Summer is upon us, with that the margarita season has begun. Of course the most important ingredient of a margarita is Tequila! We all have or know someone with a horrible story about Tequila that probably makes many avoid it. Tequila, aside from being a great mixer for margaritas, when done well can make some of the finest spirits on earth. In my opinion, Tequila has the largest range of quality in the spirits world. Some of the best drinks I’ve had and also some of the worst drinks I have had have been Tequila.
What makes one Tequila taste great, and another that makes you queasy when you smell it? Like any fine spirit, it is the ingredients and also the type of ageing it goes through. The main ingredient in Tequila must be, by law, agave. Because of the famous red volcano soil around the town of Tequila and Jalisco, many believe that agave grows best here. By law, Tequila must come from this region.
The two basic categories of tequila are mixtos and 100% agave. Mixtos use no less than 51% agave, with other sugars making up the remainder. Jose Cuervo is the best known example of a Mixto. 100% agave Tequila must use 100% agave. Be careful, it must say 100% on the label. Some Tequila’s will simply say “made with agave”. These are not 100% agave Tequilas! The major flavor difference with 100% agave Tequila is that it is more vegetal, complex and usually smoother than mixtos.
The other major factor in making quality Tequila is the aging process. There are 5 categories that denote the amount of ageing. These terms are usually on the label.
- Blanco or plata is white Tequila. It is unaged and bottled or stored immediately after distillation. It is usually stored in stainless steel or neutral oak barrels. While often times a bit harsher, many people prefer this style because it gives you a much more pure expression of the agave. Blanco is also the preferred type to mix in a margarita or other tequila drinks.
- Joven or oro: this is unaged Blanco tequila that is colored and flavored with caramel
- Reposado: aged a minimum of two months, but less than a year in oak barrels. The type and size of barrels may vary. Some prefer new oak barrels to impart a stronger oak flavor, others may use used whiskey or cognac barrels. Others may use huge barrels that will also weaken the oak flavors. The type of oak barrels is nearly endless. Each decision by the distiller can affect the taste of the Tequila. This is what makes Tequila so interesting!
- Anejo: is aged for a minimum of one year, but less than three years in small oak barrels. They must use small barrels no larger than 158 gallons to impart a stronger oak influence
- Extra Anejo: is aged a minimum of three years in oak. This is a relatively new category only established in 2006.
Reposado and anejo tequilas, because of the ageing process, are often smoother, subtler and much more complex than other types. This is because during the ageing process the Tequila will take on many of the characteristics of the wood it is aged on. Like many other spirits, the wood and ageing is very important in the complexity and flavor of Tequila.
One of the most important things I can tell you is don’t be scared off by all of those nightmare stories that involve Tequila. Fine Tequila imbibed in moderation can be as satisfying as drinking the finest whiskey or brandy.