Many American’s first experience with tequila is through over-sugary concoctions labeled as Margaritas or even worse, alcoholic induced shots with salt and lime. Basically tequila was used as a means to an end and no thought was given to the merits of the spirit. Fortunately this pattern is changing and tequila is in the mists of a growing renaissance as Americans are starting to share the same appreciation for the spirit that our southern neighbors have given it for centuries. Mixologists are substituting tequila in well know cocktails and creating Añejo Manhattans, or Bloody Marias, or teqilia based caipirinhas. Bars are stocking a broader array of brands - from higher quality white tequilas to more expensive aged varieties. But in our household, like many others, Tequila is served neat in a caballito or snifter, with just a splash of water. If it’s a quality product, it should be drunk casually, with the aromas, taste, and finish speaking for itself. And in fact, we have found many tequilas that are on par with our collection of single malt Scotch, single barrel Bourbons, and aged Rums.
Tequila is North America’s oldest distilled spirit and its lineage derives from an even older spirit – Mezcal – both made from the agave plant. In fact, some form of alcohol has been produced from agave juice for the past millennium. Like most spirits, there are strict regulations regarding the production of tequila. For instance, the spirit must be fermented and distilled with at least 51% agave juice and these are referred to as "mixtos". The remaining 49% must consist of natural sugars such as corn syrup, molasses, or cane juice. However, the higher end tequilas are produced from 100% Blue Agave – no sugar substitutes here.
Another regulation is that tequila can only be produced in the state of Jalisco and limited regions in the states of Guanajuato, Michoacán, Nayarit, and Tamaulipas – "The Tequila Region". It is in these regions were the agava plant thrives in the volcanic soil – yet there are differences within these regions. Plants grown in the highlands are fruitier than their lowland brethren because they receive more sunlight during the day. On the other hand, plants harvested from the lowlands tend to be earthier – sort of like the Old World-New World wine comparisons.
Finally, in order to be called tequila, the spirit must be double distilled and then diluted with water to between 35-55% alcohol by volume (abv) or 70-110 proof. Single distilled agave juice is simply a Mezcal - which includes one brand that contains a worm. It is a pop culture myth that tequilas contain worms.
Once the tequila has finished the distillation process, it can undergo five different levels of aging. If aged less than two months in either oak or stainless steel before bottling the tequila is referred to as Blanco – or on occasion Plata (silver). Some in this category, particularly the mixtos variety, are the cheap tequilas served in bland sugary cocktails or thoughtless shots. However, for more high-end tequila’s, Blancos are excellent indicators of a distiller’s craft – there is no oak or additives to camouflage defects in the product. Joven (Young) or Oro (Gold) is another category where the blanco tequila is blended with older tequilas or given an extra dose of caramel coloring – syrup – or oak extract to resemble in an aged product.
However, there are three other categories of truly aged tequilas. Reposado refers to tequilas that have “rested” from a minimum of two months to less than a year in oak barrels. The barrel must be made of oak – but there is no requirement like with bourbon - that the oak must be new. A much more practical decision. Because of the increased popularity of tequila, many people have tasted or at least are familiar with the next category: Añejo. To be included in this designation, the tequila must age at least one to three years in oak. Those that are aged more than three years are included in the newest category: Extra Añejo – established in 2006.
As with other wine, beer, and spirits, tequila is experiencing a renaissance with more brands available than any time in history – approximately 150 different distillers producing over nine hundred different brands. And many of these are high quality, 100% blue agava products. Alright. Some of these brands will be served at the 3rd Annual Spirits of Mexico Tasting Competition held September 10 & 11 2009 in San Diego California.
And on the 12th, these brands will be available for a public tasting; but what is the proper technique for tasting tequila? In general it is very similar to wine. Start with the lightest first – which means sampling each Blanco, then moving on to the Reposados and then the Añejos. For each tequila, follow the advice of Jaime Salas, National Tequila Ambassador for Tres Generaciones: "…First, 'observe' the color. Second, 'nose' or smell the aromas, and third 'taste' the flavors". At the nose determine if the tequila exudes agave notes or over-powering alcohol. If it’s the later, leave it alone. When tasting the tequila it should have a smooth taste, with some crispness, similar to a mildly acidic white wine. The agave flavor should be prevalent and for reposado or añejo versions – followed by oak flavors at the finish. Ever have tequila with those characteristics? You should. In the next few weeks leading up to this event we will be posting suggestions from industry professionals not only how the tequila’s will be judged but also more tasting suggestions. Salud.