Tequila. It’s one of these spirits that still contends with its image of frat-boy shooting, hangover-induced regret in the eyes of the broader drinking public, but for bartenders it was long ago incorporated into the mainstream. That said, its hipper sister spirit, mezcal, tends to get all the attention these days.
So, with world tequila day taking place on the 24th this month, here’s a tequila primer to refresh your knowledge.
It matters where the agave is grown
Unlike other spirits, or wine, which employ crops that grow back each year, the growing period for the blue agave — the only species of agave allowed in the production of tequila — takes anywhere from six years up to 10 or even 12 years.
There’s five areas from which tequila is allowed to be produced: in the state of Jalisco; in delineated areas of the neighbouring states on its border, Guanajuato, Michoacan, and Nayarit; and on the east coast of Mexico, in Tamaulipas.
But most of what we see in Australia is coming from Jalisco, and in particular from two regions in the Amatitan-Tequila valley: the highlands (Los Altos), and the lowlands, in the valley itself.
The blue agave is indigenous to the Tequila Valley but thanks to human cultivation also grows in the Highlands. And as with any great change in altitude, you’ll experience a completely different terroir, with consequences for the crop. But what do we mean by terroir?
Yes, terroir is a wine term. It’s an all-encompassing French term that describes the sense of place in the wine that is derived from the soil, the climate, the aspect upon which the vineyard sits, the slope of the vineyard, and the yeast culture of the place.
It’s also a term that applies to good tequila, because for tequila to be good — the really good stuff — the exact whereabouts of where the blue agave is grown is crucial to getting a good plant and, in the end, a good tequila.
Generally speaking, tequilas made from agaves grown in the lowlands, or in the Tequila Valley, will taste quite different — they will have a different flavour profile — from those that are made with agaves grown in the Highlands.
There are exceptions of course, but tequilas from the lowlands in the Tequila Valley tend to be more herbal and earthier in character, and those from the Highlands tend to possess sweeter, more floral characteristics.
The lowlands has a rich, volcanic soil and a warm climate (with hot days and warm nights); the Highlands is higher — at an altitude of some 2000m above sea level — and with that comes cooler temperatures in general and bigger swings between day and night temperatures. The soil is a red clay soil, so the agaves have to work harder to survive.
Much like in viticulture, too, there are areas of the Highlands which tend to produce agaves of a quality higher than other areas — this is the Golden Triangle.
The towns that constitute the Golden Triangle are Arandas, Atotonilco, and Jesus Maria.
The making of…
After the plants have grown, then comes the hard work of harvesting. That’s performed by jimadors, who harvest the heavy agave plants the way they have for centuries: by hand.
Next, the pines need to be crushed. This is how the sugars inside the agave pinas are extracted. Traditionally, the pinas were put into a pit and crushed with a large, heavy stone wheel, called a tahona, which releases the sugary sap inside the pina, otherwise known as aguamiel. Larger producers sometimes use a what is called a diffusor. A diffusor is a means of blasting the agaves — which have been shredded, with a hot, high pressure stream of water that strips the sugar from the fibres. Though this method is far more efficient, the more traditional (yet slower) tahona method allows for fewer bitter components to be removed from the fibres.
The aguamiel is added to big stainless steel or wooden vats, and yeast is introduced to get the ferment happening from either a proprietary strain, or from naturally occuring ‘wild’ yeasts in the distillery. A traditional fermentation with natural yeasts can take up to 12 days to complete. Once completed, the result is called mosto muerte and has a low percentage of alcohol (around 5-7 percent).
It’s then distilled. Tequila must undergo two distillations to be labelled as tequila. The first shot of distillation is called ordinario — and the second run doesn’t have any particular alcoholic strength that it must be distilled to. It’s only when bottled that the spirit must wigh in at somewhere between 35 percent and 55 percent alcohol to be labelled as tequila.
Once you have your spirit, the choice of whether to age or not to age becomes the question. Blanco tequila can be rested for up to two months. Reposado tequila is aged between 60 days and one year. Tequila aged longer than one and up to three years, in barrels no larger than 600 litres, is labelled as anejo; longer than that, in barrels smaller than 600 litres, are labelled as extra anejo.
7 bottles of agave good times
Jose Cuervo Reserva de la Familia Platino
Pouring a bright silver, there are lifted aromas of agave and light herbaceous and floral aromas on the nose. On the palate, there’s a balance of pepper and soft agave flavours present, leading to a smooth and mellow finish — perfect for sipping.
Olmeca Altos Plata
Made from 100% blue agave grown in the highlands of Tequila, it features herbal and cooked agave aromas, with citrus and a white pepper bite on the palate.
Milagro Select Barrel Reserve Silver Tequila
This is a crisp blanco tequila that is made from agaves roasted in clay ovens and triple distilled, with some ageing happening in French oak barrels.
William Grant & Sons
Patrón Silver Tequila
Patrón uses a blend of traditional and modern techniques to make this pioneering luxury tequila, one that’s perfect in your cocktails.
This iconic 100% agave tequila is rested in oak for 45 days, and has lifted aromas of fruit, cooked agave, oak and vanilla on the nose, which leads through to a slightly sweet, full-bodied palate
Espolon Anejo is finished in former bourbon barrels, after being aged for one year in new American oak barrels. On the palate, it is medium to full-bodied, and wonderfully balanced with a velvety texture in the mouth. There’s subtle notes of caramel, vanilla, dried fruits, and chocolate coming through.
Cenote is a 100% blue agave tequila with a complex flavour profile that balances fragrant cooked agave with delicate wood notes.