Tequila is perhaps the most maligned of spirits, whose reputation over the years has seen it associated with ending your evening in hospital, a police cell or a gutter. It’s true that there are plenty of tequilas on the market that leave a lot to be desired but it’s also true that there are plenty that are smooth, well balanced and a pleasure to sip.
For the past five years I have been hearing people say that tequila is going to be ‘the next big thing’ in terms of spirits category, but somehow it has never really made it. Certainly the selection on most back bars has grown, and there are more tequila-based cocktails on drinks lists, but from a consumer point of view it hasn’t taken off in the way that other spirits have. Maybe it’s a slow burner or maybe all those late night shots of Jose Cuervo have just put people off forever.
Why hasn’t tequila become more popular? It’s versatile, has character and there is enough variety in the category to satisfy most tastes. But after all this time hearing how tequila is going to catch on in the UK, all we have to show for it are few more Mexican(ish) restaurants and one less really good tequila bar (Green & Red sadly closed its doors last week).
Perhaps the fact that not all tequilas are created equal hasn’t helped either. For many people their first tequila experience could well have been a bad one; choosing to drink cheap tequila at the end of a night is unlikely to encourage someone to be open minded about tequila in the future!
You see from my point of view there are two kinds of tequila: GOOD tequila and BAD tequila.
A good tequila is one which is full of character and flavour; after all, its base ingredient is the slowly roasted, sugar rich, heart of the agave plant. It takes between 5 and 10 years for an agave to reach maturity and during that time it picks up rich mineral flavours from the soil, a honey sweetness and herbaceous vegetal character. Generally a well-made tequila is labelled ‘100% agave’ and as such preserves these qualities in its make up, to produce a smooth tasty spirit full of complexity and character.
A bad example is (in my book), likely to be a ‘mixto’ tequila. Mixtos are made using a combination of agave and other sugars (usually sugar cane); a practice that was first introduced in order to overcome a shortage of Blue Webber Agaves in the 1930’s. The resultant tequilas are blander with less of the vegetal, mineral and herbaceous qualities, which are indicative of 100% agave tequilas. They are also cheaper to produce and as such, more desirable for export into the USA. Due to its low price point mixto is generally most people’s first experience of tequila and as with any cheaply produced spirit, makes for a poor drinking experience.
To confuse matters further, there are also highland and lowland tequilas, where the agave is harvested from hill or valley and therefore tastes quite different due to variations in soil and climate. So you see tequila is a complex category, and perhaps this is the greatest barrier to its success.
Of course just being 100% agave tequila does not guarantee quality, but it is a good starting point, so if the label doesn’t clearly state ‘100% agave’, then it’s best to give it a miss. Agave is not an easy plant to use for the production of alcohol, it’s labour intensive to harvest, requires slow roasting and grinding before it can even be distilled and you end up with a relatively low yield at the end of all that work. But when done right, the tequilas produced can be a true pleasure to drink.
If I had a pound for every person I’ve heard say that they ‘can’t drink tequila; even the smell is enough to make me gag’, I’d certainly have enough money to go and buy a bottle of Partida Elegante! The fact that poor quality tequila has long been the choice for late night shots (after drinking a concoction of other drinks), means that generally it gets the blame for more hangovers than any other spirit. When I hear the words ‘I can’t drink tequila’ I view it as a challenge and 99% of the time when you present someone with good quality tequila, they are not only shocked at how enjoyable it is to drink, but also how different it tastes from the cheap stuff.
There are two things that I believe tequila should never be: harsh or bland! If it’s harsh then it has been poorly made and the chances are it’s being produced on an industrial scale without the care and attention this delicate spirit requires. If it’s bland then it may well be mixto tequila where the flavour of the agave has been diluted through the use of other sugars. If it is both harsh and bland, well you should probably walk away from the bar you’re in and find a better quality of drinking establishment to frequent!
As if things weren’t already complicated enough, there are not only two basic styles of tequila, mixto and 100% agave, but there are also several different ways to treat it once it has been distilled. You can bottle it right away and produce a blanco or plata tequila; these are clear spirits and when properly made are, to my mind, the purest expression of the agave spirit. They are sweet, smooth and rich with subtle fruit notes and spice; in other words damned tasty.
After blancos come aged tequilas; it can be hard to age tequila without totally overpowering the agave flavours, but it has been perfected by some. The first to try in terms of maturity should be the ‘reposados’, or tequilas that have been gently ‘rested’ in wooden barrels for between 2 and 12 months. These gently aged tequilas still retain the fresh and lively qualities associated with good blancos but have a little added depth and complexity from their brief time in the barrel.
Next most mature are anejo tequilas, which have been barrel-aged for between 1 and 3 years. As with all barrel-aged spirits, anejos have a more complex and rounded woody flavour and aroma. Lastly, there are extra anejo tequilas, although these are few and far between and can often be an acquired taste.
