Everything you ever wanted to know about tequila

Tequila has been a hot commodity in the beverage world for the last few years. Even Justin Timberlake has gotten into the act. I fell in love with it a few years ago when my husband and I took our first trip to Mexico and the curator of the tequila factory museum all but dared me to try it. One sip of quality tequila was enough to open my eyes. And yet, many people I talk to cringe when I utter the word. They associate it with some crazy night in their youth when they picked up a bottle of yellowish liquid, killed the whole thing and woke up feeling like the proverbial worm at the bottom.

If this sounds familiar, I have something to share: you’re doing it wrong. How do I know? Because last week I attended Tequila Night at Tequilas restaurant and got schooled by Herradura’s Ruben Aceves, Siembra Azul’s David Suro-Pinera and Calle 23’s Sophie Decobecq, all experts in the field of tequila production.

Twenty years ago, most of the tequila on the US market was of the mixtos variety, meaning the agave-based alcohol was mixed with additives and coloring. Those additives are the reason for the nasty hangovers. What you want is 100% agave tequila, the purest of the pure, sweetest nectar of the agave plant. Under that umbrella exists a range of flavors, each depending on how the spirit is aged.

The flavors of tequila are endless due to myriad factors the first being the terroir, a French term referring to the individual characteristics of the microclimate in which a product is grown, aged and distilled. Though all tequila is produced in Mexico, the air, water and soil of a given region have a direct effect on the flora that thrives there. So, highland and lowland tequilas have different flavor profiles.

Tequila is made from the pina (or core) of the agave plant, which resembles an enormous pineapple, which takes seven years to reach maturity. It takes 12 lbs. of agave to make just one liter of tequila. The plant is hand-harvested by jimadores. The leaves are removed and the pinas are either cooked under pressure, or slow roasted in a cavernous oven for no less than 26 hours. Yeast is added to the resulting liquid, which is then placed in fermentation tanks for 45 days to allow the sugars to convert to alcohol. After the fermentation is complete, the spirit undergoes a double distillation and follows one of a few potential paths.

Blanco tequila (also known as plata or silver) is bottled immediately. Personally, this is what captured my taste buds in Mexico all those years ago. Many experts will tell you that blanco is only good for mixing, but I was happy to hear Mr. Suro-Pinera in his opinion, “Tequila doesn’t call for age.” I tend to agree. Even if you’re not into blanco, you have to appreciate it because a good blanco is the basis for good aged tequila.

Some tequila will be aged, traditionally in white oak barrels, which can be toasted to different degrees. Aging is actually new to the tequila process and began as an effort to compete with brown spirits like whiskey that were once more popular in Mexico. The amount of toasting a barrel undergoes depending on the manufacturer’s recipe, but directly impacts the flavor, giving it a smoky quality.

Aged tequila falls into three categories:

•Reposada tequila is aged for at least two months and is also suitable for mixed drinks.

•Anejo is aged between one to three years and has a complex flavor, ideal for sipping.

•Super or extra Anjeo is aged for 49 months. A whopping 50% of the alcohol originally placed in the barrel is lost to evaporation. This is known as the “angels’ share.” While I am traditionally a blanco girl, I had the pleasure of tasting Herradura’s super anejo tequila and it was quite a treat with notes of vanilla and dried fruit.

Whichever you choose, you’re sure to find the days of the harsh tequila sunrise have passed. I’d encourage you to attend one of Tequilas tasting events or conduct your own to determine which type you prefer, but be sure to start with a blanco as the flavors of reposada and anejo will typically overpower the subtlety of the former. Also, keep in mind that there are only about 100 distilleries involved in tequila production, so several brands of tequila are often offered by the same manufacturer, meaning you don’t have to spend all your pesos to get a quality beverage. All this talk of tequila has made me a bit thirsty, so I’m off to conduct a tasting of my own.

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