Do the worm?

Joel York

Photo By Steven Chea

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Joel York started working at Centro Cocina Mexicana (2730 J Street) when he was 21. Now, more than 12 years and many bottles of tequila later, he’s the bar manager and primary tequila buyer—and infuser—for the popular Midtown restaurant. Translated, that means he’s personally sampled all of the restaurant’s more than 200 types of tequila, and refers to himself as a “tequila snob.” York took a break from his bartending duties to discuss tequila worms, cocktail recipes and the right way to drink tequila.

So you started drinking tequila 12 years ago?

I started with Jose Cuervo and thought that was the only tequila. [Then], I started working here and realized there was a lot more. Now, I’m officially a tequila snob. There are certain things that I only use in margaritas. Certain ones I’ll only sip. Certain ones I’ll only shoot. You can’t shoot an expensive tequila. I’m not gonna shoot Jose Cuervo anymore. I still use Jose Cuervo for batch margaritas—I don’t see any problem with that. There’s a place for everything.

Why does tequila have a reputation of not being a “refined” drink?

Because of Jose Cuervo. Because of college-time [experiences], stuff like that. People buy that cheap stuff, and they have that bad experience. “Oh, I can’t drink tequila; I’m allergic to tequila,” is what they say, which is total BS. They just had a bad experience on it because they overdrank it. What people usually do is they shoot tequila. We try to show here that you don’t need to shoot tequila. Most of the tequilas [here] are sipping tequilas. You can taste them just like scotch or cognac.

Tequila is a lot like wine. Agave can only be grown in a small part of Mexico. … Aging processes are totally different: You’ve got silver, which is straight distilled; reposado, which is rested two to eight months normally; then you’ve got añejo, which is a year; and extra/muy añejo, which is like three to five years. And some, they take it up to 12 [years]. So you get different characteristics.

Do you have to drink it out of a proper glass?

Some people do, but I’m not that snobby. I’m still just for drinking it out of the shot glass. … A lot of people treat it as a cognac, they put it in a wine glass, they stir it. That’s the new thing now, putting everything in a wine glass, because you put more air into it, and air brings out the flavor and all. But to each his own. Some people like to sniff theirs. … I just like to drink it.

What’s with the worm?

The tequila worm: There are a lot of myths. One [explanation] is [it’s a marketing] gimmick. Another is [tequila makers] would throw it in there, and something like if the worm wiggled for a little while, it wasn’t high enough in alcohol content. So if you dropped it in and it died right away, [you’d know] OK, that’s 40 percent, 36 percent [alcohol content]. It needs to be something like 36 to 38. So that was their way instead of testing it.

Have you eaten the worm?

Yeah, I did. There was a bar in Fair Oaks that I used to [go to] in my drinking days. And they have one of those things where you eat the worm and you put your name on a wall in a plaque. It’s a mealworm. It’s high in protein.

I read that you infuse tequila?

Yeah, I do all the infused tequila [here]. I’ve been doing that for about 12 years. … When I started working with the ingredients, we had strawberry, pineapple, and pineapple-strawberry-kiwi. And that was it, just those three. [Now], on any given day, we have anywhere from 10 to 15 different infusions of tequilas back there. Right now, I have a pear and vanilla bean. … I’ve done pumpkin, cinnamon … corn and jalapeño … dragon fruit … pineapple-habanero …blueberry-mango … strawberry-rhubarb.

Any infusions with dangerous animals?

I’ve seen enough of those. … You know, [people say that] the viper helps with fertility. … I stay away from all that stuff.

What’s your favorite recipe for any drink with tequila?

I saw this on a show, Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations. The lead singer of Queens of the Stone Age, he has this drink [that] I love. It’s silver tequila, tonic, grapefruit juice and lime juice. They call it Corvette Summer. It’s named after a cheesy 1970s movie. I love that drink. I like that tart [flavor].

Do you drink tequila with lime and salt?

No. You can if you want, but typically, tequila is [paired with] sangrita. It’s basically orange juice, onion, ancho chili and salt. You blend that all together, and that’s it. You sip that, and it’s a palate cleanser in between [drinks]. Tequila shouldn’t taste bad. If you’re tasting bad tequila, then switch the tequila.

Your favorite tequila to drink straight up?

Right now, it’s hard [to choose a favorite]. I really like Tequila Ocho. I met the owner, a really cool guy who’s an ex-collegiate wrestler. Back in the day, we used to take shots behind the bar of Chinaco, [so I like that] just for memories or whatever.