshmallow-infused tequila, Sanchez has also employed his mixological acumen to make a dessert margarita named “the S’more.”

“We’re definitely moving in a certain direction when it comes to tequila,” he said. “Options are great. Whereas before, you literally only had four to choose from, now you’ve got almost 100. I don’t know if we have the largest selection in the Omaha area, but we’re going for the best and the most creative.”

Sanchez is also hoping he can host more tequila tastings at the restaurant to further expand tequila’s reach and the palates of his diners.

He said he welcomes the opportunity to spread the word and hopes people might take him up on some of the lessons he’s working to teach.

“It’s a much more versatile liquor than people think,” he said. “It’s every bit as versatile as vodka in a cocktail and it won’t be long before tequila is perceived as every bit as good as vodka in a lot of drinks.”

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