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Aaron Nachlas is a former U.S. Coast Guard flight mechanic and self-taught spirits connoisseur who has made cocktails his passion. The Top Taco festival is this week, and he is coordinating the partner event, Agave Week, which runs from March 10-14. Nachlas helms the Top Tequila & Mezcal Competition and VIP Judging at the Ace Hotel March 10 and 12. Nachlas spoke to Gambit about Agave Week.

Gambit: How did you get interested in sprits and cocktails?

Nachlas: I spent 20 years with the Coast Guard working on helicopters as a flight mechanic. I’ve always liked mixing drinks, but just like everybody else, I only knew so much. A long time ago, I did a two-year culinary program, so I learned the basics of how to match flavors and taste and find balance. When I moved down here, I started going to Tales of the Cocktail and saw amazing things being done on the cocktail front.

G: What are some of the Agave Week highlights?

N: My highlight is going to be the tequila competition and the guided judging. We’re going to have an audience, and I’m going to teach some of the nuances in tasting and judging. We also have a big Lucha Libre event where we’re bringing in luchadores from Mexico and all over the world. We’ve got Trixie Minx performing on a night that we’ve called “Mezcalicious,” and we have some really high-end mezcals that people can taste. We’re doing some industry seminars as well. Brian Dias from NOLADrinks is moderating our industry panels, where we’ll be talking about sustainability, the state of the industry and economics in the tequila and agave worlds. We have a lot of great reps that are going to be bringing their products in to showcase the versatility of the spirit. For years, tequila was a shot with lime and you choked it down. Now it’s hitting this wonderful renaissance where people are starting to appreciate it for the spirit that it is.

G: What do you look for when judging an agave spirit?

N: First there’s the visual side, which is color and clarity. You swirl it around the glass and you’re looking to see how the liquid or the spirit comes down. That tells you whether it has retained the essential oils or if they added a lot of sugar to it. With smelling, you’re looking for what kind of scents come forward the most. With a blanco — a very young, un-aged spirit — you’re going to have a lot of crisp smells, while with something like an anejo — a darker tequila that’s been aged — you’re going to have a lot of the woody smells you might associate with bourbon or some darker spirits. With mezcal, that’s all about the smoke, so you’re looking for the ones that are smoky but not so much that it overpowers the fruitiness or the sweetness of the mezcal. For taste, you’re going to see if it’s something that’s really going to give a lot of bite, and is it going to linger in a positive way or a negative way? Is it overly sweet or less sweet? It depends on the expression you’re looking for at the time. With blancos, you might be looking for something crisper, with anejos you’re looking for something richer, and reposados are right in the middle. My favorite of late has been cristalino, which is aged, clear tequila — like an anejo, but it’s filtered so it’s clear. So you essentially have the crispness of a blanco with the richness of an anejo. It’s really good.