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E-pistle 2009/27 – It’s Summer And That Means Tequila!

E-pistle 2009/27 – It’s Summer And That Means Tequila!

By Noel Buckley, USA

Tequila is a spirit grown, distilled and (when high quality) bottled in Mexico.  While agave spirits come from many locations, Tequila itself comes from GI (Geographical Indication) regions and is restricted to being made in specific areas in Mexico from only one specific type of agave plant.  Wine and brandy drinkers are familiar with French AOC regions as this is the same for Champagne (sparkling wine made within the Champagne region of France) and Cognac (brandy made in a specific region as well). Most tequila spirit is distilled near the town of Tequila in the state of Jalisco in Mexico, though there are other counties specified in the GI in which blue agave can be distilled and bottled into Tequila.

Mezcal:

As a whole, distilled agave spirits are normally referred to as Mezcals and may be found in many different regions of Mexico from several different types of agave plants: tequila is a subset of the broader Mezcal category and must be made from the Tequilana weber blue agave plant (weber azul).

However, just as there are excellent whiskies from outside of Scotland, there are some AMAZING mezcals from outside the tequila GI regions, though they are often hard to find compared to good tequila.  Del Maguey mezcal products in general are of extremely good quality:  http://www.mezcal.com/.  Don’t miss the chance to pick one of these up if you see them in a US liquor store.  Some of them have fantastically smoky tastes while maintaining a certain sweetness as well.  Unfortunately, there are also many poor quality mezcals as production is somewhat less regulated than tequila.  And – avoid the worm (!) as it is strictly a marketing gimmick. OK – on to tequila!

Tequila Types:

The first and absolutely most important thing to know about tequila is that there are two general groups:

Mixto: this is tequila that is made from a mix of distilled agave juice and whatever else can be fermented and distilled.  By law it has to contain 51% fermented agave sugar, but the other 49% can be fermented from anything else (this is typically cane or corn sugar).  The different sugars have to be fermented together though, so this prohibits alcohol from being added to the tequila after distillation.  Many well known products such as Cuervo Especial (Gold) typify mixtos and are many people’s introduction to tequila: either in a margarita or in a shot glass with salt and a slice of lime.  Mixto is considered by default to be lower quality and the other congeners in the tequila (caramel colouring, glycerin, sugar syrup) are often contributors to many college hangovers.

100% Agave: like the name says, this is tequila made from only agave sugar and has to be bottled in Mexico.  This is where good tequila (and mezcal) starts.  As a tequila aficionado, it’s generally not worth considering a bottle if it doesn’t explicitly say 100% agave on it!

Tequila is further divided into five broad age classes – the first three classes are what most 100% agave tequila drinkers will find commonly available:

Plata or Blanco (commonly called white or silver) is typically clear and is taken straight from the still, diluted down to 40% ABV, and then bottled.  It may be slightly aged for up to 30 days in oak (or “rested” in stainless steel for up to 60 days) before being bottled, but the resting process is not required or considered to be “de facto”.  While essentially un-aged, many aficionados like the un-muted flavour of plata tequilas and some 100% agave ones are amazingly good and easily drinkable neat.

Reposado translates to rested or relaxed and among the age classifications is considered to be “middle aged tequila”: it is aged in oak for a period of between two and twelve months and hence picks up some of the wood influence in nose, taste and colour.  Reposados are very popular with 100% agave drinkers as they maintain some of the young tequila agave tastes, but the aging helps to smooth it out and imparts some of the wood flavour to the spirit; the large majority of tequila consumed in Mexico is Reposado.  Reposado tequila is often aged in first fill bourbon casks to impart maximum flavour and colour, though the legal limits on cask size are quite large (20,000 liters!) so obviously larger casks will reduce the spirit / wood contact area and hence reduce the influence of the wood.

