06 October 2004

Proofed

Even at the risk of being punctual, we hustle down Clark Street at chilly sunset: 7pm's time for a reception at celebrity chef Rick Bayless' Topolobampo to promote a new "super premium" tequila, a highly distilled blue agave from Bacardi USA, called Corzo, a product that cost a reported million dollars to develop, and dubs itself "The Evolution of Tequila."

The bar fills quickly, whether from the weather, the promise of strong drinks, or dinner and a tequila presentation by chef-proprietor Bayless, one of Chicago's leading lights in the cookbook-and-foodie TV fame game. As servers swirl with trays of already-prepared salted margaritas, note-tasting, if not note-taking, starts right away over chips, smoky Frontera salsas and chunky guacamole. It's convivial: half a dozen friends have turned up, and we work to suss out the savor of the $50 tequila under the other ingredients. Even the vodka drinker in our midst is impressed. A couple of press kits are open on the counter, but no one's studying, only sipping. Still, the exacting process of the product's premise suits Bayless' philosophy of working with high quality, ideally organic ingredients. Where most tequila uses ten pounds of agave to make a liter of the clear stuff, Corzo uses only the "heart of hearts," with twenty-two pounds required to make the same amount. Factoids finished--as well as a couple or three drinks--the fifty are so guests are ushered into the next room to compare two varieties of the product, both of which, unusually, are distilled after aging.

The lights are low, the murmur convivial. Bayless, in signature chef's whites, unwinds several stories about his experience with agave in his many Mexican sojourns. The moment's warm, the most genial event I've been to in ages. Bayless is explaining the tallest stalk he ever saw in Mexico, towering more than ten feet above the agave plant on the ground.

Warmth of liquor, warmth of friends: hints of smoke and soap and other unlikely scents are exchanged, and one of our party describes the square, minimalist bottle, designed by fashionista Fabien Baron, as "80 proof Chanel No. 5." While we're considering the eau de agave, Bayless hesitates. A roomful of smiling faces looks up expectantly. "I'm sorry," he says. "I just can't do this." He hesitates again before exiting stage left. A Corzo representative steps in, describing the distillation process quickly and precisely.

Dinner's served in the main room. There's more whispering about the star chef's abrupt exodus, but one glimpse of the goodie bags on each seat shifts the chitchat: a signed copy of Bayless' 2000 hardcover "Mexico: One Plate at a Time" and a brick-heavy bottle of Corzo silver.

[from Newcity, 7 October 2004]