Many people still think of tequila as exclusively a “party drink.” This is probably because almost everyone has a tequila story and ours definitely shouldn’t be told over email.
These stories tend to involve the cheapest possible tequila, bad decisions and worse mornings. But it turns out tequila is far more than a margarita ingredient. It’s a multi-faceted liquor with a rich history and a wide variety of flavors. And, if you get the good stuff, you won’t feel run down the next day!
But despite today’s tequila renaissance, most of us don’t know where to begin.
The best way to learn is to set up a tequila tasting party of your own. Read on for a primer, and a few tips on how to get started!
Tequila’s origins lie in a drink called pulque, originally made by the Aztecs and other indigenous peoples of Mexico. When the Spaniards introduced distillation into the process, a much stronger drink was born. While tequila has been in the U.S. for centuries, the drink exploded in popularity during prohibition with millions of gallons barreling across the border into the booze-starved Southwest.
Technically, all tequila is a type of mezcal, a word in the native Nahuatl language meaning “oven-cooked agave.”
Mezcal is made by cutting out the heart of an agave plant (the piña) and cooking it over a fire or oven, pressing out the agave juice. The juice is then sluiced, fermented and distilled either to be enjoyed then and there, or to be aged in barrels for up to five years.
Mezcal can be made in any province of Mexico with a huge variety of agave and cooking methods. But tequila can only (and legally) be made in the state of Jalisco with the blue agave plant.
But with such a great variety of flavors, where to begin?
When selecting tequilas for a tasting, try to choose 100% agave. Without any additives or extra sugar, your hangover will thank you. Most upscale tequilas are 100% agave, but it’s good to double check.
Then, try to arrange your tequilas in order of age and color with younger, clearer tequilas first, and darker reposados last. With such strong flavors, it is wise to clear your palate in between tastes. Have some water handy and coffee beans to sniff!
Like any tasting, use a proper glass (long and narrow), and take your time. Notice the smell, use small sips and gauge the color. Much like whiskey or wine, aging dramatically affects the taste of tequila, although it is rarely aged for more than two years. Tequila’s taste is also greatly affected by the altitude the plant was grown, with highland agave being sweeter and lowland more herbaceous.
Here’s a brief rundown of what to expect:
Blanco (silver, plata, or white)
Known for its youthful, fiery flavors, blanco tequila is never aged in an oak barrel and thus it has the most authentic taste of the agave itself. These intense flavors and citrusy, spicy notes pair well with cocktails but can also be enjoyed straight such as Los Azulejos Silver, Don Julio or Patron.
Joven tequila is a blanco with extracts added to it such as sugar or coloring to change taste and add a golden hue. While some are high-quality, most joven are meant for cocktails and have less than 100% agave.
Reposado tequila is blanco tequila that has been aged in a French or American oak barrel for up to one year. Over time, the tequila draws tannins and other wood elements from the barrel, melding a clear, fierce blanco taste in warm flavors of caramel and honey. Reposado flavors are much more complex than blanco, with notes of vanilla, dried chocolate, chiles or cinnamon, but they are still versatile enough for cocktails.
Añejo tequila has been aged between one and three years in an oak barrel. This extra time further smooths the blunt, sharp taste of blanco tequila with sugary, carmelized notes and darkens its color. Think: a classic scotch. Try: El Tesoro.
Extra Añejo (ultra-aged)
A relatively new type of tequila, established in 2006. Cut with water to temper the proof, extra añejo often has the peated and mature flavorings of a vintage scotch. While relatively new, most major tequila brands are experimenting with Patron, Cazadores and Jose Cuervo all having their own vintage.
With non-tequila mezcal making its way into the U.S., there is a large variety of flavors to explore. We’ve even heard rumor of a chicken and cheese flavored mezcal! But for a smooth, smokey taste we like Del Maguey Vida.
Enjoyed responsibly and with intent, tequila has the same variety and maturity of taste as any other great liquor.
Bonus! Small amounts of tequila may actually have health benefits.
The natural sugars derived from agave, called fructans, can benefit your metabolism and digestion, with a probiotic effect. But keep in mind: small amounts.
With all this in mind, you can see why tequila has become our drink of choice.