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Beyond a frozen ‘rita: the Tequila experience

(5/2/2012)

Passion for premium sipping Tequila is similar to that for single malt scotch, vintage port, and fine cigars. It has that similar component where its enthusiasts say, “Well, a good Tequila can cost $____ AND UP!” The record for most expensive bottle of spirits ever sold was $225,000 for a Tequila.

Erase from your mental blackboard spring break “snake bites” with lemon & salt to choke down the jet fuel. And the Tequila bottle with worm in it is a myth. A bottle of Mezcal is actually where Mr. Inchworm swims.

Just like not handing out rare cigars to hospital staff on a baby’s birth, you don’t waste premium Anejo Tequila in a blender with & strawberries & ice! So what is Tequila?

Like real deal “Champagne” is only from that region 35 miles northeast of Paris, Tequila comes only from around the city of Tequila in Jalisco, Mexico.  Mexican laws impose standards to protect Tequila’s brand. It’s similar to German law that only wine approved as “Qualitatswein” can be exported.

The American Chemical Society has said, “Tequila is one of the best regulated spirits in the world.” Driver’s licenses in most states don’t have as many details as a Tequila label:

- NOM (“Norma Oficial Mexicana“): standards regulating Tequila production.

- Registration number of the 100 distillers that make 700 tequila brands (Buying Tip: if you like a particular Tequila, try another brand from the same distiller)

- CRT (“Consejo Regulador del Tequila“): tequila regulatory council enforcing NOM standards

Reviewing how Tequila is made provides insight into the passion for the good stuff. The blue agave plant is the base. Looking at one makes me think, “Danger Will Robinson, danger, evil extraterrestrial plant form encountered!

How about some non-fictional danger? Tequila not made from 100% agave is a “Mixtos”. That means part agave, but the remainder is sugars like glucose or the dreaded fructose. WARNING! Your body has difficulty breaking down those sugars. Think, “miserable morning after syndrome”.

Jimadores” hand harvest “Pinas” (translates to pineapple). Similar to picking wine grapes, agave harvesting requires skill. Harvest too soon and there are insufficient sugars. Too late and the plant uses up sugar to grow 20’-40’ stem with seeds on top for scattering by the wind. Can you say, “Juan Appleseed”?

Next is pressing juice from the pinas. Artisan tequila makers still use the traditional stone wheel (“Tahona”). The juices are put in fermentation tanks with yeast for conversion to alcohol. That’s distilled down to remove impurities. And Premium Tequilas get a dose of oak cask aging.

So what makes premium Tequila so “especial”? As with other spirits aged in oak, it takes on oak flavors and any alcohol harshness is mellowed. But key is the agave. It’s more vegetal than grain spirits (vodka, whisky, etc.). That means complexity and flavor characteristics more akin to wine than other spirits.

Categories of Tequila:

- “Blanco” (White) or “Plata” (Silver): not aged, but immediately bottled (break out the blender, strawberries & ice!).

- “Joven” (Young) or “Oro” (Gold): mix of Blanco & Reposado.

- “Reposado” (Rested): aged at least 2 months, less than 1 year in oak barrels of any size.

- “Anejo” (Aged or Vintage): aged at least 1 year, less than 3 in small barrels.

- “Extra Anejo” (aka Ultra-Aged): recently added classification for Tequilas aged a minimum of 3 years.

Like fine wines, premium sipping Tequilas can be extremely complex. Studies have found over 300 potential flavor characteristics. Ranging from light & fruity (e.g., sweet herbs, rose and citrus) to deep and smoky with earthiness, pepper and herbaceousness.

Some of our favorite Tequilas:

(about $15 retail): This is 100% blue agave at a rock bottom price and perfect for blended margaritas. Why select some better marketed brand that’s a Mixtos and likely has caramel coloring added?

Penca Azul Tequila Reposado (about $75 retail): Bold and earthy nose with hints of slight fruit and cinnamon. Sweet entry with no bitterness, but hints of slight vanilla and cinnamon. A nicely heated finish with an earthy vanilla lingering. And the bottle is a nice piece of design work as well.

(about $40 retail): Soft nose of vanilla. An oily mouth feel with initial caramel flavor. A somewhat complex body of agave, cinnamon, and pepper, with a lighter hint of citrus. A long heated finish with a lingering spiciness. Huge VALUE Anejo! (TIP: choose their less expensive square bottling, not the decanter, since no difference in Tequila inside)

Too scared to start with a bottle buy-in?  Try a flight at a specialty Tequila bar like Malo in Silver Lake, in Hollywood or in Mid-City LA.  My initiation into this Diablo’s elixir was at a Tequila pairing dinner held by Vendome Wine & Spirits (highly recommend their independently owned stores).  Among the “splashes” was the $100 paired with a citrus white fish.  As always, don’t blame me if you get hooked on yet another potentially expensive adult beverage. 

Now that you’ve read this far, a chance to compare this post to the 4 minuteCasey time video version .

Essential Wine Co.

Carpe Vinum!..