Discovering Tequila

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Story by Dave Eckert

I made my first journey to the tequila producing region of Jalisco, Mexico, more than 20 years ago. I was filming an episode of my PBS television show, Culinary Travels with Dave Eckert. I was a tequila novice, eager to learn the history, culture, and category and taste distinctions among the various tequilas. Since then, tequila consumption, production, and importation has steadily grown. There are close to a thousand tequila brands currently vying for your attention and dollars. It’s important to know the producers and their styles, but to really understand and appreciate tequila, you need to start with the fruit that gives tequila life – blue agave.

At the essence of all tequila is the fruit, or pina, of the blue agave plant, which is harvested, its juice extracted then fermented and distilled into tequila. Even though all tequila comes from blue agave, the aromas, flavors, complexity, and sugar levels can vary widely based on where the plants are grown. “Tequila made from agave grown in the Highlands of Jalisco are going to taste markedly different than tequila made from agave in the Valley,” local tequila expert Ryan Rama told me.

Then there’s the matter of age. In other words, how mature were the agave when they were harvested? In my tastings of dozens of tequilas, I don’t think there’s any doubt that the older the agave is at harvest time, the more complex and layered the resulting tequila will be. I’ve filmed with producers that wait ten years to harvest their agave to achieve maximum maturity and sugar levels. Others may harvest at half that age.

There’s also the matter of the cooking of the agave. Many producers now use more efficient autoclave ovens rather than traditional steam-powered brick or stone ovens. Autoclaves can cook more agave fruit faster under intense steam pressure. Still, other producers prefer the super modern diffuser ovens. The diffuser is a huge machine that extracts the starches of the pinas with blasts of high-pressure water as the agaves pass by on a conveyor belt. Often, the agave isn’t cooked at all, but soaked in a bath of hydrochloric acid which converts the starches into sugars. Both autoclaves and diffusers are more efficient than traditional ovens. The question is whether with increased efficiency do the newer methods of cooking produce lower quality tequila? Rama believes the answer is most certainly yes. “These things make a huge difference. Tequilas that come out of autoclaves and diffusers tend to be much more neutral in flavor and very light in agave characteristics,” Rama surmised. “Their efficiency is so high that almost all of those flavor compounds are converted into alcohol, and that means bad or unwanted flavors along with the good ones. What you end up with is something closer to vodka than tequila.”

An article I read recently on tastetequila.com backs up Rama’s beliefs. In a blind taste test, traditionally-made tequilas ranked highest, followed by those cooked in autoclaves, and lastly, tequilas emanating from diffuser ovens. Price, by the way, is not a guarantee of process or quality. So, how do you know how old the pinas are when harvested, what region they come from, or what type of cooking method was employed? “A lot of it is intensity of flavor. The best way for me to evaluate a tequila is to taste a Silver or Blanco in its most assertive, rawest form. If I smell cotton candy or bubble gum, that’s a big tell that there’s something in there that doesn’t belong,” Rama said. “What I look for are notes of grilled pineapple, sweet potato, and black olive. That’s traditional tequila to me.”

Beyond tasting, Rama recommends doing your homework and buying your tequila from a knowledgeable and passionate source. A restaurant, bar, or liquor store that has a good selection of tequila obviously cares about what it is selling. You’re also much more likely to find someone in those places who is knowledgeable and can point you in the right direction based on your palate and pocketbook.

As for categories, there are two main designation of tequila: 100% Blue Agave and Tequila Mixo. Tequila Mixtos contain a minimum of 51% blue agave with the remaining percentage comprised of other sugars. I will focus on 100% blue agave tequilas as these are by far the most interesting and highest quality tequilas. Here are the classifications of 100% Blue Agave Tequila.


TEQUILA SILVER-BLANCO-PLATA-WHITE-PLATINUM

This is Blue Agave in its purest form. Traditionally, Tequila Silver is bottled directly after distillation, but it can be aged for up to two months to deliver a smoother spirit.


TEQUILA GOLD-JOVEN-ORO

This is primarily a Mixto tequila where colorings or flavorings have been added prior to bottling, though there are the rare exceptions where Silver tequilas have been blended with other tequila expressions while maintaining the 100% Blue Agave classification.


TEQUILA REPOSADO

These are my favorite tequilas, the perfect balance between the Agave flavors and the influence of wood aging. The first stage of “rested and aged” tequila, Reposado tequilas are aged in wood barrels or storage tanks from two to 11 months. Reposado tequilas often take on a golden hue and are smoother than Silver tequilas.


TEQUILA ANEJO (EXTRA AGED)

Anejo tequilas are required to be aged for at least one year, but the best producers age them longer. As the tequila ages, the alcohol softens and the impact of oak increases. These are most definitely sipping tequilas, and their price tags represent the time, care, and cost that goes into producing Tequila Anejo.


TEQUILA EXTRA ANEJO (ULTRA AGED) 

This is a relatively new classification, added in 2006, which requires producers aging their tequila at least three years to be labeled Tequila Extra Anejo. A step up the price and quality ladder from Tequila Anejo, Tequila Extra Anejos are extremely smooth and complex.

Rama personally recommends Tequila Ocho, but then he would as he works for the company that imports it. But having sipped on a Tequila Ocho Silver during our interview, I can personally recommend it too. Again, though, Tequila Ocho is just one of a thousand tequila brands. You obviously can’t taste them all. Taste as many as you can and form your own opinion. Cheers.

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