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Get to know tequila, Mexico’s famous and famously misunderstood spirit

The Takeout logo The Takeout 9/16/2020 Jacob Dean
a store shelf filled with wine glasses: Wall of different tequila bottles at Mister Tequila tasting gallery near Puerto Vallarta, Jalisco, Mexico © Photo: Holger Leue/Corbis (Getty Images) Wall of different tequila bottles at Mister Tequila tasting gallery near Puerto Vallarta, Jalisco, Mexico

Welcome to Gateways To Drinkery, where The Takeout offers an entry-level course on our favorite libations, and some suggestions on where to start drinking them.

Tequila

The lowdown: Ah, tequila. Few distilled spirits have the kind of mystique, or marketing, of Mexico’s most famous alcoholic export. For many people (and particularly former college students) tequila is the stuff of legend, an elixir seemingly designed for hard partying nights and the kind of hangovers that lead people to say that they’ve sworn off the juice entirely. But, for those who have set aside binge drinking (or, far more wisely, never picked up the habit to begin with), tequila is a remarkably nuanced spirit worthy of both slow sipping and incorporating into cocktails.

While Mexico is home to over two hundred types of agave plant, by law tequila can only be made from a single variety, the blue (azul) Agave Tequilana Weber, which you’ll see referred to as the Blue Weber Agave, Blue Agave, Agave Azul, or some other similar combination of those words. If you see advertising proudly proclaiming that a company’s tequila is exclusively made from Blue Weber agave, just know that there literally isn’t any other legal option.

Agave, which is known in the indigenous Central Mexican language of Nahuatl as metl and in Spanish as maguey, can become tequila through a few different processes. The most traditional method is to harvest the agave once it’s matured (which generally takes around 5-10 years) and then trim off the sharp outer leaves to reveal the large heart (or “piña”), which is then quartered and steamed in brick ovens for 24-48 hours. Once the piña is cooked it is then cooled, shredded, and pressed to extract its juices, and those juices (referred to as mosto or tepache) are fermented with yeast in copper pots. When the fermentation is completed the mosto is distilled twice to create the blanco variety (also sometimes called plata, or silver, tequila) and barrel aged to create reposado (which is aged for at least 60 days and up to one year), añejo (which is aged for at least 12 months), and extra añejo (which is aged for at least 3 years).

Advances in technology have changed how tequila is made, though. Instead of traditional ovens many distilleries now use an autoclave, a sort of enormous pressure cooker that dramatically reduces the amount of time necessary to cook the piñas. The cooked, shredded piñas then have their liquid extracted using a series of conveyor belts and presses called a roller mill. More recently, the largest distilleries have begun using a conveyor belt device called a diffuser, which, according to The Tequila Dictionary, doesn’t even require the agave to be cooked; instead it sprays the raw chopped agave with a solution that dissolves tough fibers and breaks them down into fermentable sugars.

According to spirits expert Eric Zandona, The Tequila Dictionary’s author, the use of diffusers is considered a bit of a dirty secret. While they’re much more efficient at extracting the fermentable sugars from agave (which makes it faster, cheaper, and easier to make tequila), they’re also believed to change the taste profile in undesirable ways, and to produce a less complex final product. “There’s no labeling requirement for any of this,” Zandona says. “Other than people taking tours and taking pictures of [the diffusers], or brands openly admitting they’re using them, there’s no way of identifying when a brand is using them.” If you’re curious to see what one looks like, the distillery Casa Sauza has pictures and descriptions on its website.

The taste: Tequila, in its most simple incarnation, is a clear, aromatic distilled spirit with a semi-sweet flavor that can be earthy and spicy, and tastes decidedly of agave. There are many factors that influence the taste of tequila, including the age at which the agave is harvested, how it’s cooked, whether additional sugars have been added, what kind of yeast is used, how it’s distilled, how much water is used to bring the spirit down to bottling proof, and so on.

While some blanco tequilas are rested before they’re sold, only reposado, añejo, and extra añejo tequilas are barrel aged, granting them flavors of oak, warm spices, and vanilla. For those tequilas both the type of barrel (which is typically ex-bourbon) and the length of time it spends aging in the barrel will strongly influence its flavor.

Possible gateway: The tequilas that people are most likely to encounter first are major brands like Jose Cuervo, Sauza, and Patrón, and there’s nothing wrong with that. What you should consider, though, is that mass-market “gold” (oro/joven) tequilas are fermented with added non-agave sugar, causing them to be referred to as mixto tequilas. These are mass market products that are considered to be low quality, and as such they aren’t meant to highlight the more subtle characteristics that distilled agave can offer. Above all, bear in mind that following a shot of tequila with a squeeze of lime and a lick of salt is not the best way to consume tequila. In fact, it’s really just a way of masking the tequila flavor, either because it’s low quality and doesn’t taste good, or because tequila just isn’t the right drink for your palate.

If you’re looking for a good, sippable blanco tequila, Zandona recommends Rejón Blanco Tequila, which he says offers “a fantastic example of a classic tequila profile,” with an extremely reasonable cost of around $25 a liter.

But, if you’re not quite ready to be drinking tequila neat (or you just love spicy margs), you still have plenty of options. Tequila Chamucos Diablo Blanco is 55% ABV and hefty enough to stand out in a mixed drink, while Tanteo’s line of naturally flavored tequilas offers prominent pepper flavors and aromas without the need for at-home infusion.

Next steps: Once you’ve cut your teeth on blancos, barrel aged tequilas are the next logical step. Gran Centenario Añejo is a great starting point: this buttery, approachable tequila has spent 16 months in American oak casks, giving it a spiced, almost bourbon-like quality that’s sure to be familiar to a lot of drinkers.

If you’re at the stage where you’re really ready to start experimenting, you have a lot of options. Look for smaller batch tequilas, and ask a bartender for guidance. Tequilas made in smaller volumes, for smaller companies, are likely to be a bit more expensive, but also potentially more idiosyncratic, with flavors and aromas that are particularly appealing to the distiller, as opposed to needing to meet the flavor profile demands of the brands that contract with them.

Also look for labels reading “100% agave,” “100% pure [puro] agave,” or similar language indicating purity, as this can help guard against mixto tequilas. These labels won’t help you avoid tequilas made with diffusers, though, because those spirits are still allowed to be labeled as “100% pure agave.” So if you really want to be sure, look for brands that highlight their use of traditional cooking methods.

Talk like an expert: While there are over 100 distilleries in Mexico, there are literally thousands of brands. This is because many tequila brands don’t actually make their own tequila, and instead just buy it wholesale. Thankfully, there’s a secret weapon that can help you keep track of where tequila is actually coming from: the NOM (Normas Oficiales Mexicanas).

NOMs for tequila are enforced by the Consejo Regulador del Tequila (Tequila Regulatory Council), and until recently identified which tequila was produced by which distillery, regardless of branding. Unfortunately, according to Eric Zandona, this has recently changed, and now “it’s possible a brand might be sourcing tequila from one, or two, or more distilleries, but have a contract with another to bottle it,” leading to the NOM being attached to the bottler, not the maker. Still, the NOM can provide at least some sense of where a tequila came from, even if its true origins are now somewhat obscured.

If you want to sound like an expert: “I always check Tequila Matchmaker if I want to know what the NOM is for a new bottle I’ve picked up.”


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