Candy is dandy, but tequila tastes like Mexico

I fell for tequila long before I ever traveled to Mexico. From what I remember — although tequila memories are always a bit blurry — I’ve never actually fallen because of tequila. That honor goes to the Mexican dark beer, Negra Modelo. Cerveza oscura — dark beer — was my drink of choice on the weekends in Ixtapa-Zihuatanejo after I started living and working in Mexico.

A story for another day. . .

When I was in high school and college my liquor was whiskey. It wasn’t until I graduated and started working that I tasted tequila. My best friend on my first job, as an internal auditor at the first “too big to fail bank” Continental Illinois National Bank and Trust Company in Chicago, was the oldest of five children of Mexican immigrants. Maria invited me to all the family’s gatherings.

Tequila was an important part of parties at their house, and the men — and Maria’s mother, sisters, and aunts – drank tequila shots to celebrate the new year, a birthday, a baptism, or just about any happy occasion and all the sad ones. Maria’s father, Rodolfo, taught me a rule of thumb for drinking tequila – one is never enough and three is too many.

When I started working in Mexico following that rule kept me safe.

I went to Mexico – and Argentina and Brazil – in 1997 as the project leader for J.P. Morgan’s Year 2000 (Y2K) project in Latin America. At that time, I was working for KPMG Consulting. Later I would go to work for J.P. Morgan directly in Latin America so I could stay on the project and in the region. I returned to the states at the end of 2001 after returning to BearingPoint, the successor firm of KPMG Consulting, once the Y2K project was completed.

During the early years of the project, 1997-1998, I worked primarily in Mexico. It was closer to New York, where the JP Morgan global team was based, and I preferred Mexico to Brazil or Argentina. Not that I didn’t like the other two countries. They have their charms, but Mexico was where I felt most comfortable.

I was the boss. As a woman, a foreign woman, you might think I had a hard time. Not at all. I could read and write Spanish fairly well when I arrived and worked hard to learn how to understand spoken Spanish and to speak as an educated professional during my time there.

My team, all men, were a big help in achieving that goal. The best way to learn a language, after loving with it, is to socialize using it.

The majority of the team came from the local KPMG offices and the rest from the local J.P. Morgan offices. There were a few women working with me in Argentina and Brazil, but in Mexico City it was all men. Management assigned primarily the younger professionals to help me with the tedious testing and documentation tasks needed to successfully complete the projects in each country before the start of the new millennium.

Fortunately, KPMG is KPMG all over the world. We worked hard and played harder. The Mexican professionals treated me like a queen. We celebrated a project milestone or just the end of a long week together and I never had to eat alone if I didn’t want to. I never felt alone or unsafe in Mexico City.

One of the restaurants we liked to go was Mezzanotte, in Polanco on Avenida Presidente Masaryk. It was great because they had excellent Italian food and then, later in the evening, it turned into a nightclub. If you stayed through dinner you could keep your table and we danced the nights away in between them.

I was first introduced to taking tequila “la bandera,” Mexican flag style at Mezzanotte. The waiter serves three shot glasses. One has tequila blanco, another has lime juice for the green of the flag and the third contains sangrita, a spicy tomato juice chaser for red. I don’t know if it’s traditional but the guys always made me shout “Viva Mexico!” when we drank “la Bandera.”

In short time I realized I really liked the taste of tequila. That can be a dangerous and expensive bow to the local culture, since I was never served less than a reposado, or aged 100% agave tequila. More often they ordered an añejo, the finest. I acquired a preference for Herradura añejo, which is wasted if not taken straight. But a lady, and the boss, should not routinely drink her staff of young men under the table via tequila shots. It’s both tacky and a career-limiting move.

Another restaurant, La Valentina in Polanco , was where the team introduced me to the Paloma. Take a tall glass, some ice, a generous helping of tequila and Squirt. The carbonation in the lemon-lime flavored Mexican version of Squirt — much more pungent than Squirt available in the United States — serves as an inebriation antidote. You can have the flavor of tequila, and much more of it than doing straight shots, and remain upright for much longer. This approach, too, has its limits but I thankfully never reached them in any unpleasant way.

Another place the guys took me was Plaza Garibaldi, the center of mariachi in Mexico City. The best cantina — and one a woman is allowed to enter — is Salón Tenampa. The only thing you drink there is tequila and only by the shot. All the better to get drunk enough to sing along. I’m still a big fan of mariachi.

“Volver, volver, volver a tus brazos otra vez. . .”

I didn’t go home to Chicago much during this period. The Christmas holiday is the one time I always went back to cold, snowy Chicago. After a while the city seemed so much less warm than Mexico. I always picked up a bottle of very good tequila — something different each time but always an añejo — for Christmas at Maria’s and shots with her father. Each year I also bought Cuervo’s annual Reserva de la Familia special edition tequila in a wooden box hand-painted by a Mexican artist. My favorite one is the first, 1997, by Artemio Rodriguez because it’s a typical Mexican drawing, white on blue.

There’s a bottle of Herradura añejo in my cabinet now. There’s also a bottle of Cuervo for margaritas and one of those long, tall, blue bottles containing Corralejo Reposado.

I have my tequila but I do miss Mexico mucho.

Francine McKenna is a freelance writer and independent journalist with a regular column at Forbes.com called “Accounting Watchdog.” You can follow her on Twitter at @retheauditors.

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