To make a true tequila you first need to tramp out into the agave fields of Mexico and whack a ten-year-old plant with a long sharp stick.

That’s just one of the things Paul LoDuca (Vinci, Trattoria Parma) discovered when he set out to learn everything he could about tequila production for his new venture, Adobo Grill, his first Mexican restaurant after his previous successes with rustic Italian fare.

But once his crash course was completed, LoDuca saw his dream deferred. Though the restaurant opened last week, its hallmark–a premium tequila bar complete with sommelier–has been held up by city red tape.

In September LoDuca and Fernando Guzman, a five-year veteran sommelier at Vinci, traveled to Jalisco, the tequila capital of Mexico (and thus the world). Only Jalisco and four other Mexican states are legally allowed to cultivate Agave tequiliana weber azul, or blue agave, the plant from which tequila is made, and it grows best in the arid highlands of the Jalisco plateau. LoDuca and Guzman were there for the harvest of the massive plants, some of which grow as tall as seven feet and weigh as much as 300 pounds.

Back in the distilleries, they watched the fermentation process. The heavy pineapple-shaped agave hearts (or pi–as) are first steamed for 24 to 36 hours, a process that softens them up and heightens the sweetness of the albuminous juice inside. Then they’re shredded and ground to a pulp. The juice is extracted and mixed with yeast to trigger a strong and rapid two-and-a-half-day fermentation. This brew is then distilled twice to remove impurities. A clear tequila blanco results.

All of this was an education, but to LoDuca the most fascinating part was the aging process. To produce the finer amber-colored varieties, the tequila blanco is aged in oak casks for anywhere from two months to five years and, like wine or whiskey, develops distinct flavor subtleties along the way. “It’s amazing that all tequila starts off with the same blue agave juice,” he marvels. “Unlike wine, whose identity hinges on the variety of grape and the growing conditions, tequila’s variations all come during distillation and aging.”

LoDuca is confident that patrons at Adobo Grill will be equally fascinated, and willing to think of tequila as a sipping liquor rather than as a throat burner associated with blind drunkenness and painful hangovers. By Mexican law, tequila only needs to be 51 percent blue agave, and cheaper producers mix in other ingredients such as sugarcane juice to make up the difference. It’s these impure tequilas mixtos that have given the elixir such a bad name. The finest pure tequilas have rich, complex flavors to rival those of a good cognac or brandy, and tequila producers have long been trying to clean up their image. Premium tequilas are certified 100% agave azul by the Mexican government. The Jose Cuervo estate, for example, first introduced the “1800” series of superpremium tequilas in 1975. This year they’re producing just 200 barrels of a single-barrel “Millennium” tequila for distribution in the U.S. Each barrel is priced at $18,000.

LoDuca plans to go beyond simply carrying the refined varieties of premium tequila. The second floor of the restaurant is a bar serving only tequila, mescal, sangria, Mexican beers, and tequila-based cocktails such as the sombrero (tequila, kahlua, cream) and the Adobopolitan (tequila, Jamaica rum, Absolut Mandarin). And he’s hired Guzman as a tequila sommelier–the city’s first–to educate patrons in the finer points of Adobo’s extensive (75 and counting) list.

The list breaks out the three categories: blanco; represado, the “rested” light gold variety aged from two months to a year; and a–ejo, a deep amber liquor that’s aged from one to five years. “You won’t see any ‘gold’ varieties on the list,” says LoDuca. “They only meet the 51 percent minimum, and are actually colored to give the aging effect.” No salt or lime either–that’s a tradition that developed to mask the harsh taste of tequilas mixtos.

Guzman’s job is to circulate in the dining room, answering questions and offering advice on matching tequila varieties to food. Right now, however, he’s cooling his heels. Though Adobo opened as scheduled on the sixth, they opened without a liquor license. Despite the two licenses LoDuca already holds for Vinci and Trattoria Parma, the city required a criminal background check–as they do for any license applicant. But the officer assigned to the task retired several months ago, and LoDuca’s petition fell through the cracks. The day after opening he received notice from the Department of Revenue that his application had been extended for 30 days, pending receipt of the missing police department documents. But while it could take up to a month for them to finally open the bar, LoDuca says he’s received assurances that the situation will be resolved any day now.

In the meantime, the lack of a license doesn’t prevent them from cooking with liquor. Executive chef Scott Helm (Rhumba, Frontera Grill, Gordon) incorporates tequila into several dishes such as the ceviche de pescado, a lime-and-tequila-marinated fish with tomatoes, serrano chilies, and cilantro, served on homemade crackers. Other notable (though tequila-free) dishes include the chalupas surtidas, six little masa boats with three different fillings–one pair with guacamole, another with cumin-spiked black beans, and the last two with seasoned pork chorizo, all topped with a sprinkle of queso fresco. The ensalada de jicama is a refreshing palate cleanser–a lively mix of jicama strips, grapefruit and orange segments, and scattered black beans with a mild lime and chili vinaigrette. Main courses are vibrant regional specialties from Oaxaca, Puebla, and Veracruz such as the pato en mole pipian, half a roast duck topped with a pumpkin-seed mole and garnished with smashed sweet potatoes; trucha al vapor en hoja de maiz, trout steamed in corn husks with rice and chayote and served with guacamole; and the brocheta de cordornis asada, an interesting treatment of quail skewered by a piece of sugarcane and served in a huitlacoche (corn mushroom) crepe with corn pudding in an ancho salsa. Adobo Grill is at 1610 N. Wells; for more information call 312-266-7999.

The Dish

On the horizon: Debra Sharpe (Con Fusion, Feast) plans a February opening for Tanzy, another showcase for her global-eclectic cuisine, at 215 W. North. Michael Kornick (Marche, MK) is now the consulting chef at 9, a new high-end steak house at 440 W. Randolph from the owners of Drink, slated for a late February opening. Zealous, Michael Taus’s upscale Contemporary American restaurant, relocated this fall from Elmhurst to 419 W. Superior, where, after a few false alarms, it’s scheduled to open in late January. The South Loop restaurant scene continues to grow with the appearance of Chicago Firehouse Restaurant, serving classic American cuisine, at 1401 S. Michigan.

–Laura Levy Shatkin

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.