– Anejo means aged and this tequila is aged for more than a year.  Like Amrut Indian single malt whisky, a relatively highly aged tequila is 4 or 5 years old.  This is due to environmental and climatic conditions which cause rapid ageing and evaporation.  Whereas Scotch whisky’s annual volumetric evaporation is about 0.5 – 2% per year, tequila might hit 10% or more per year, meaning that after 5 years of aging, the cask might be 40% empty (not to mention the risks of the spirit dropping below minimum ABV)!  Anejos are quite desirable to tequila enthusiasts because of the high complexity of the spirit due to aging and the wood influence.  Accordingly, they have a price to match and are typically anywhere from roughly one and one half times the cost of reposados and plata tequila to much more if they have been aged for more than a couple of years.  Due to the longer exposure to wood, second or third fill casks are popular when aging Anejo tequilas because the wood influence can be too powerful when using first fill casks.  Cask size is limited to 600 liters maximum, though like whisky, ~200 liter used bourbon casks are common.

The two remaining classes are:

Oro (Gold, though sometimes called Joven which means young):  This is essentially blanco tequila to which have been added colouring and flavouring agents.  Oro tequilas are almost always (but not quite always) mixto tequilas and the additives are designed to make the tequilas look more appealing to the general consumer (i.e. darker).  This is hugely popular for cheap mixed drinks and tequila “shots”, but is usually not of interest to the aficionado.

Extra Anejo: recently in 2006, NORMA (the official government regulations concerning tequila, which are enforced by the CRT or Tequila Regulatory Council) introduced a new “Extra Aged” anejo class.  Tequilas in this class have to be aged for more than 3 years and as with regular anejos barrel size is limited to 600 liters, but again 200 liter casks are common.  It’s important to remember that before 2006, many tequilas were still aged well over 3 years: it’s just that they were all called anejo: it didn’t matter if the tequila was 14 months or 8 years old, it was simple classified as anejo tequila.  Now, tequila that is aged for over 3 years can use the “Extra Anejo” designation.  Due to physical limitations when aging spirits (evaporation, barrel wood influence, etc…) most anejos are considered best in the 3-5 year range (and there are of course some fantastic younger ones in the 1 – 2 year range as well).  However just as an exceptional whisky cask might live on to be 30, 40, or even very rarely 50 years old, so can a cask of tequila age to seven, eight or even ten years old.  These can become the ultra -premium of the premium tequilas, though in many cases, age does not necessarily mean quality – just a very high price.

Tastes:

My personal tastes tend towards anejo tequila and these comprise the bulk of my personal stock.  One of my favourites is San Matias Reserva – a fantasic Anejo available at a very reasonable price (and even in 375ml bottles as well).  However, due to limited production, it is often hard to find.  I find that most reposados are a little too light on the wood and lose a little too much of the original agave “wet cement” taste for me, though there are some excellent Reposados, in particular Casa Noble’s; also Corrolejo’s reserve triple distilled reposado is quite decent and a good value.  I also enjoy many plata tequilas, in particular El Tesoro’s Platinum (perhaps one of the best pure “tequila” tastes available) and Asom Broso’s stunning El Platino!  Of course, everyone’s tastes are different and just like some people like Islay whisky while others prefer Speysides or even Lowlands, there are tequilas and mezcals to match anyone’s preferences!

One must remember that the 100% agave “world” has a range of products in it and seeing “100% Agave” on the bottle is not a guarantee of a quality tequila – it’s just ensuring that you’re not getting mixto tequila (and if it doesn’t say 100% agave on the bottle, you can be SURE that it IS mixto!).  A few 100% agave tequilas are bad, most are decent and some are obviously amazingly good.  Like anyone exploring a new – um, er – hobby (!), it will take some time to find out what flavour profiles you like and then more exploring to find which brands you really like (or at least offer you a new experience).

