Tasting Tequila: No Shot Glasses Allowed
No spirit deserves a second look more than Tequila. Those days of cheap shots served alongside a bowl of lime wedges and a shaker of salt? Those are over. Today, Tequila belongs alongside fine spirits like Cognac, single malt Scotch, and Bourbon in the pantheon of great global drinks, and we couldn’t be happier about it.
If your last memories of Tequila are hazy ones from college, it’s time to revisit this most complex and soulful of spirits.
What is Tequila?
Tequila and its sister, mezcal, are made from agave, an enormous spiny plant that grows throughout Central America. Tequila must be made from a specific kind of agave called Blue Weber Agave, and it must be produced within a specific geographic region centered around Jalisco. Mezcal can be made in a wider geographical distribution, and distillers can use a wider range of agave species, including wild agave.
Workers trim the agave of its huge spikes to get to its heart, called the piña, which is rich in complex carbohydrates and sugars.The piñas are roasted to soften and caramelize them, then milled and pressed to extract the juice. For Tequila, most distilleries use either brick ovens called hornos or stainless steel autoclaves to cook the piñas. Mezcal producers often roast their piñas in earthen pits with wood or coal, giving them a smoky flavor. Most modern distilleries use shredders and roller mills to get at the juice, but there are still a handful of traditional operators who use a tahona, a circular stone mill usually powered by a burro, to grind the piñas.
Once the juice is extracted, it’s fermented, sometimes by wild yeast, sometimes by introduced yeast, and often with a combination of the two. Then it’s distilled, traditionally twice on a pot still, but many modern distilleries also use column stills. Some mezcals are produced on clay or even leather stills – wild!
In Mexico, Tequila and mezcal are traditionally consumed unaged, called blanco. From one perspective, that makes a lot of sense. Agave takes a very long time to grow, with some species requiring more than a decade in the ground to reach maturity. Some say Tequila’s aging happens on the agricultural end, during all those long years when the agave is growing in the field. But as whiskey-loving Americans have become more excited about tequila, the industry has introduced several oak aged variants, including:
- Reposado, a word that means “rested,” which sees less than one year in an oak cask
- Añejo, “old,” which is aged up to three years in an oak cask
- Extra-Añejo, “extra old,” which is aged up to five years in oak
When producing aged Tequila, producers often use used bourbon casks, since there’s an abundant supply not too far away in Kentucky and Tennessee. However, there are no rules about the type of cask distillers can use, and many are beginning to experiment with wine casks, sherry casks, Cognac casks, or others.
One of the factors influencing the revival of fine tequila is the rise of 100% agave spirits. Tequila producers are allowed to add up to 49% of other spirits, usually neutral spirits made from sugar cane, to their distillate. This is called mixto tequila, and it’s not usually as high quality as 100% agave tequila, although it is quite a bit cheaper to produce. With increasing demand for 100% agave tequila, American drinkers are getting more options of better booze to choose from.
But huge demand means the mezcal and Tequila industries are also facing some major challenges. There aren’t enough plants to meet demand, so some producers are harvesting under-mature plants to make up the difference. Unripe agave can contribute off flavors, plus harvesting early runs the risk that the problem will only get worse over time. Agave blight is also an issue, especially in Jalisco, where huge, homogenous plantings of Blue Weber Agave causes diseases to move through fields much more rapidly.
Mezcal faces a different set of issues. Most mezcals are produced by small-scale artisan producers who, for generations, only distilled for their immediate communities. Now that the international market has caught on to the wonders of mezcal, wild agave are being over-harvested, and some worry that unscrupulous brands may take advantage of village producers without sharing in the wealth being created. We love mezcal and we want it to be around for a long time, so we’re thoughtful about who we partner with.
And now we’re onto the fun part—tasting tequila! This strategy can also be used for mezcal.
1. First things first: Put the shot glass away. For good tequila, it’s all about taking your time, not getting it down fast. You want a glass that’s relatively tall and narrow, with a slight curve to the sides. Riedel manufactures a great glass just for tequila, but a Glencairn glass, champagne flute, or white wine glass can work well, too.
2. Pour the tequila, then observe its color and texture. Is it crystal clear, indicating a blanco tequila? Does it have an amber tone, indicating oak aging? How viscous does it look in the glass?
3. Next, nose the tequila. Gently sniff near the rim of the glass, moving your nose closer or farther away to find the distance that works best for you. Don’t sniff to deeply or swirl to aggressively, or you won’t get much beyond alcohol vapor.
4. Now, it’s time to taste. Take a small sip, let it coat your tongue for a few seconds, then swallow and breathe out your nose to encourage retronasal olfaction, the secondary perception of aromas that takes place when you eat or drink. Notice any particular fruit, mineral, flower, or oak notes, as well as the length and quality of the finish.
We love sipping Tequila straight, but it’s also the base for several classic cocktails, including one of the world’s most iconic drinks, the Margarita. There are endless Margarita variations, but sometimes simple is best; Here’s a great place to get started.
Classic Margarita Recipe
- Two ounces tequila
- One ounce freshly squeezed lime juice
- One ounce Cointreau
- Lime wheel or wedge for garnish
First, if you’d like a salted rim, run the cut lime over the rim of your cocktail glass and dip it into a small dish filled with kosher salt. Then, fill the glass with several cubes of ice.
In a cocktail shaker filled with ice, add tequila, lime juice, and Cointreau, and shake well. Strain into your prepared glass, and garnish with a lime wheel or wedge.