The Art of Tequila

Time for a little tequila lesson! Does the best Tequila come with a worm? Are quality Tequilas usually golden in colour? Does Tequila come from a cactus?

If you answered yes to any of those questions, then you are definitely not a Tequila connoisseur. Of all the famous liquors around the world, perhaps Tequila is the most under appreciated of them all. Forget about your Tequila worm myths and that guy named Jose something because the next time you have tequila, you want to go for the good stuff! From Tequila blanco and oro to the higher-end and oak-aged reposadoañejo, extra añejo and reserva varieties there is a lot more to this special type of mezcal than licking some salt and sucking some lime.

Reposado and Oro Tequila

Tequila has been an integral part of Mexican culture since the 16th century, with strictly controlled and regulated production requirements in place today. The Tequila Regulatory Council (El Consejo Regulador del Tequila) enforces the quality control in the industry and all members must adhere to a recognized labelling standard known as the Norma Oficial Mexicana.

In terms of production, to be called Tequila it must be made from the blue agave plant in specified states of Mexico (mainly Jalisco). One of more than 136 agave plant species in Mexico, the blue agave plant is what distinguishes Tequila from any other ‘agave’ liquors known as mezcal. Think of it the same way real Port can only be produced in Portugal, and Cognac must come from a certain region of France.

Once the blue agave plant matures from 8 years it can be harvested by cutting out the heart, or piña – which can weigh more than 100 pounds – and sending it off to the distillery to begin the fermentation process.  it takes less than 60 days for Tequila blanco, but the distilling, fermenting and ageing process can take many, many years for an añejo.

Tequila blanco or plata
All tequila is clear when the distillation process is completed. The blanco is bottled immediately after distillation and keeps most of the blue agave flavour and aroma. This unaged type of Tequila is the drink of choice for many locals in Mexico who consider it the only ‘real’ Tequila because of the natural, yet harsh flavour. Tequila blanco is the most common type in Mexico and is traditionally enjoyed in a special 2oz glass called a caballito (horse) or tequilito (pony). These special glasses are said to be shaped a bit like a bull’s horn, from which Tequila was consumed centuries ago.

Tequila oro or suave
Essentially blanco with added flavours and colours such as caramel to give it a golden colour, this type of Tequila still has a harsh ‘bite’ to it. Dubbed mixto Tequila when not 100% pure, this type of Tequila is mostly exported to the US, Canada and other tequila-loving countries. It is popular for using in Margaritas and known as the party Tequila thanks to some robust marketing efforts from certain brands. They may look the same as some higher-quality reposado Tequilas, but the taste is anything but. Plus, all those additives and colourants are what makes for nasty hangovers!

Tequila reposado
Usually with a slight golden or light brown colour, this isblanco that has been rested and aged in oak barrels for anywhere from 2 months to 1 year. The longer the aging, the darker the Tequila becomes. This type of Tequila has become more common in the past few years as people appreciate the mellow, smooth taste. Sometimes peppery or spicy and noticeably more complex than blanco Tequila. Again, a caballito is the most common and preferred method of consumption in Mexico.

Tequila añejo
Higher quality at higher prices!  This is ‘aged’ Tequila, which has been oak-aged anywhere from 1 to 3 years. Darker in colour this Tequila is known to have a smooth taste with woody, spicy or even smoky characteristics. The taste and colour of such Tequila depends on how long it has been aged, and what type of barrels have been used. White oak, French oak, Bourbon, Sherry and Redwood are most commonly used to age both reposado and añejo Tequilas.

Tequila extra añejo
This classification was only introduced in 2006. Prior to that añejo Tequila was aged for up to 5 years. Starting in 2006 though, Tequila aged for more than 3 years is labelled as extra añejo, which means extra aged. When you reach these heights of Tequila quality and aging, many people prefer to enjoy sipping their Tequila in brandy or cognac glasses to fully enjoy the aroma and complex tastes. To down such a Tequila as shots would not only be offensive to the Tequila producer, but damaging to your wallet too!

Tequila reserva
Not an official type of Tequila, but like a fine wine, these are the private reserves and the best of the best as chosen by the producer. Perhaps they’ve been aged in special barrels or come from only selected plants – whatever the criteria used, these are sometimes only available locally or in very limited quantities. They may be aged as long as 10 years, usually falling into the extra añejo Tequila category. No matter what type, they are normally the most expensive Tequila you can find and always 100% agave.

To sum it up – the best Tequila is unflavoured and 100% pure, called 100% agave – without any mixers, additives or colourants added. To be labelled as 100% agave, the Tequila must be distilled in Mexico and adhere to the regulations of the Tequila Regulatory Council of Mexico.

Cheaper types of Tequila that are not indicated as 100% agave are only required to be 51% Tequila, with the other 49% as cane sugars and additives. These are sometimes called mixto Tequilas. While most Tequila is bottled in Mexico, the 2006 Tequila Trade Agreement with the US allows for approved bottlers in the USA to bottle Tequila as well. If you want to really taste Tequila, skip the cheap stuff and grab a bottle of 100% agave añejo!

About Red Hunt

A former journalist and business analyst that now works in the world of travel marketing. Based in Toronto, Red Hunt has travelled to more than 40 countries over the past 10 years. You can follow Red on Twitter @redhunttravel.