Among spirits, there are few with as unenviable a reputation as tequila
, a spirit that often repels and in most instances requires salt and citrus to bookend the imbibing. It certainly doesn’t share the same kind of acclaim as whisky
, cognac or even vodka, but this is mostly unfair. Tequila is incredibly flexible and at the top of quality pyramid, tequila can certainly hold its own with the more famous dark spirits.
There are two main classifications of tequila, tequila that is made from 100% blue agave (a big succulent), and Mixto tequila. Mixto tequila must have a minimum of 51% blue agave, and the remaining 49% can be from other sources (typically this is cane sugar). The sugar derived from the agave or the cane sugar is fermented and then distilled. It is the bottles declaring “100% Blue Agave” on them that we want to talk about. These are the purest and most complex expressions of tequila and are the result of distilling the nectar from the blue agave. It is important to use the blue agave, as anything made with other species of agave may be called Mezcal.
Tequila making: 101
If you were to make your own, you’d begin by harvesting the blue agave and cutting off all of its ‘leaves’. You are then left with a large, pineapple-looking ball called a piña. These piña mature at about 8 years and weigh on average 45 kilograms.
Once you have your piña out of the fields, you would halve them and then cook them. This transforms the carbohydrates into fermentable sugars. After cooking, the piña are shredded and pressed to release the sugary liquid from the pulp. This is called aguamiel, or honey water. This aguamiel is then fermented in large tanks and it can now be distilled to make Tequila. It sounds easy, but requires a tremendous amount of work.
Tequila has many faces. In the purest form it is called Blanco, or Silver. These are tequilas with no aging, just straight from the still with a little water used to reduce their alcohol level. Blanco are a great base for cocktails, although the higher quality ones can be served over ice and enjoyed solo. Try a margarita with a difference - fill a high ball glass with ice. Add 45mls of Blanco tequila, 75mls of fresh grapefruit juice, 75mls of lemon soft drink and rim the glass with salt or sugar as desired. Bitter and deliciously refreshing.
Reposado is tequila that has been aged from as little as 2 months, right up to 11 months. The colour of these tequilas becomes darker and the flavours become richer. Reposado are also great for cocktails, and bring a richer, more complex flavour to the mix. Try 45mls of Reposado tequila, 15mls of crème de cassis, 15mls of fresh lime juice and top it up with ginger ale, all served with ice in a highball glass. Garnish it with lime and you have yourself a truly glorious concoction.
Anejo tequila has been aged for at least 1 year in the barrel. This comparatively longer time makes the tequila softer and fuller in the mouth. While they can give great body to a cocktail, these are best served neat - or over ice - with a simple citrus garnish, their flavours fully savoured.
Extra Anejo tequilas have been aged for a minimum of three years. These are the darkest variety and the flavour of the agave is the most subtle – it’s here that you start to see a commonality with other dark spirits like rum and cognac. Nothing would be more anathema to this drink than a lick of salt and a suck of lime. Serve it neat or over ice and appreciate tequila the way it was surely intended to be.