For most people the mere mention of Tequila stirs up strong emotions. Images come to mind of drunken party goers doing shots. I mean who hasn’t been to Mexico and taken a booze cruise? You also hear comments like “I end up naked if I drink Tequila”. Well, I am here to tell you that Tequila has a bad rep. There’s so much more to Tequila than margaritas. It is a sophisticated drink to be enjoyed like a fine whiskey.
The town of Tequila, located in the state of Jalisco, was the first to produce Tequila, thus, this fabulous elixir took on that same name. Tequila was founded in 1530 by the Ticuila Indian Tribe and Jose Cuervo was the first to export the liquor to the U.S. in 1873. Tequila can only be made from 100% blue agave and produced only in 5 states in Mexico – Jalisco, Michoacán, Gunanjuato, Nayarit, and Tamaulipas. 90% of Tequila, however, is produced in Jalisco.
What is the difference? Since Mezcals are any agave based liquor, technically all Tequilas are Mezcals, but not all Mezcals are Tequilas. What? It’s sort of like that rule in Geometry that all squares are rectangles, but not all rectangles are squares. Confused yet?
The agave plant is a spiky leafed member of the lily family that is related to the century plant. Tequila can ONLY be produced from 100% blue agave in one of the 5 above mentioned states. Mezcal is made from the fermented juice of ANY agave plant and can be made throughout Mexico. They are both harvested the same way by a “jimador” using a sharp instrument called a coa. When the plant is mature enough, the leaves are stripped away and the center of the plant called a piña is harvested. The piñas are cut into quarters and slowly baked in steam ovens called autoclaves for Tequila or baked in underground ovens heated with wood charcoal for Mezcal. This cooking process is what gives Mezcal its smoky taste, which isn’t for everyone, myself included. It takes 12-15 pounds of agave to make a 1 liter bottle.
There are 3 main types of Tequila: Silver or Blanco (White), Reposado, and Anejo. All Tequila distillers follow the same process, but not the same recipe. So this affects the taste from one brand to the other. Silver Tequila is agave in its purest form. It is typically unaged and can be bottled right after distilling or aged in steel tanks for up to 2 months for a smoother taste. This type is good for mixing and blends well into fruit based drinks. Reposado, which means rested, is aged in toasted and charred White American Oak barrels for 2 – 11 months. It gets its golden hue from the barrel and takes on a vanilla, cinnamon, or pepper taste from the oak. Añejo, which literally means aged, spends anywhere from 1 – 3 years barreled and darkens to an Amber hue. This causes the tequila to develop a smoother, richer, and more complex flavor. But what about the gold tequila I pay extra for in my Gran Gold Margarita? Skip it! It’s basically silver tequila with caramel color.
Terroir and Taste
Just like wine, the soil, climate, and conditions in which the agave plant is grown affects the taste. Agave grown in the highlands with its red clay soil and high elevation tend to be sweet and floral with notes of citrus. The lowlands, however, boast rich, volcanic soil and produce herbaceous, spicy tequilas. When tasting tequila, note the color (this tells about its character), aroma (a sneak peek at its taste), body (the flavor and how it feels), and the finish (the flavors that linger). Sip and enjoy!
No, we aren’t eating the tequila. NOM stands for Norma Oficial Mexicana or the Official Mexican Standard. This is the distillery number assigned by the government to identify and regulate where tequila is produced. Authentic tequila must have a NOM number located on either the front or back of the bottle. Why is this important to you? Well since many distilleries bottle tequila for different brands, if you have a favorite tequila, chances are you will like other tequilas with the same NOM number. For example, Herradura, which I like very much, has a NOM number of 1119. When I looked it up, I found that El Jimador also has the same NOM number and is less expensive. My favorite tequila is IZKALI Reposado imported locally in Stafford, Texas by Ignacio and Lydia Flores. Its NOM number is 1545, so I’ll be sure to check out other tequilas with the same number. Want to find to find the NOM number for your favorite tequila? Check out the NOM Database.
The best way to learn more about tequila and enjoy them for the flavor is to attend a tasting. I was fortunate enough to be part of the Tequila Appreciation Society’s exclusive Herradura Tequila tasting. It was a fantastic demonstration and educational experience. The Pastry War on 310 Main Street offers amazing tequila tasting classes with exotic accompaniments like Oaxacan Worm salt and orange slices or dried and spiced grasshoppers with pineapple dusted with Tajin. For unique house infused tequilas, I recommend a trip to El Big Bad at 419 Travis Street. If you’re on the north side of town, Yucatan Taco Stand in Market Street offers a great selection of Tequila Flights. Just remember the next time you hit the bar, avoid that house margarita, order your favorite cocktail made with tequila or just have some on the rocks to sip and savor!