You probably, like many other people do, think that Tequila is just another fashionable and cheap spirit from an exotic country which is just intended to get you drunk and of course give you a really bad headache. Well, unfortunately you are right and wrong.
Right because, yes if you drink it excessively you will certainly loose it and have a hangover, pretty much like you would do with any other spirit, but mostly right because it has been labeled with the wrong image largely due to abuse from non producing countries.
Wrong because it is definitely not another cheap & fashionable spirit. Yes it has slowly invaded the US market in recent years, but thank god quality products have mostly done it. It is also not cheap, even back in Mexico, Tequila is not a cheap product as it reflects a lot of hard work and ancestral knowledge.
Behind all those nice bottles and funny names, is a 3-century-old industry that is narrowly linked to the country’s culture and ancestors. What it takes? How is it done?
Real Tequila can only come from Mexico. Like a Cognac, it has a denomination of origin that clearly states among other rules, that it can only be produced and bottled in Mexico. Furthermore, Tequila can only be done with the Blue Agave Tequilana Weber plant, which is only found in Mexican territory. So if you find yourself a bottle of Tequila which doesn’t state that it comes from Mexico and doesn’t bear the CRT seal, you are better off not drinking it!
It takes a long time to produce Tequila, and that is because a Blue Agave plant takes anywhere from 8 to 10 years to reach maturity. The plants are harvested by theses “Jimadores” or “groaners” who are responsible of selecting the plants and cutting the leaves from the head. They are called like that because the cutting of the leaves makes a sound resembling a groan. The pineapple shaped like heads are then cut in pieces and cooked in large ovens for over 18 hrs. The resulting is a sweet sugar cane like product that is then shredded. It used to be done with a large stone wheel pulled by a horse called the “Tahona”, which would crush the heads. Water is then added with some of the magical yeasts. Fermentation is underway then, it will take 72 hrs for the fermentation process to be completed. The Juice is then send to the distillation room. This will be done twice in order to get rid of impurities and any water residue. Tequila is then ready to rest for a while, before it’s alcohol content is reduced from 55% to the standard 38 or 40 % and then bottled.
There are 3 kinds of Tequila: “Blanco” or silver, which doesn’t undergo any aging. “Reposado” or middle aged, which rests on white oak barrels for 6 to 12 months and “Añejo” or aged which must have at least 12 months of aging in those white oak barrels. Just like a fine Armagnac or Spanish brandy would, this aging process will smooth the product and give certain type of characteristics to it.
What you need to remember to get a good tequila is that it must bear the “100% Agave” wording on the label. You will then obtain a pure product that is done accordingly to the best traditional methods. Of course you can have true Tequilas that are not 100%, as the regulation only states that it must have at least 51% of the Blue Agave plant, but then again you are not getting the best product available.
I recommend “Reposados” or “Añejos” best. “Blancos” are a real man’s drink and if you ask a true tequila drinker he will say that tequila should only be “Blanco” and that the other stuff is not for men. However I find that the true flavors of the plant come out better in the aged versions.
How to drink it? Well here is where the major misunderstanding lies. You wouldn’t do a shot of Cognac, would you? Then why do it with Tequila? It is intended to be savored and enjoyed slowly so that the characteristics of the product are appreciated. Have a slice of lime and some salt if you want. Put some salt in the back to the hand, suck it and then have a sip of tequila. Finish by biting the lime wedge. This is the right “every day” way. But if you want to enjoy the product, then just taste it before you add more flavors to it.
You will find in Mexico that there is a loyal companion to Tequila. It is always there when you get one and it is called “Sangrita” or little blood. It’s a mix based out of orange and tomato juice with spices and lime that goes beautifully with it, much better than the lime and salt. However it seems to have lost its way and Tequila is mostly found alone when served here.
Finally, when would you have one? Tequila is a great aperitif as it really opens the appetite. Some of the more aged bottling like the “Reserva de la Familia Cuervo” are great after dinner drinks since they have gone through long aging. It goes marvelously well with condimented food and citrus based preparations like a nice Ceviche.
There are many more things to say about this beverage of the gods according to the pre-Hispanic cultures, but here is a base from which to start digging more.