Monday, June 4, 2012

Tequila beyond frozen margaritas & shots

updated 10/17

In the U.S. most people's images of Tequila have to do with drunken episodes or wicked hangovers caused by one too many fishbowl-sized margaritas or shots of Cuervo Gold accompanied by lime and salt at some bar. Alternatively, self-styled connoisseurs may have bought an ungodly expensive bottle of dark-colored Añejo in a fancy handblown bottle at the duty free. None of these experiences have much to do with real Tequila appreciation, and it's a shame, because this spirit at its best is one of the most compelling and complex in the entire world of distillates.

Tequila comes not from a cactus but from one particular species of agave, which like aloe vera is a plant in the lily family. The giant blue agave, agave azul, is the species used, and it takes 8-11 years for the plant to reach maturity - one key reason that good Tequila will never be cheap. As for the reason that cheap Tequila will never be good, it's very simple: any Tequila not labeled "100% blue agave" contains a large percentage of alcohol distilled from corn or other grains, along with caramel coloring and other additives. Such Tequilas, called mixtos, are the standard ingredient in margaritas and other mixed drinks, and their flavor and aftereffects have nothing to do with the real thing. Steer clear.

Genuine Tequila comes in 3 primary forms: blanco, which is unaged;  reposado, which has spent a few months in oak barrels, picking up a light straw color and some wood notes in the process; ejo, which spends from a year or two up to five years or more in special cases in oak, and which is intended to compete with brandies in both price and use. Invariably the more age (not to mention the fancier the bottle and/or larger the marketing budget) the more costly the Tequila. And while Tequila has been around since the Spanish introduced distillation in the 16th century, the first aged version offered commereically was only introduced in 1989.

Now one thing that really sets Tequila apart from other distillates is that mature, freshly-fermented and distilled agave juice has a great deal of inherent flavor. This is not true of grain distillates like Scotch or Bourbon, nor grape products like Cognac or Armagnac, all of which depend on lengthy exposure to wood for their primary flavors and are not something you'd want to taste out of the still.

With Tequila maximum flavor complexity and taste of place (terroir) are found in the blancos. Aging in wood makes for a bit less fire, but it also muddles (in reposado) or masks (in añejos) many of the inherent flavors and even more of the aroma of the agave. As with any generalization there are exceptions, and the really great producers (about which more in a minute) have a light touch with the wood and preserve a remarkable degree of agave character in their older products. Still, it is very much worth knowing that the clearest flavors and most complexity are found in the pure unaged spirit. In short, that which many think is only fit for mixing is arguably the only Tequila fit for drinking - and the more you pay, the less you get!

In Mexico the traditional lengthy midday meal called comida, at least on a Sunday when people aren't working, often starts with a few sips of Tequila to accompany such antojitos as taquitos, guacamole or quesadillas. Blanco and even some reposado Tequilas are very friendly to the flavors of authentic Mexican food, and they stand up to assertive flavors such as chile and lime surprisingly well. Blancos are best sipped from a straight-sided shot glass and served at cool room temperature (60 degrees F.), while aged Tequilas are best served in the specialized glass made for them by Riedel or another tulip-shaped glass at around 65-70 degrees. During the warmer months here at Lake Chapala I'll often pour a shot of blanco into a small glass with an ice cube in it, agitate for about 10 seconds, then pour the Tequila into a proper shot glass. The difference in the aromatic and flavor balance vs. our ~75 degree room temperature is dramatic.

