A Taste of Tequila
Take the time to rediscover Mexico's legendary spirit
Tequila has a bit of an image problem. Mention it in a crowd and the general response is usually along the line of a collective groan followed by a spewing of stories that all start at a party in college and end in a passionate pas de deux with a toilet bowl. In the words of the classic bathroom wall graffiti adage: one tequila, two tequila, three tequila, floor…
But tequila is a much more serious spirit than its spring-break-folly reputation suggests, particularly in its country of origin. These days, at Mexico’s finer resorts and tippling establishments, you’ll find tequila served in signature stemmed glassware resembling stunted Champagne flutes, to be sipped and savoured in the manner of a fine Scotch.
And there’s nary a salt shaker or lime (or bare midriff) in sight.
As with Scotch, wine or any other spirit, the key to tequila appreciation is education — gaining a base of knowledge about what it is you’re drinking as well as how to evaluate the characteristics and tastes. Tequila is distilled from nectar extracted from the large pineapple-like heart (the piña) of the blue agave plant grown in a limited, specific region, encompassing the entire state of Jalisco and selected municipalities of the states of Guanajuato, Michoacán, Nayarit and Tamaulipas.
As a result of the Mexican government’s 1974 declaration that tequila have an appellation of origin, any spirit distilled from agave grown outside of this specific region cannot be called tequila, but rather, is known as mescal. In the same way that all Champagne is sparkling wine, but not all sparkling wine can be called Champagne, all tequila is, in essence, mescal, but not all mescal can be called tequila. To qualify as tequila, the spirit must also contain at least 51 percent blue agave. Top-notch tequilas are 100 percent distilled blue agave, while budget tequilas, known as “mixtos,” make up the difference by distilling cane sugar.
Tequila’s colour and flavour characteristics develop as a result of aging. Un-aged tequila, known as tequila blanco, will appear clear or slightly silver-toned, while barrel-aged tequilas take on varying shades of gold, amber and brown. Reposado tequilas are those varieties that have aged a minimum of 60 days (and a maximum of 12 months), while tequila añejo describes varieties that have been aged for at least one year in barrels with a maximum capacity of 600 litres.
Like their sommelier brethren in the wine industry, tequiliers encourage a pre-taste ritual that involves sniffing and swirling in order to evaluate each variety for legs and bouquet. For instance, blanco tequilas are characteristically sharper, with hints of green apples and other bright flavours, while aged tequilas evoke deeper flavours, with notes ranging from butter to burnt sugar. While blanco and reposado tequilas are often used as the basis for cocktails, añejo varieties, like their aged single-malt Scotch cousins, are served straight-up.
Touring the tequila-producing region has become a popular pastime for visitors to Puerto Vallarta, Guadalajara and other nearby destinations in southwestern Mexico. However, tequila has been embraced just as fervently in the restaurant-and-resortrich Mayan Riviera region on Mexico’s far southeastern tip. For locals there, tequila is a source of national pride, concurrent to a resurgence in interest in regional Mayan cuisine and the use of ancient ingredients such as achiote seeds. The upsurge in tequila is as much about appreciation as it is a desire to remake the image of the national drink. Conventional tastings will be all about the tequila, although unique twists do exist — the Tides Riviera Maya in Playa del Carmen, for one, offers pairings of tequila with an assortment of ceviche in its beachside lounge.
Those tasting events that choose to focus solely on tequila do understand the need to refresh the palate between sips, though at this level, the college-bar custom of lime and salt is derided as a flavour killer, rather than as an enhancement. The alternative is a savoury-sweet concoction called sangrita, a base of orange and tomato juices mixed with lime, grenadine and savoury elements such as Worcestershire, soy and hot pepper sauces.
However, as your tequila savvy grows, prepare to eschew even that as you develop an appreciation for the flavours and nuances of this traditionally misunderstood spirit and leave your shot-glassed, salt-licking college days behind.
Photo by Jared Sych