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Whether tequila sends your heart aflutter with delight or with post-traumatic stress, there’s no denying the importance of Mexico’s feted national spirit. Still nursing scars from your last tequila experience? Let’s look at why you should get back on the horse, and how you could possibly tame it.
''Translating to ‘rested,’ reposado tequila is lightly aged in oak barrels from two to 12 months, giving it a beautiful gold lustre. The oak dampens that silver tequila punch into more of a firm push, with vanilla, melon and soil tones coming through.''
In the Mexican state of Jalisco, an hour’s drive northwest of the capital Guadalajara, a small town of 40,000 unassumingly goes about its business. But driving in, visitors will notice something odd. Row upon row, field upon field, farm upon farm – spiky blue agave plants as far as the eye can see.
Visitors might note one other peculiarity about this town – its name. Tequila.
The birthplace of Mexico’s national drink, Tequila continues to be the epicentre of its namesake spirit’s production to this day. And while many a first year university student might curse both the place and the drink, the truth is that tequila can offer every bit as complex and rewarding an experience as whiskey or cognac, provided you show a little restraint.
From prickly plant to spiky spirit
When 16th-century Spanish conquistadors ran out of brandy in the hills of what is now central Mexico, they turned to the blue agave plant to fill their stomachs. Packed with natural sugars, the heart of the spiny plant made for the perfect base from which to extract and distil alcohol.
The process is relatively simple. An eight year old blue agave plant (a succulent – don’t let it hear you call it a cactus) is harvested, its spiky leaves cut off and discarded. The pineapple-shaped heart of the plant, called the piña, is then baked in an oven for three days, generating a sappy, sugar-laden liquid. The liquid is then fermented to produce alcohol, which is then concentrated and purified through distillation.
The result? That white or gold coloured liquid that, depending on your previous experience, could fill the heart with fear, delight or respect.
Not Mexican? Not tequila.
Just as Champagne should only be labelled as such when it’s bottled in its namesake region, so too is the correct use of the term “tequila” strictly enforced. Mexico takes it seriously, with the spirit only able to be produced legally in the state of Jalisco, as well as a handful of other specific spots in the states of Guanajuato, Michoacán, Nayarit, and Tamaulipas.
This designation of origin is recognised internationally too, with over 40 countries, including the US, the EU, Canada and Japan all enforcing Tequila labelling rules. For a few small pockets of Mexico to supply every single drop of tequila in the world is no mean feat, accomplished with a highly-tuned production machine. The town of Tequila is surrounded by no less than 340 million blue agave plants, each up to two metres tall and 4 metres in diameter.
Tequila is a type of mezcal, the name given to a spirit that is made from any old agave plant, and in any old region of Mexico.
One tequila, two tequila, three tequila…
Floor? Strap yourself in – to experience the full range of tequila styles, you’ll need to get to shot number four. Most styles will be available in either 100% agave of mixto forms, the latter being at least 51% agave, with other sugars making up the difference. Choose 100% agave tequila for the most authentic experience, and leave the mixtos for the margaritas.
- Silver/blanco/joven: The baby of the tequila family (joven being Spanish for “young”), silver is generally unaged, and offers the most prominent agave flavours. A punchy, fiery affair, this is the tequila you’ll be throwing your head back to (and quite possibly forwards, as well).
- Reposado: Translating to “rested”, reposado tequila is lightly aged in oak barrels from two to 12 months, giving it a beautiful gold lustre. The oak dampens that silver tequila punch into more of a firm push, with vanilla, melon and soil tones coming through.
- Añejo: Simply “old”, añejo is left in the barrel for 1-3 years. The original agave flavours are seriously fading at this point, replaced with a butterscotch smoothness.
- Extra añejo: A recently created category for the highest grade tequila, extra añejo must be aged in oak for a minimum of three years. If you enjoy an oaky taste, and want the smoothest tequila experience possible, extra añejo – ideally enjoyed from a snifter – is the way to go.
Sampling Jalisco’s finest
While the likes of Jose Cuervo, Patrón and 1800 Tequila have long cornered the international market, some of Jalisco’s lesser known producers can offer a far more dynamic tequila experience. Olmeca and Avion offer stunning examples of 100% blue agave tequila, with the latter recently voted the World’s Best Tasting Tequila at the prestigious World Spirits Competition, while none other than Aussie power couple Jennifer Hawkins and Jake Wall have their own Jalisco brand, Sesión, which is making serious waves in the industry.
- Is there a worm or scorpion in your bottle? That’s not tequila – that’s mezcal. The tequila regulatory council does not allow worms or scorpions to be included in genuine tequila.
- Only two countries on earth consume more than three shots of tequila per person per year – the US (12 shots) and, unsurprisingly, Mexico (21 shots).
- While tequila has traditionally been bottled at 38% ABV, it must be 40% ABV to be sold in the US.