NOM Numbers:

In the Tequila world, navigating through brands is made more challenging by the fact that there are approximately 100 distilleries but several hundred brands.  That means that many different brands are made at the same distillery.  On every bottle of tequila you will see the word “NOM” followed by typically a 4 digit number.  This number is assigned to the distilling facility by the CRT and you’ll find that several different brands can share the same number.  For a better understanding of NOM numbers, open a new browser tab and surf to the following site:
http://www.tequila.net/NOM_database/

The NOM number identifies the distillery so if you like or dislike a particular brand, searching out the NOM number may help you find something similar.  A well known example is Cuervo: type in 1122 into the link above and you’ll see all the products that are made at Casa Cuervo: this includes Cuervo brand products, the 1800 brand, Gran Centenario and Reserva La Familia.  Of all the brands and products that Cuervo makes, Reserva La Familia is Cuervo’s highest end product worthy of serious drinkers.  And, while Cuervo is mainly known for the entry level Cuervo Especial Gold, Reserva La Familia is a very fine tequila that has on occasion been an amazing tequila.

Enthusiastic tequila hunters looking for particular bottles will know what years or batches were made under which NOM numbers.  Sometimes, a brand may switch distilleries due to limited production capacities, cost or ownership changes and there is a marked shift in product taste / quality.  The “good NOM” bottles can become quite sought after.  This is the case with producers such as Casta Weber and especially Porfidio, who have had products produced in at several different distilleries with noticeable differences between these products.  Another excellent example is Patron: it used to be made by the well regarded Siete Legaus distillery, but (as the rumours go) when they could not meet the production demands that Patron needed as their brand grew, Patron switched distilleries and the quality dropped noticeably.  Now, it’s not that Patron is “bad” tequila, but it is highly marketed and considered way over priced for its quality.  Patron is a great example of the “premiumization” that is happening throughout the global spirits market.

Popular Distilleries and Brands:

Some distilleries have achieved something akin to cult status: probably the closest thing to Ardbeg in the tequila world is Distillerie La Alteña which is one of the few traditional family run distilleries still using a stone flour mill like tahona stone to crush the cooked agave instead of a more efficient mechanical shredder (this is the tequila world’s floor malting vs. drum malting battle, with mechanical shredders replacing tahona stones in all but the most artisanal distilleries).  Distillerie La Alteña has NOM 1139 and their two main lines – El Tesoro and Tapatio – are both highly revered products (though the distillery was bought out recently but the product quality has remained high).  Their products are in general of excellent quality and El Tesoro Paradiso tequila in particular is a noteworthy bottle as it is one of the original double matured tequila products: in Cognac casks.  Other high quality distilleries include La Cofradia (distiller of Casa Noble) and Tequilena (distiller of Don Fulano, Asom Broso, Tres Cuantro & Cinco, and early Casta Weber Azul) among others.

Some well known high end brands are Casa Noble, Asom Broso, Siete Leguas, Los Abuelos, Fina Estampa, Don Fulano, Don Julio (the regular range is OK, but the 1942 in particular is excellent), San Matias (Reserva and Orgullo in addition to the stunning Rey Sol, but which has a price to match), Herencia, Milagro (mainly their higher end bottles – the rest of their range is considered to be average), Cuervo (the aforementioned Reserva La Familia being their only really decent product) and a few others like the extremely good (but very expensive) Herradura Sellecion Sepruma.

Premiumization and Luxury Brands:

Unfortunately for the consumer, the tequila world – like many other spirits – is now full of “premium brands” including the aforementioned Patron along with other products like Cabo Wabo, El Mayor, Dos Lunas and the frankly ridiculously expensive (and short lived) Ley .925.  The big issue is that there is a LOT of tequila that is made by “Brand Marketing” companies: they hire out a distillery to make tequila for them, and then essentially stick their own logo on it.  Some of these tequilas are quite good, but most are slightly better than average at best, but with premium prices.

