Alcohol is one of those great shared experiences in human history.
It is most uncommon for a culture not to have created its own unique spin on alcohol at some point in its history; certainly each continent, excepting Antarctica, has its own unique product.
Tequila has gained in popularity recently, and represent a sharp contrast to the old world spirits, and it turns out there’s a lot more to them than meets the eye.
Tequila and mezcal are the wines of the distillate world. More than any other spirit, their flavour and quality depend so much on how their base ingredient—agave—is handled: the soil and location in which it’s planted, when it’s harvested (typically maturing for ten to twelve years before harvest), how it’s processed, and which yeasts control the fermentation all affect the final result. A great agave-based spirit is the product of hard work and dedication; a bad one is the victim of cutting corners.
Most of the tequila we use in our cocktails is of the un-aged, or blanco, style. Aged tequilas (see “Ageing,”) are delicious on their own (and in a few specific drinks), but we lean heavily on the blanco style for its honest expression of the agave plant. When you leave tequila in wood for a long time, it loses some of that agave magic and inches closer in flavour to other oak-aged spirits, especially whiskey. We also tend to favour blanco tequila because it’s a touch less expensive, but there are certainly times when a delicious reposado or añejo is the right call.
A LABOUR OF LOVE
Consider the plant from whence the two spirits are made from. The agave is a large, aloe-like plant (which is ironically a member of the lily family) that grows in the arid deserts of Mexico. There are over 300 species of these plants, though in practice, only 30 or so are viable for spirit production. Any spirit made from these 30 species of agave might be considered a mezcal, but only those made with Blue Agave are called tequilas. Interestingly enough, Mexican laws forbid any producers from making both types of spirit- it’s one or the either.
One should note that the typical agave plant takes between five to twelve years to mature. Once the plant is ready, the heart, or piña, of the agave is extracted, usually by judicious application of physical labour. As one might expect from a process which involves literally ripping the heart out of the plant, each agave can only be harvested once. The decade long maturation period of the plant starts again after each harvest.
The piña is cooked, and shredded to extract the sugars used in spirit production. Mezcal tends to be made using the traditional method of cooking the piña in fire pits, which trap smoke from the burning charcoal fuel. This tends to give the mezcal a smokier flavour than tequila, which employs industrial stainless steel ovens. This, and the varieties of the agave used, are the main sources of the divergence in the two styles of spirit.
The extracted sugars are then fermented, through the application of yeast, to produce alcohol. The raw alcohol is then distilled to produce spirit. It’s not just the big companies making the tequila or mezcal through the judicious application of technology, however. Farmers themselves make their own spirit using traditional methods, up to and including using a cattle-operated mill to shred the piña. These farmers are naturally quite proud of their own product; it is artisanal, and production is very limited.
Tequila is made from the succulent agave and, in the case of some lesser styles, additional sugar. Tequila can only be made from the blue agave (Agave tequilana Weber var. azul). The agave plants must be harvested at a precise moment after spending more than a decade in the ground. That moment is decided by the jimador, a farmer who has spent years cultivating agave and has developed an innate sense of when it is ready to be pulled from the ground. The plants are then cooked and shredded before the juice can be extracted for fermentation. They are cooked either by steaming in stainless steel pressure cookers or by baking in neutral clay ovens.
Tequila is produced exclusively in the Mexican states of Jalisco, Nayarit, Michoacán, Guanajuato, and Tamaulipas in governmentally designated zones covering more than twenty-six million acres. Most of the agave is grown in the highland and the lowland areas of Jalisco, though it thrives at elevations more than five thousand feet above sea level. Tequila that comes from highland agave has a sharp, fresh, grassy note that we usually prefer in cocktails, whereas lowland agave tequilas have broader, fattier flavour profiles.
100 percent agave: These higher-quality tequilas are distilled twice using only blue agave (Agave tequilana Weber var. azul) and without adding sugars of any kind.
Mixto: Made from at least 51 percent agave, mixtos may contain up to 49 percent other sugars. Mixtos are considered the lesser of the two categories and are often lower-quality spirits. At Death & Co we use only 100 percent agave tequila and leave mixto tequila (the artificially colored crap) to the college kids.
Blanco, plata, platinum, or white: No aging, though sometimes these tequilas are rested in neutral holding tanks for up to two months.
Reposado: Matured in oak barrels for at least two months and up to one year.
Añejo: Matured in oak barrels with a capacity no larger than 600 liters for at least one year and up to three years.
Extra añejo: Matured in small oak barrels for at least three years.
To sum it all up if you haven’t already fallen in love with mezcal and tequila, one recommends that you give it a chance. They have a distinct flavour that is at once unmistakable and somehow addictive. Pair them with some Mexican food for excellent results.