Most people have one of two reactions when they think about tequila. The first reaction is “You mean that delicious nectar that is grown and distilled in Mexico? Bring me a shot of it on the rocks, my good bartender!” The second reaction is a feeling of nausea, a tentative look towards the restroom, and blurry memories of a night on the town. The last thing you remember is someone shouting “Hey, let’s shoot some tequila!”
Tequila is the first distilled spirit on the North American continent, and we have the Spaniards to thank for that. When the conquistadors invaded Mexico in the 16th century, they had more pressing problems than making nice with the natives and establishing a place to stay: it is a long trip across the Atlantic, and they needed something to drink. The stuff the natives had, called pulque (the name the Spaniards gave it, roughly “spoiled wine”), tasted awful. The Spaniards applied some distilling techniques they used to create brandy and turned the stuff drinkable, developing what we roughly know as mescal.
Mescal is the broader liquor category that tequila falls into. Think sparkling wine and champagne. Tequila, however, has some pretty strict standards that must be adhered to before the liquid inside can be called tequila. First, the agave used to make the tequila must be the Weber’s blue agave, a plant that can get over 6 feet high. Since it was so big, tough, and covered in spikes, Aztecs would also use it as defenses around their smaller towns. Secondly, that plant must be grown in the Jalisco state in Western Mexico. Third, at least 51% of the liquor in the bottle has to come from the agave; the rest can be from other plants. The best tequilas are 100% blue agave, and most will announce that on the label. All of this is regulated and inspected by the Norma Oficial Mexicana (NOM), which controls whether or not the bottle you buy is full of tequila or mescal. If you do not see NOM on the label, usually with a number near it, you do not have real tequila. These are all standards that are enforced by international law.
And before we move along, let us address the worm. The worm is never, ever, ever in tequila. If you find a worm in your bottle, you have a mescal, and a poor one at that. Some distilleries will add the worm (a larval form of a moth), to the bottle as a gimmick, but generally it is a bad sign if it slips into your bottle unannounced. Fortunately, they do not drink much while they are in there, and if you choose to eat it, you add some protein to your diet.
Back to Weber’s blue agave. They are watched closely by jimadores, men who closely watch and trim the plant as it grows. If it flowers too soon, it will not grow large enough or develop enough sugars to ferment. Cutting off the larger parts, more dangerous leaves of the plant leaves you something called a pina, or head, which can weigh up to two hundred and forty pounds. Then they rough it up. They are roasted so the head softens up, then pressed and shredded to get out all of the agave juice, or aguamiel. The leftovers can be so tough they can be used in many other industrial products, including bricks. That juice is placed into either wood or stainless steel vats so it can go through fermentation. It will then be distilled a twice to make it into tequila. Some companies will distill it a third time, but most connoisseurs feel that it removes too much of the flavor that makes tequila unique. Once the tequila has been distilled, the distillery ages it to make a variety of types:
- Silver (blanco) – if it is aged at all, it is for two months in steel or neutral oak barrels. Typically, it is bottled right after distillation.
- Gold (oro) – sometimes known as joven (young), it is a blend of blanco and reposado tequilas.
- Rested (reposado) – aged a minimum of two months, a maximum of one year, in oak barrels.
- Aged (anejo) – aged a minimum of one year, but less than three years, in small oak barrels.
- Extra Aged (extra anejo) – aged a minimum of three years in oak barrels.
Most bars carry blanco, oro, and reposado for your drinking pleasure. The more aged the tequila, the more the agave taste becomes mellowed by the contact with the wood. You will only find anejo and up in better Mexican restaurants and tequilarias in general.
When you mention sipping tequila on the rocks, as I prefer to do, most people will make a horrible face and look at you oddly. Because we all know how to drink tequila: you lick your hand between the thumb and forefinger, put some salt on it, lick the salt, shoot the tequila, and slam a lime wedge (or a lemon wedge, depending on where you are from). Most of us, when we began drinking it, were trying to kill the awful taste of cheap tequila. But over the last few decades tequila has really matured. Brands like Patron, Cabo Wabo, 1800, Don Julio, and Jose Cuervo among many others have brought the reputation of tequila up from a hard party drink to a casual sipping drink. Other lesser known (and well rated) brands include el Espolon, Avion, Herradura, and Partida. Finding them in restaurants may be more difficult, but well worth the search. Many tequilas have also been experimenting with flavors, ranging from the fruity to the savory. Tequilas have more recently (starting around 2009) been found with infusions of coconut, pomegranate, jalapenos or coffee.
In honor of National Tequila Day, held every year on July 24th, here are a few non-margarita recipes for you to enjoy.
1.5 oz. silver tequila
.5 oz. orange juice
.5 oz. lemon juice
Dash (.25 oz.) of grenadine
Dash (.25 oz.) of orange liqueur
Combine the liquids into a shaker over ice. Shake vigorously, and pour into an old fashioned glass over ice. Use an orange slice to garnish.
The cocktail is named after the largest freshwater lake in Mexico, Lake Chapala. Not coincidentally, it is located in Jalisco.
1.5 oz. silver tequila
1 oz. coffee liqueur
Pour the tequila and the coffee liqueur into an ice filled glass and stir briefly.
Yes, it is a Black Russian with tequila instead of vodka. The flavors of the coffee liqueur (another product of Mexico) and tequila blend nicely, enhancing both of them.
If you are not a tequila drinker, you may want to give it another whirl. Tequila has come a long way, and with the number of fine tequila drinks and creative bartenders out there, you’ll find a cocktail you adore. You could also check out our Cinco de Mayo article for other tequila options. It is a tough liquor to make. This could be the day to give it a second chance. Salud!