Most of the “high end” brands that you see advertised in food, wine and men’s magazines fit in to this category.
Being the largest player in this market, Patron is obviously one of the worst offenders: average tequila trying to justify a fairly premium price.  Even distilleries are cashing in on the luxury market, as distilleries that are known for producing “not bad” tequilas are now offering super premium bottles at exorbitant prices: the pricing is mainly due to perceived rarity and the cost of the decanter and packaging, not the actual cost of the liquid inside the bottle.  However, one thing that is interesting is to notice how prices in the market eventually stabilize: often “premium brands” will come out with a high price; however, when sales slide because marketing is not as effective as was hoped (and the product quality is only average), the prices are forced to drop and the product now fights it out in the middle market with the majority of exported tequila. However, it does make things confusing for the consumer.

Sauza and Cuervo are the two production giants, and you’ll see a lot of their products around.  Most Cuervo products are not worth buying for tequila enthusiasts apart from the Reserva La Familia as there are much better products available for equal or lower prices.  Sauza has put out the occasional quite good bottle (i.e. Triada), but it’s the exception, not the rule.  For decent tequila at a reasonable price, you will probably want to check out Herradura as they are the only large tequila producer whose product is all 100% agave tequila.  Their products aren’t amazing, but they are decent and pretty cost effective (the Seleccion Suprema being the obvious exception here: a truly fine tequila but with a $$$$ price to match).  Another brand worth looking at with large distribution in the value category is Corraleo, especially the triple distilled version of their reposado.

Drinking Tequila:

There are very few spirits as well suited to summer time as tequila!  The two most popular ways to drink decent tequila are neat and mixed in a margarita (and no, a shot glass, throwing salt over your shoulder and sucking on a lime is not the best way!). Tequila can be drunk neat just like any other high quality spirit: traditionally it’s common for plata and reposado tequila to be served in a caballito, essentially a tall two ounce glass.  However, good tequila deserves to be served in a snifter glass or ISO style tulip glass so that it can be nosed and tasted that same way as any premium spirit (Riedel actually makes a tequila specific glass but any snifter will do fine).  When ordering in restaurants though, you should make your request very specific as you do not want your tequila to come back with ice or lime in it, or with a salted rim on the glass if you’ve ordered a margarita.

You may also find sangrita (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sangrita) served with neat tequila at higher end restaurants: this is a spicy citrus tomato chaser / palate cleanser and often comes with tequila or mezcal flights.  Whether it enhances the spirit or not though is a matter of discussion in the tequila world. There are very few mixed drinks that can match the freshness, intensity and purity of a well made margarita.  Unfortunately once you have a proper margarita, you’ll realize that most of them are poor sugary imitations.  A proper margarita typically consists of only three ingredients in a 1:2:3 ratio: lime juice, an orange liqueur such as Cointreau, and – of course – tequila!

Mixing a really good margarita is actually a fairly serious challenge: like a properly prepared gin martini (with a splash of vermouth) it seems easy to do, but few do it well so that you taste only the botanicals and very little of the alcohol.  In theory a margarita is a simple drink containing only three ingredients; however the reality is that it’s almost straight booze and additionally the quality and type of the lime juice is very important.  It is pretty common for simple syrup, or some other sweetener to be added to the drink to “help” and mute the alcohol.  Salted rims look cool on the glass, but the salt is actually there to help mask poor quality spirits.  If you’re serious about tasting the ingredients in a margarita, order one on the rocks and without salt.  Plata tequilas really shine in margaritas as the agave’s fruity “wet cement” taste is highlighted by the other ingredients and it can be a lot of fun to order three or four different tequilas and taste them head to head in margaritas.  Of course, reposado and anejo tequila can make great margaritas as well, and often premium margaritas (featuring premium tequilas) will be made with aged Grand Marnier, but at a substantially increased cost.

Tequila has enjoyed a coming out over the past decade: unfortunately while availability has become a lot better, it’s still quite expensive in Europe and hard to find outside of North America. However, I’m sure that we’ll be seeing increased availability as distribution spreads globally .  I for one look forward to discovering more of this fantastic agave spirit in the years to come!

More information on Tequila can be found on http://www.itequila.org/ and on Ian Chadwick’s excellent tequila site:
http://www.ianchadwick.com/tequila/index.htm