Associated with cheap margaritas and closing time shots, even the word ‘Tequila’ causes shivers down the spine of those who have been bitten in the past. For the longest time, I never even considered Tequila a sophisticated beverage to be savoured due to its rather unsavoury reputation. Yet it has become apparent that my opinion was swayed by negative societal attitudes to this wonderful drink, fuelled in no small part by its popularity amongst legions of American college students hitting up Tijuana and Cancun.
It took an eye-opening bicycle journey down through the Caribbean coast of Mexico to make me realise that I had been blinkered for so long. The locals, upon hearing of our unique way of travel, would help us celebrate our journey and welcome us to their country by offering us little glasses of smoky Mezcals and earthy Tequilas. For me, it was an awakening. After years of drinking nice rums, it was time to broaden my horizons and find a new drink of choice! It has been a long time since I treated myself to a bottle of rum, but fine Tequilas are now regular additions to my liquor cabinet, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon!
Originating from the town that carries the same name, Tequila, this potent drink is made from the distinctive blue agave plants that grow in the rich red soils of the Mexican state of Jalisco and a small number of other states too. Mexican law states that to be sold as ‘Tequila’, the agave has been to be grown in one of these designated states. Certain quality standards have to be met, and the Mexican government treat Tequila as cultural property. There is even a regulatory body in Mexico called the CRT (Consejo Regulador del Tequila) that visits and inspects Tequila distilleries to ensure a quality product is being produced that meets the strict standards required. A good bottle of tequila will feature the letters CRT somewhere on its label. Cheap nasty Tequilas (Jose Cuervo!) will not feature this, their harsh taste necessitating the now traditional salt and lime accompaniments to disguise their flavour. Real Mexicans drink their Tequila neat, often with a little side of Sangrita – a non-alcoholic citrusy partner which compliments Tequila’s flavour profile. Also, look for the indication that it’s made from 100% Agave, rather than crappy ‘Mixto’ (Mixed) which has caused an ungodly number of hangovers over the years!
A skilled (not to mention hardworking) person known as a ‘Jimador’ harvests the agave plants after they mature. Agave plants grow slow, and maturation can take many years – Tequila is very time and labour intensive to produce as a result. The Jimador machetes their way through the spiky leaves revealing the dense core of the plant that resembles a pineapple. (It is even called ‘Pina’ in Spanish – which means pineapple.) They are then baked slowly in a special oven to release the sugars, before being ground and crushed under a stone wheel called a ‘tahona’ which releases the juice which goes into vats to ferment into a low-alcohol ‘wort’. The wort is then put through the legally mandated two distillations to produce clear (or silver/blanco) spirit. For many folks, this is enough and the Tequila is then bottled. For a more refined product, aging can occur in wooden barrels.
Unusually, many argue that tequila doesn’t benefit from long periods of aging like other spirits such as whiskey. A couple of months is all that’s required for Tequilas known as ‘Reposados’ (rested). Tequila aficionados often consider Reposados as the finest Tequilas. A period of more than year results in an aged Tequila, whereas Extra-Aged requires a number of years. For most however, this is considered excessive and unnecessary.
Good tequila is earthy and complex, yet light and arguably even refreshing. It has more depth than rum, and a crisp fragrance not found in whiskey. I like mine neat, or sometimes in a well-made Margarita. Do not even consider buying pre-mix which is loaded with sugar and chemicals and is absolute sacrilege. All you need to add ice to shaker followed by two parts good tequila, one part freshly-squeezed lime juice, and 1/2 part triple sec or Cointreau. Shake together and serve straight up, with a salt rimmed glass and a lime wheel as garnish – perfect!