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All About Tequila & Mezcal

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Tequila is has ancient Aztec roots, but nothing much happened with it for the past few decades - it was seen mainly as a cheap, strong spirit to shot with lime and salt to mask the flavour. Now, as you've probably noticed, there's a revolution going on in more refined Tequilas.

Casa Dragones Tequila

Casa Dragones recommend serving their Tequila in a wine glass.

Casks of fine Tequila are maturing, and we’ve moved into an era of highly respected master Tequila distillers, internet forums discussing Tequila tasting notes, single barrel Tequilas, and premium Tequilas housed in crazily expensive packaging - think velvet lined boxes and bottles covered with diamonds. Restaurants worldwide are offering tequila tastings and exclusive tequila matched menus. The culture, production methods and laws surrounding the national Mexican spirit are still very much evolving, so there’s plenty to keep the seasoned connoisseur interested.

Tequila is one of a few different Mexican spirits made from agave plants, and it's now available in a whole spectrum of varieties, including ultra smooth triple-distilled clear 'Blanco' sipping Tequilas, and dark caramel coloured 'Añejo' Tequilas that have been aged in oak and are intended to be enjoyed like a good Cognac – actually lots are aged in Cognac barrels (or Wine, Port, Whisky or new oak barrels), and prices regularly stretch well into the £100s.

Most Expensive Tequila

This diamond-encrusted bad boy costs $3.5 million. It's called the The Diamond Sterling, by Hacienda La Capilla. You'd think at that price they'd be able to afford a decent website. I wonder how much a refill costs?

How is it made?

The spiky agave succulent's leaves are removed before the piñas ('hearts' or 'fruits') are baked in an oven to release their sugars. They are then crushed up and water is added to make a 'mash', which is then left to ferment and become alcoholic. The resulting agave 'wine' pulque is then distilled to become Tequila.

Indigenous people were drinking pulque before the Spanish arrived. It's not clear whether it was ever distilled back then, but there are records of it being distilled by the Spanish in Mexico in the 1500s.

All Tequila is from the region around the city of Tequila. By law, the spirit must be produced in the state of Jalisco and select surrounding areas, and it must be made from at least 51% blue agave, a specific species of agave succulent. The best is made from 100% blue agave, and will say so on the label.

Cultivation of blue agave and the nurturing of its precious piña is very specialised and labour intensive manual work, which has remained almost entirely unmechanised. Expertise is passed down between generations of jimadores ('harvesters'), and if piñas are harvested too late or too early, they will not contain enough carbohydrates for the crucial fermentation process to take place.

Agave field

A field of blue agave

A jimadore harvesting agave

Jimadore harvesting agave

Horse-powered agave mill

Milling agave - mills are often powered by horses or donkeys, although milling machines are increasingly common.

Pulque fermentation tank

Pulque fermenting

Ageing & Flavour

Climate, altitude, fermentation conditions, distillation methods, maturation techniques and aging time all affect the flavour and mouth feel (crisp, soft, creamy, oily) of individual Tequilas. For example, Tequila made from blue agave grown in high altitude will tend to have sweeter aromas and flavours than that of lowland agave, which produces a more herbaceous taste.

The clear Blanco ('White') or Plata ('Silver') Tequilas are aged for less than two months, if at all, and taste distinctively of the distilled agave itself. Reposado (aged two to 12 months in oak), Añejo (aged one to three years in oak) and Extra Añejo (aged at least three years – a category only established in 2006) become increasingly smooth, subtle and complex during maturation. Joven (‘young’ or ‘gold’) Tequila is simply Blanco that has had caramel added to it - a cheap marketing ploy not worthwhile at all.

The diverse flavours in Tequila can include vanilla, citrus, grass, celery, olive, violet, lavender, cinnamon, caramel, dried fruit, wood, chocolate, honey, anise, black pepper, mint, apple, orange, nuts, coffee… and much, much more. So imagine the potential for creating interesting cocktails! There are countless margaritas and sours being invented, but also cocktails that include a particular beer or other spirits and liqueurs, fruits, vegetables, herbs and spices.

Mezcal & other agave spirits

There are a few Mexican agave spirits, each made with different agave species, in different areas of Mexico, and with varying production methods. Tequila made it over here first, and now Mezcal is becoming more common, but others which are difficult to find in the UK or actually haven't yet been imported include Raicilla, Bacanora and Sotol. The next big trend in agave spirits that is quickly gaining momentum is Mezcal, including artisanal and more high end products. After that, we expect the as yet 'undiscovered' agave spirits will move into the limelight.

Mezcal is the rustic brother of Tequila. Some say it's like Armagnac to Tequila's Cognac, but a more accurate comparison would have to be smoky Islay Whisky to blended Scotch. This is because Mezcal piñas are baked in a fire pit over charcoal rather than roasted in an oven, so are always smoky - sometimes intensely so. The original agave spirits were probably made this way. Mezcal can also be made with various agave varieties (not just blue).

Mezcal fire pit

Agave being prepared for roasting over charcoal, for Mezcal.

Cocktails that contain both Tequila and Mezcal are pretty hot right now, for hardcore agave heads - the wider range of scents and flavours of the two spirits compliment and enhance each other’s agave base flavours.

Here's a video of Jesse Estes of El Nivel - London's first 'agaveria' - demonstrating his Under The Volcano Cocktail for us, made with San Cosme Mezcal:

View the Under The Volcano recipe >>


Tagged in: Agave, Mexico, Mezcal, Tequila. Categories: That's The Spirit, Drunk History.

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