Oh, go on, giggle. It’s a little bit funny, right?
Tequila. What does it make you think of? Bet you’ve all got a few horror stories from nights on Tequila, probably from when you were about 16 (cough, sorry, 18) and sneaked a bottle of Cuervo Gold, or that funny bottle you get in Co-Op with a little red sombrero on top. I’m willing to bet that for a lot of you, joyous cries of “Tequila Slammers!” resounded as you scrambled off to find some salt and lemon, which in later years you would replace with lime. You’d lick, sip, and suck. Actually, I find a lot of great nights involve doing that, just not with Tequila.
Next day you’d feel rough as a badger’s backside, which told you that the night before must have been awesome, and you must have got really drunk on that Tequila stuff. Tasted a bit crap, right, but that’s why you had the salt and lime, right?
While a proportion of you might leap at the chance to shoot some Tequila as part of a night out, or even quite enjoy a Margarita, a similar proportion shudder at the very thought of the taste. I’m a bit like that with Baileys, actually, and for similar reasons. No, not because I drank too much and had ‘bad’ experiences, but because the majority of Tequila readily available is full of crap that just invites a hangover.
I have had the good fortune to be in a position re-evaluate Tequila. I’d never much gone for it, had the odd shooter, but never so much that I shied away from it, and I suppose that there was something in the taste I really liked, hiding in with the rough and oddly sugary tang. As I said above, the majority of tequila isn’t ‘good’. It’s what is referred to as a Mixto – something the average Mexican would sooner use to clean the toilet than drink.
What do I mean by that? First a few basics. Tequila is made from the Blue Weber Agave. An Agave looks a bit like a giant pineapple, but with all the spines (leaves, really) sprouting up around the body rather than from the top, and is not a cactus as many believe. It is, in fact, a part of the lily family. There are many different varieties of Agave, but Tequila must be made from the Blue Weber strand. The Agave plant itself takes between 6-10 years to mature to full ripeness before the Jimador can come to harvest it, and must be cared for carefully to ensure optimum yeild. The pina (heart) is then harvested, cooked, and pressed to obtain Agave syrup. This is a high-fructose, low GI superfood in its own right, and can be bought in this form from most good supermarkets nowadays. The syrup is then fermented and distilled to create Tequila.
Like Cognac, it is tightly controlled and closely regulated – like Cognac, anything that doesn’t fit the precise standards set out must instead be called a Mezcal – if you like, Tequila is to Cognac what Mezcal is to Brandy. That, I must admit, is a very vague parallel to draw, but it gives you a picture. It makes sense, though, since Tequila can only be made in five states in Mexico; Jalisco is the centre of Tequila distillation, whereas the other states of Guanajuato, Michoacán, Nayarit, and Tamaulipas are primarily involved in production of the Blue Weber Agave.
I’m not going to pretend that the source of the Agave is unimportant – that would be akin to suggesting that a pure cane juice Rum and a demerara Rum would taste identical. As a broad brush stroke, Highland Tequila tends to be more floral, lightly vegetal with peppery notes. Lowland Tequila is usually more robust and earthy in character.
What I want to focus on here is post-distillation. As I stated earlier, the majority of Tequila abroad is Mixto. What this means is that it contains a minimum of 51% Agave distillation in the bottle. The rest can be made up of almost any neutral spirit and coloured to give it a gold appearance if required. Given the geography of, Mexico this is usually a neutral sugar-cane spirit – far cheaper to produce, and far less time consuming. These are your Cuervo Golds and Sierra Blancos – still retaining some of the Agave flavour, but none of the complexity.
Good Tequila is 100% Agave. If it doesn’t say 100% Agave on the bottle, it isn’t. Simple as that. If it is, it will say it. These are available in 4 varieties: Blanco, Reposado, Anejo, and Extra Anejo. These forms are where you can really taste the Agave, most notably in Blancos, and because they contain only Agave distillation (which is fructose-based), you could theoretically drink it and wake up without a hangover – assuming you remained properly hydrated – although you’d probably still be drunk the next morning. Just not feeling like the world is exploding out your eyes.
If you’re just dipping a toe into the water of Tequila, I’d recommend starting out with Anejos or Extra Anejos, which have smoother vanilla and orange notes from the oak ageing, but much less of the vegetal Agave flavour younger Tequilas have. That’s for another day, though.
In the meantime, find a decent cocktail bar which stocks 100% Agave Tequila – most do, these days, and if you’re in Edinburgh I’d strongly advise a visit to The Voodoo Rooms, which as a Rum and Tequila specialist carries something in the region of 65 Tequilas – all of which are 100% Agave… although I’m pretty sure I’ve seen a bottle of Olmeca Blanco kicking around in there. Try it for comparison. In fact, ask the bar team to recommend you something to introduce you to Tequila, gently. I would suggest starting out with something like Cazadores Anejo or Don Julio Anejo if you want a smoother start, before working back to the younger Reposados.
Mind you, even Garibaldi’s pours with a 100% Agave Tequila, so if nothing else, knock one back before hitting the dance-floor.
As a final point – just do it responsibly. Ahem.