Tequila: a top-notch spirit in its own right. —INGRAIN, Winter/Spring 2020
STORY / Mike Smith
Ever heard of the Three Wise Men? I’m not going to lie. In college, I asked for the advice of Jim (Beam), Jack (Daniels), and José (Cuervo, the one I feared the most) far too often. But I’m back in the saddle during the golden years of the tequila boom.
There was a time when some people only saw tequila as the backbone of a margarita or as a cheap shot to throw back with a lime. It’s time to shine a light on this often disregarded spirit.
Tequila’s predecessor was one of North America’s first indigenous alcoholic beverages. The earliest versions likely evolved from a happy accident. When the sugary sap from a maguey plant (a member of the agave family) was left undisturbed, it would, under ideal conditions, naturally ferment. Boom! A basic alcoholic drink akin to beer was born: pulque.
Pulque remained a popular alcoholic drink until the Spanish began settling in Mexico with their drink of choice in tow. When the stores of imported brandy ran out (and no cultivated grapes were to be found in central Mexico), the settlers took a cue from locals and distilled agave sap. Those sixteenth-century mezcals would pave the way for tequilas.
The evolution of tequila would continue as the mezcal trade grew throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, largely due to the efforts of small distillers in a remote town in Jalisco called Tequila (named after a nearby volcano). Vino de mezcal de Tequila (the name given to mezcal produced near the city of Tequila) was first shipped outside of the region by José Antonio de Cuervo y Valdés and his business partner. Shortly after, King Fernand VI granted Cuervo a plot of land on which to grow and harvest agave for distillation. In 1795, Jose Antonio’s descendant, Jose Maria Guadalupe Cuervo y Montana, received an official license from King Carlos IV of Spain to produce and distribute these early tequila-style spirits that could be made from various agave plants.
The Sauza family would soon open a competing distillery; Don Cenobio Sauza is largely credited for discovering that the blue agave plant has the best qualities for making tequila today (a designation that would eventually separate the spirit from traditional mezcal). By the 1850s, tequilas were being shipped to California, and later to other areas of the United States. In 1974, the Mexican government granted tequila its own distinction in the spirits category (a designation similar to scotch, which must be made under strict guidelines and produced in Scotland).
With tequila, the main ingredient is the first challenge. Unlike corn, wheat, rye, malted barley, and similar ingredients used to make base spirits, agave plants take as long as seven years to mature before they can be harvested. A specialized spade is used to cut away the tough, leathery leaves of the plant and reach the heart, or piña (so named because it resembles a giant pineapple weighing hundreds of pounds).
The piñas are slowly oven-roasted to break down the simple sugars in the sap and then shredded or mashed under a stone wheel called a tahona. The agave sap is then strained from the pulp and transferred to large wooden or stainless steel tanks where yeast is added to jump-start fermentation. Over the next few days, the sugary mixture converts into alcohol. After fermentation, the wort (the liquid that is the base for the distillation process) is then distilled two times. The final product is proofed down to a lower alcohol content to make blanco (white or silver), or unaged, tequila. Those tequilas that are aged (reposado, añejo, and extra añejo) are labeled according to the length of the aging period.
TEQUILA OR MEZCAL?* While all tequilas are technically mezcals, not all mezcals are tequilas. To qualify as tequila, the spirit must be made solely from the sap of blue agave (Agave tequilana) plants and produced in Jalisco and four other certified states.
To make mezcal, upwards of thirty varieties of agave (drought-tolerant succulents native to hot, arid regions of the Americas) may be used in the distilling process. Mezcal typically has a distinctly smoky flavor, as the heart is charred before extracting the sap.
Pulque is a frothy, milky, lower-alcohol drink made by fermenting, not distilling, the sap of maguey plants.
*DON'T FEAR THE WORM! For a long time, I avoided all tequilas because of that little invertebrate supposedly lying at the bottom of every bottle. Turns out the worm (a marketing gimmick) is in some mezcal, not tequila, bottles. It’s not even a worm but a moth larva that feeds on agave plants. When farmers find an infestation, it can be a warning sign that the plant may not be suitable for the distillation process. I’d drown those little buggers, too.
TYPES OF TEQUILA
The blue agave plant used to make tequila gives the base spirit
a distinct vegetal flavor (grain-based spirits like whiskey tend to be earthier and a little more complex even prior to aging). Like other aged spirits, the alcohol mellows as the tequila takes on
the distinct aromas and flavors of the barrel during the aging process.
But unlike bourbon or scotch, a tequila master distiller may use any oak barrels for the aging process: new or used, charred or neutral, washed or unwashed (whiskey barrels are common).
While this gives the distiller the flexibility to create a unique spirit, it can cause confusion for the consumer because the aged tequila is then bottled and labeled according to the length of time it was aged, not the type of barrel employed. Tasting is key to understanding the variety of offerings.
White or silver (sometimes called plata) “unaged” tequilas. The spirit is either bottled immediately after distillation or allowed to rest for up to two months in stainless steel tanks, which mellows the alcoholic bite and adds subtle character.
A newer, less common category of a blended blanco tequila. The best representations often use a blanco as the base spirit, which might be aged with an añejo to create a unique flavor profile. Less desirable examples are those in which a blanco is blended with dyes or other additives (both are permitted by the tequila regulatory commission).
Aged a minimum of two months or up to one year. Due to the longer aging period, a reposado will really begin to take on the aroma and flavor characteristics of the oak. It typically has subtle oaky, vanilla, and/or floral notes without the “green” taste of the freshly distilled agave.
Aged a minimum of one year or up to three years. An añejo exhibits the rich characteristics of the barrel due to longer aging. It is generally more akin to other good-quality, barrel-aged spirits like whiskey and rum.
The newest tequila category (established in 2006), aged a minimum of three years. An extra añejo is the bourbon of the tequila world. Expect a big mouthfeel and complex character with this straight-up sipper; many retail for more than $100.
Want some tequila recommendations? Check out Five to Try.