Margaritas are most people's idea of a Tequila experience, but sadly what's commonly served is far removed from the original recipes. A real margarita is served straight up in a small martini glass and is nearly as potent. It is a cocktail, not a long drink intended to wash down a meal.  It will contain only excellent blanco Tequila, real Cointreau orange liqueur, and the juice of the small, perfumed lime known in Mexico as a Mexican lime or limon but sold in the States as a Key lime, in roughly equal proportions. That mixture, with no sweet-and-sour, limeade or other additives, is to be shaken with crushed ice and strained into a salt rimmed glass. Needless to say, such a margarita is even harder to find in the U.S. than Mexican food a Mexican would recognize. Instead one usually gets a large dose of cheap mixto Tequila combined with sugary sweet-and-sour mix - a lethal combination that means a guaranteed hangover if consumed in quantity. The worst-case scenario is of course frozen margaritas: freezing anesthetizes the taste buds and inhibits the perception of sweetness, making it all-too-easy to ingest huge amounts of (untasted) sugar and alcohol.

In Mexico Tequila is almost invariably drunk straight, as a shot, with blancos and reposados being the most popular (and añejos an item to make money on by exporting it to gringos). The "big two" distillers, Cuervo and Sauza, produce a few high-end artisanal products as image-builders to compensate for the oceans of awful mixtos they make their living with, but as with most things vinous or spiritous smaller producers make the reference-standard products.

Even if you ultimately prefer reposados or añejos it's best to start your Tequila appreciation journey by tasting a range of blancos from top producers. That way, you experience first hand the astonishingly wide range of flavors of pure agave from different microclimates distilled in subtly different ways - a skill that will serve you well as wood flavors make their presence known.

There are two main areas where the best Tequilas are produced, so you have the broad brushstrokes of regional character and then the finer distinction of the individual house styles. The area in and around the town of Tequila proper tends to fuller-bodied spirits that are unctuous but not often perfumed or subtle. Much higher up, in the Los Altos area above Jalisco's capital city of Guadalajara, you have the highland Tequila flavor profile, which tends to be lighter bodied but more complex aromatically, and it is here that the lion's share of the best Tequilas are produced.

It's sometimes possible to buy miniatures of various Tequilas for tastings; otherwise one has to find a well-stocked bar.

Here's a concise list of top producers, as well as a few warnings on things to avoid. It's only a starting point and of course is just one knowledgeable taster's experience. As they say, "your mileage may vary."

A tasting of 4 of the very best blanco Tequilas
From Tequila and environs

Herradura: One of the pioneers, and, refreshingly, a large company with high standards. They produce two blancos: the 92 proof Mexican bottling with the blue label is only one worth drinking, in my opinion,  but it's harder to find in the U.S. than their export-oriented suave, which has seen a bit of wood as well as being watered down to 80 proof and is much the worse for it. A distinctive high-octane blanco with high-pitched aromas of ripe agave and cocoa. Highly respected in Mexico and my go-to Tequila from this area.

Los Abuelos (sold in the U.S. as Fortaleza): A micro-scale labor of love made exactly as Tequila was two centuries ago by 5th generation members of the Sauza family. Hard to find (their web site at has a list of retailers) but well worth the search. I've found a few bottles at Licores Paz in San Antonio Tlayacapan.

The aroma on opening the bottle is a precise duplication of the full range of freshly-roasted and pressed agave. In the glass, ideally poised between suave sweetness and macho power, with a complexity and depth I have not found in other Tequilas. The standard by which all others are measured. I tasted their reposado in the town of Tequila and thought it was the best of this style I'd tasted; my amigos on the Tequila forums report the añejo is just as good. Expensive but worth it. The blanco I bought most recently was 679 pesos - close to double the price of Centinela and Tapatio - but the quality is beyond compare. 

Casa Noble: A state-of-the-art producer that spends (and charges) too much for packaging but the quality of their products is indisputable. Famous for their spectaular and costly añejos but makes a very good blanco that has a pronounced agave aroma and very refined flavors. Recently certified organic.

The Highlands

Siete Leguas: A very traditional producer whose blanco is a more-than-worthy replacement for the now scandalously overpriced El Tesoro (see below). Just the right balance between fruity aromatics, minerality and fire but the quality is one notch below that of Centinela, Chamucos and El Tesoro/Tapatio.

