“Stop trying to make everyone happy, you’re not tequila.” – Emily Rossum
It’s the bebida alcoholica that you first had in college and regretted right afterwards. It’s the paint thinner toxic and bad memory scented worst hangovers of your life. It’s the panty-remover and you had the borrachera bad cheap the-name-sounded-Mexican so it was shot after shot after shot of it.
It’s tequila. Done poorly, it’s a bruise that you don’t know where it came from, an affair that you instantly know was with the wrong person, it’s an explanation that you don’t want to have to make and a bile-burnt hole through the wood on the back porch*. But done well – and these days more and more of it is being done very very well – it’s a beautiful sip of something warm and unique. It can take you back to an Ossington window, it can make everyone just a little more palatable, and it’s the backbone of some truly delicious cocktails. Welcome, to tequila done right.
TEQUILA VS MEZCAL
Some people swear only by tequila, others exclusively drink mezcal. Who’s right? Well technically, they both are, because tequila is mezcal. But where mezcal can be made from any type of the agave plant, tequila is made only from the blue agave, and only from the plants that grow in the region around the city of Tequila. It was first produced in the 16th Century, early Mexicans drank a fermented beverage called pulque, that was similar to what would become known as tequila, the only real difference between them is that during the production of tequila, the agave is cooked. When the Spanish conquistadors came to the continent they naturally brought with them their own brandy, but supplies soon ran out and they began “borrowing” the pulque from the natives. In 1600, Don Pedro Sanchez de Tagle, the Marquis of Altamira, began the first mass-producing of tequila in the area around Jalisco, and for over 200 years you had to head to Mexico to enjoy this delicious silver elixir. But in 1884, Don Cenobio Sauza, founder of Sauza Tequila, began exporting the product to The United States and today there are over 2000 brands, each brand, and each bottle, contains a serial number (NOM) which identifies which distillery produced it.
The key to tequila is the blue agave, specifically the heart of the blue agave. Harvested by specially-trained jimadores, each of whom intimately knows the plants that he spends his life cultivating, they use a special knife called a coa – essentially a long pole with a curved blade on the end – to cut away the leaves from the plant to reveal the pina – the succulent core. It’s this pina – which looks like a large pineapple and can average around 150 lbs if taken from a lowland agave plant, or up to 240 lbs in the highland variety – which will become the tequila. The flavour of the tequila depends on the mix of plants used, lowland agave tends to result in more herbaceous notes whereas the highland agave tends to be sweeter. Each plant takes from seven to ten years to reach maturity, and the jimadores constantly trim the leaves, thereby preventing it from flowering and dying. Once harvested, the pinas are transported to ovens where they are slowly baked, then they’re shredded or mashed under a large stone wheel called a tahona. The resulting juice is collected in large wooden or stainless steel vats to ferment, and it’s this liquid, or wort, which is then distilled twice to produce the final delicious product. It is then either bottled – as silver tequila – or placed into wooden barrels to age.
There are six types of tequila, all of which are usually 38% alcohol, but can range from 31% to 55%:
- Mixto – the cheapest of the cheap, this is the tequila which is not 100% agave. It must be at least 51% agave, but the rest is usually made up of glucose and fructose sugars. Please – do yourself a favour and don’t drink this.
- Silver – also called white tequila, this is the pure fermented juice of the agave, with no aging.
- Gold, Joven, or Oro – this is just silver tequila that has been mixed with grain alcohol and colouring. You’re better off sticking with silver.
- Reposado – which means “rested”, this has been aged for a minimum of two months, and has a more yellowish colour.
- Anejo –aged for a minimum of twelve months, producing a golden, smoother tequila.
- Extra Anejo, or Muy Anejo – the newest category of tequila (and not recognized by everyone), this is tequila that has been aged a minimum of three years.
All aged tequila rests in oak barrels, usually white oak. Some companies char the wood to impart a smoky flavour, and some use barrels which were previously used to hold other types of alcohol so as to impart those flavours into the tequila.
HOW TO DRINK
All tequila should be consumed within two years of opening the bottle. This is because once the bottle is uncorked, the alcohol is subject to oxidization and can go bad. Some brands suggest that you drink their tequila “ice cold” – don’t. That’s just a ploy to sell you cheap tequila as, like any alcohol, when you freeze it, it reduces any foul scents or off-putting flavours that may be in the drink. Room temperature only, please (although over ice is fine).
It’s popular in Mexico to drink your tequila with a side of sangrita – a sweet/sour/spicy drink made from orange juice, grenadine, tomato juice, and chili. Shots of each are served and then you alternate between the two. Another popular way of presenting tequila in Mexico is the bandera – three shots are served so as to resemble the Mexican flag: lime juice, tequila, and sangrita. Again you’re supposed to alternate between the three shot glasses.
The way most of us learned to drink it (and we’re all ashamed to admit it) is to moisten the back of our hand by licking, pouring on salt, then quickly licking the salt off the hand, downing the shot of tequila, and then biting into a wedge of lime. I’ve done it, and I’m sorry.
One thing I haven’t tried is how they drink it in Germany. There they have a shot of tequila and then follow it with a slice of orange dusted with cinnamon. Sounds very breakfasty.
But if you’re going to go truly traditional, find yourself a caballito. This is the small glass that’s used in Mexico to serve tequila. It’s very similar to a shot glass, but it’s usually made from thicker glass, and sometimes it has a small handle on the side.
Anyway, that’s a little about tequila. Enjoy it, but most of all, don’t overdo it. It is the source of my very first ridiculous drunk, after which I wasted two whole years not touching alcohol at all. But that’s a story that has blood and sickness, and regret, and it’s too long to tell here. In fact, it’s probably best if we sit down later and tell it over… dos tequila doble, por favor.
*unfortunately, a very true story.
And now, the recipes.
(click each to open in a new window)
next issue: tequila