I’ll be writing more on these aged tequilas next month, so check back for part two.
As there is only so much I am willing to write about tequila in one sitting, I’ll finish by telling you about a few of our favourite blanco tequilas and hopefully give you a few ideas; if only to prove to you that the smell and taste of tequila need no longer make your stomach churn!
This is one of my altime favourite blanco tequilas and is a great one to show that tequila can be subtle, elegant and well balanced. The nose is soft with a gentle earthiness, hints of straw and iron and a mild sweetness. The mouth feel is rich and creamy, but with a hint of spice to it and a sweet vanilla note that balances the gentle vegetal bitterness that comes upfront. This is a truly well balanced tequila that is crying out to be mixed in a way that will let it shine as the star ingredient of a cocktail. Below is a drink that I created after learning that a dear friend had passed away and although the ingredients may look a little odd on paper, trust me they really work. This ones for you G!
60 ml Siete Leguas blanco
20 ml Jagermeister
15 ml Noilly Ambre
3 dashes Angostura bitters
1 lemon peel
twist the lemon peel over the mixing glass and drop in. Add the remaining ingredients and plenty of cubed or cracked ice before stirring. This one takes a good long stir before the dilution opens up the flavours so don’t be shy about keeping it in the mixing glass for a while. Strain into a chilled coupe and garnish with a lemon twist.
At 38% abv Olmeca Altos is the softest of the tequilas on our list and as such is a great tequila to introduce people into the category. The nose is light with a hint of citrus and some vegetal and mineral notes. At first sip it is light and almost watery, but then the flavour grows with a gentle sweetness that balances the slightly bitter and spicy flavour that comes through. The agave flavour is subtle and nicely balanced with the citrus and subtly smokey flavours that develop.
4 pineapple chunks (aprox 1 inch cubes)
50 ml Olmeca Altos Blanco tequila
20 ml lemon juice
10 ml Benedictine
2 dashes Fee Brothers Plum bitters (coming soon to the UK)
barspoon of grenadine
In a boston glass muddle the pineapple before adding all the remaining ingredients other than the grenadine. Add plenty of cubed or cracked ice and shake hard before straining into a chilled coupe. Drizzle the grenadine over the foam and stir gently to form a swirl.
Ocho tequila is unique in that they produce ‘vintage’ tequilas. Each year they select one field of ripe agaves and harvest the entire plot to produce their tequila. As each field is slightly different the results will be different every year. The tequila is produced to the same high standards but differences in soil, climate, altitude all effect the subtleties of the flavours. The aroma is full with rich earthy notes, dry woods and a hint of smoke. The flavour is robust and is a real celebration of the agave plant. The mouth feel is rich and oily, and there is a bitter but not unpleasant tang that runs throughout the roasted agave flavours, metallic and mineral notes and fresh grassy flavours that develop. This is a bold tequila that cries out to have complex flavours thrown at it in the mixing glass.
60 ml Ocho blanco tequila
20 ml Martini Rosato
5 ml Benedictine
5 ml Grenadine
2 dashes Angostura bitters
Add all ingredients to a mixing glass with plenty of cubed or cracked ice, and then stir until well chilled and diluted. Strain into a chilled glass and garnish with an orange twist.
Partida is a super premium blanco tequila but for your investment you are rewarded with a dry almost dusty aroma full of wood shavings and dry tobacco, there are also subtle hints of citrus and the vegetal note of agave. On first sipping you find a full flavoured tequila that slowly opens up to reveal its flavours one by one. There is a bitterness upfront that soon rounds off to reward you with a smooth creamy mouth feel with gentle sweetness, ripe vegetal agave flavours and a hint of smoke. The richness of this tequila made me think it deserves to be the dominant flavour in a cocktail so here’s a Mexican twist on a sazerac.
60 ml Partida blanco
10 ml Mezcal (please use a good one that doesn’t taste like chewing a bike tyre)
1 flat barspoon of light muscavado sugar
2 dashes Bokers bitters and 2 dashes Peychauds bitters
In a mixing glass add the sugar, bitters and a dash of water and stir to dissolve. Add remaining ingredients and plenty of cubed or cracked ice, then stir until well chilled and diluted. Prepare a frozen rocks glass by rinsing it with absinthe and twisting a large grapefruit peel over the top. Strain the drink into the prepared glass and place the grapefruit twist over the top not allowing it to enter the drink.
There are countless other good blanco tequilas out there and as with all well made spirits each has its own subtle characters that set them apart. Tequila deserves a lot more love than it gets so please don’t turn your nose up at the thought of Mexicos native spirit, give it a chance and when you find one you like you’ll see that there’s no need for any salt or lime!