El Tesoro: In my opinion and that of many others, the greatest of the Highland producers, and certainly the most traditional. They still use old stone mills called tahonas, ferment in old wooden tanks (only Los Abuelos follows suit), and are so fanatical they insist on rinsing out the bottles prior to filling them with the same Tequila they will be filled with rather than filtered water! Slate-y, citrusy and herbal/roasted green chile nose that is all agave with a flavor that is truly velvet in steel and plenty of heat.

Unfortunately in just the past couple of years El Tesoro has raised their selling price in México to nearly double what it was, meaning it can sometimes be found cheaper in the U.S.! Those living in México do have al alternative: buy the company's Tapatio brand,  which is a nearly identical product that costs only a bit more than half of what they now ask for El Tesoro. In the U.S. the El Tesoro blanco is sold as "Platinum."

Centinela: A complex and perfectly balanced blanco that deserves every one of the 95 points it receives on the useful review site. "Balanced" here means it's perfectly poised between the more macho style of El Tesoro and the too-soft but alluring sweetness of Don Julio. At around 300 pesos a bottle in México it's my go-to choice. 

1921: Too much money spent on the packaging and you pay for it, but the product is excellent, with pure ripe agave aroma, a delicate natural sweetness and some fire. Clearly an artisanal product, and for those with a sweet tooth they make a Tequila liqueur that gets raves.

Don Julio: Along with Herradura the most ubiquitous 100% agave Tequila in Mexico. Both companies are family firms now owned by megacorporations, and this fact doesn't endear them to the cognoscenti. Don Julio also has the perhaps dubious distinction of being the first to market aged Tequilas: they kept a barrel of the stuff in the office for years and in 1989 had the bright idea of marketing it as an upscale competitor to brandies and single malts.

Their blanco has one of the purest agave aromas to be found, and though it's a standard 80 proof product it tastes so sweet you'd think it was lower in alcohol than it is. Personally I find the sweetness a bit cloying and it's certainly not a complex Tequila, but it is very consistent and worth tasting.

New discovery: Tequila Chamucos Blanco: Tasted on a trip into Guadalajara to buy Los Abuelos at one of the two specialist stores there that carry it. This is kind of an oddball producer known for their fanciful graphics and excellent reposado but there is no doubt this is a world-class blanco, with great complexity and a perfect balance of agave sweetness and minerality. Its  flavor profile is a perfect midpoint between the gentle fruitiness of Chinaco and and the more macho Tapatio. Available in Mexico at La Playa and locally in the Lakeside area at Licores Paz and Vinos Americas for around 450 pesos. Limited U.S. availability.

Outside of Jalisco

Chinaco: from the state of Tamaulipas in Eastern Mexico this is a superb Tequila that's fairly easy to find Stateside but difficult in our area of Mexico. As with my other choices, complex and classic agave flavors abound, with a firm minerality that makes it close to El Tesoro in style. 

Tequilas to avoid

Cuervo and Sauza products are poor value-for-money across the board, though in a pinch Sauza Hornitos will do if margaritas rather than straight drinking are the order of the day. To be avoided at all costs is Patron, a pure marketing-driven brand invented by the Paul Mitchell hair salon folks. Their blanco is actually passable, but you can buy two bottles of far better stuff from El Tesoro and others for the price of one of theirs. Patron now has its own distillery, but it earned its reputation when it was produced by a far better, storied producer in the highlands called Siete Leguas, all of whose products are superb value-for-money, though none are among my absolute favorites.

There are a zillion other brands out there. Avoid any that don't clearly say "100% [Blue] Agave" and have their NOM (producer's ID) on the bottle. Rule out any that have gussied-up handblown bottles or other such silliness.

If this isn't info overload enough, you can learn much more by reading F. Paul Pacult's fine book Kindred Spirits or perusing his reviews on the Wine Enthusiast magazine site. The online spirits rating site is also useful. 

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