Ah, Tequila. The delicious spirit from our neighbor to the south, shrouded in mystery to many. Where does it really come from? How is it made? Why does it make us want to sing, to dance, to make us relive stories of yesterday?
Today is National Tequila Day, which gives us an extra reason to celebrate one of America’s favorite spirits. After Mexico, Americans drink more tequila than any other nation in the world. Whether you prefer to sip it straight or enjoy a margarita, or perhaps a paloma, I believe there is a tequila for everyone.
In the past few years, I’ve visited distilleries in both the highland and lowland regions of Jalisco – the area that produces the majority of the world’s tequila. While tequila is ubiquitous in restaurants and grocery stores, the production standards are quite rigid. There are only a handful of beverages with an appellation of origin – champagne, cognac, and some fine wines, to name a few – and tequila is one of them. Tequila can only be produced in five regions in Mexico, and only from the Weber blue variety of the agave plant.
With most other spirits, the lifecycle of the crop, be it grapes, sugar cane, corn, wheat, or barley, lasts about one year. The noble agave plant takes about eight years to ripen before developing the necessary starches for tequila production. Each plant is harvested by hand by a person called a “Jimador,” who is responsible for cultivating the plant to maturity. Once harvested, the starches are converted to sugars. Each tequila distillery has unique methods in place for this process, ranging from steam-cooking the plant in stone, brick, or clay ovens to utilizing an autoclave.
The cooked agave plant is then crushed, using one of two practices. The older “Tahona” method uses a large, round volcanic stone in a circle pit, where the sheer weight of the stone breaks up the cooked fibers. In modern production, a “Molino,” or roller-mill uses a series of conveyer belts and spinning circular blades to shred the fibers. The extracted liquid is then moved to fermentation tanks to convert the sugars to alcohol. These processes vary based on distillery, producing varying results. Once distilled, the tequila is either bottled straight away as “blanco,” or rested further in oak barrels to make “reposado” and “añejo” tequila.
Try A New Tequila Today!
If you’re looking for an introduction to tequila, or simply want to try something new, here are a few fantastic options. All of these are 100% de agave, which means that only plant material was used in the production.
For shooting straight or in a margarita:
- Cuervo Tradicional Plata: Jose Cuervo was the first distiller to bottle tequila, and is now one of the best-selling brands of tequila in the world. The Tradicional is a great representation of a classic tequila, with a clean, crisp flavor of cooked agave and a slight tinge of citrus.
- El Jimador Silver: Distilled at Casa Herradura, this tequila is named after the person who cultivates and harvests the agave. It has a fresh citrus aroma with a nice balance of fruit and spice.
- Milagro Silver: Milagro Silver is a modern tequila that has been around for over 20 years and is celebrated for its connection to Mexico City, with a crisp, citrus aroma and agave-forward vegetal flavors.
If you’re in the mood to sip your tequila neat or with an ice cube:
- Herradura Reposado: Herradura was the first distillery to introduce the reposado category. The tequila has an aroma of cooked agave with flavors of cinnamon and vanilla.
- Tequila Ocho Añejo: This is the only single-estate, vintage tequila on the market, distilled in the highlands at the famous La Alteña distillery. The flavor profile changes year to year depending on estate terroir.
- Azunia Blanco: One of the very few USDA-certified organic tequilas on the market, Azunia Blanco is family-owned and operated by a second generation distiller. It has a clean floral aroma with tropical fruits and light pepper on the palate.
- Suerte Añejo: Suerte is fun and modern, and one of very few remaining 100% Tahona stone crushed tequilas. It has light oak aromas and hints of vanilla and berry flavors.
About the Author
Willem Van Leuven is a Craft & Luxury Spirits Specialist for Young’s Market Company in San Diego, California. His passion for craft spirits stems from over 18 years of hospitality experience working in bars and restaurants throughout Southern California. He was previously the president of the San Diego chapter of the United States Bartender’s Guild and continues to be active in the San Diego cocktail community. When he’s not talking about libations, you can find him enjoying them both stateside and abroad, often in Mexico.