Tequila has a personality of its own. It is a drink meant to be consumed with friends and good food. Perhaps because of its common man Mexicano heritage, Tequila resists being serious. Tequila is fun!
Tequila is the name of the town where production originally began, and it is also the name of the volcano overlooking that town. The official Mexican standard defines Tequila as the product of fermentation and distillation of the Agave juices obtained from pinas grown in the Tequila region. They allow for the addition of up to 49% sugar from sources other then the Agave plant. Alcohol content must be between 70 to 110 proof.
Tequila is made from the Agave Azul (Blue Agave), which thrives in the volcanic soil of Jalisco. It can be grown elsewhere in the defined region of Tequila, which lies in western Mexico. The very best Agave Azul comes from Los Altos. Mature plants range in size from 5-7 feet tall, 7-11 feet in diameter and weighing an average of 40-70 pounds. Each Agave plant needs 8-12 years to mature. By Mexican law, Tequila must be derived from at least 51% Agave Azul, but the finest Tequilas are made from 100% Agave. When ready, the mature agaves are harvested by skilled workers called Jimadores. These workers utilize a special cutting tool called a coa to remove the outer leaves, or pencas, from the Agave plants. The harvested plant resembles a giant pineapple or a piña. piñas, the heart of the agave, are used to produce all Tequila.
Although each distillery, or fábrica, uses slightly different cooking and cooling times, all Tequila is distilled in the same basic format. The piñas are trucked to each distillery, cut into smaller pieces, and then placed into ovens to begin the distillation process. The agave is cooked, or roasted, between 8-14 hours, then cooled for 12. After cooling, the plant is shredded, the fibers pressed, and the juice is mixed with water and placed in stainless steel fermenting vats. The extracted juice is now called aguamiel. Yeast is added at this stage and fermentation runs for 3-4 days at 90-100 degrees Fahrenheit. Tequila, like cognac, is distilled twice. The first distillation produces a clear liquid at 18- 19% alcohol. The second distillation produces a clear liquid around 55% alcohol. It should be noted that only the Corazon, or heart, of a distillation containing the best flavors and aromas are used to produce Tequila. The Cabeaz, the first portion of the distillate is usually discarded, and the Colas, or final portion, is recycled into another distillation. Water is added to the liquid of the second distillation to bring the alcohol to 40%.
All fábricas are issued a Norma Oficial Mexicana (NOM) by the government of Mexico to delineate which distillery made or bottled any Tequila. Since all distilleries produce multiple labels, the use of the NOM is important to the consumer that may like a particular house style. The NOM for each fábrica doesn’t change from label to label.
There are two types of tequila: those made from 100% Agave Azul, and those made from 51% Agave Azul. If certain tequila uses 100% Agave Azul it will say so on the label, 100% de Agave. If the label doesn’t say 100% Blue Agave, then the Tequila contains other sugars in the mix and is called mixto.
There are four tequila classifications based on the aging process:
- Blanco or Silver Tequila is not aged. It can be stored up to 60 days before bottling.
- Joven Abocado is Blanco Tequila with added coloring to appear aged. This is the ubiquitous Gold or Oro Tequila sold everywhere in the U.S. but rarely seen in Mexico.
- Reposado (or rested)Tequila must be aged between 2-11 months in wooden containers of any size.
- Anejo (or aged) Tequila is aged in used oak barrels for a minimum of one year.
- *Reserva Tequila, although not a category in itself, it is a special Añejo that certain distillers keep in oak casks for up to 8 years. Reserva enters the big leagues of liquor both in taste and in price.
These four classifications deal only with the aging of Tequila. They are not specific to the two types of tequila. In other words, Añejo Tequila could be made from 100% Blue Agave or it could be a mixto made from 51% Blue Agave. The term Añejo only guarantees that the Tequila was aged in oak barrels for at least a year. It does not address the percentage of Agave used in the Tequila production. At any given distillery, all four classifications of Tequila usually come from the same source. The Agaves for all Tequila are harvested, cooked, fermented, and distilled in the same way. The only difference between Blanco, Reposado, and Añejo is the amount and type of aging they receive. By taking the time to read the label, any consumer can easily make a choice of which tequila to purchase for any specific occasion.
In Mexico, Tequila shot with salt on one hand and a bite of lime is Hollywood stuff and few people drink it that way. To begin to truly appreciate all that fine Tequila has to offer, one has to approach this spirit as one does a fine wine. When you drink fine Tequila, take the time to look at the Tequila in your glass. The color and viscosity hint at what is to come. Put your nose above the rim of the glass and inhale. The wonderful complex aromas that come from distilled blue agave are one of the true pleasures unique to this fantastic product. Finally, sip the Tequila. Fine tequilas should be savored for all their rich, complex flavors. Slamming down Tequila shots just doesn’t allow for a full appreciation of those complexities. The following is a guide as to how tasting Tequila should be done.
- Attack: Put your nose into the glass. That initial hit is called the attack. The overall intensity goes from slight to wow!
- Color: Color is important because it is a great indicator of how the Tequila was made and aged.
- Aroma: Once again place your nose into the glass. You can begin to pick up all of the different aromas that good Tequila can give up.
- Sweetness: Taste the Tequila. Is the amount of sweetness low, medium or syrupy? This rating involves only the entry into the mouth before you swallow it.
- Flavor: Flavor is what you pick up in the mouth and immediately after swallowing in terms of the agave and other spices.
- Finish: A finish will go from bitter to long lasting pleasant flavors. The finish is evidence of a well-distilled, excellent product.
Content provided by Keith Cox, Martin Wine Cellar