Tequila is a much maligned drink. While the vast majority of tequila drinking experiences in the UK end in drunken debauchery, blood loss and the wearing of foolish hats, there is a whole world outside of girls with bottle holsters and shooter glass bandoliers. Dylan Moran’s words should normally be taken as gospel and his comment that ‘tequila is a way of getting the police to call without using the phone’ is worryingly true, but there is another side to it.
A few years back I was given a bottle of Herradura Anejo tequila by a friend of mine who was going back to the USA (hello Beth!) and discovered that tequila didn’t necessarily require lime and salt to be palatable. However, since then I’ve done little but take an inch out of the Herredura bottle and haven’t followed up on learning more about the drink. But Whisky Exchange to the rescue! When I was there for the Glenmorangie tasting at the beginning of the year there was an enthusiasm amongst the staff for non-whisky related booze to be showcased and when this popped up I grabbed a ticket (and learned not to leave booking too late – I think I got the last one).
The tasting was led by Declan McGurk of Speciality Brands, the guys behind The Whisky Exchange, and led us up to the drinking end of the evening with a load of background to tequila. However, to make sure we didn’t we didn’t dry out in the meantime we were presented with Margaritas on arrival, specifically Tommy’s Margaritas, as made in Tommy’s Bar in San Francisco. Some Tapatio Blanco, shaken with ice, lime, agave syrup and agave sec (like triple sec, but with agave syrup in) and served over ice – it was much less sweet than your regular salt rimmed glass, slushy machine based alcohol delivery system and rather nice and refreshing, with the pepperiness of the tequila working well with the lime and the syrup sweetening it enough that there were no flickering eyelids or winces of sourness.
This history of tequila production goes back quite a way. Back in meso-american times one of the standard alcholic beverages in the area that would become Mexico was (and is, although with a much reduced popularity) Pulque, a drink made from the fermented sap of agave plants. It is generally thought that the Spanish brought the concept of distillation with them when they conquered central the region, although there are of course some tales of pre-conquest distilling, and it spread amongst the booze makers. In 1758 Jose Cuervo founded the first licensed distillery in the town of Tequila, giving rise to the industry and the name of the spirit. As with a number of other alcoholic beverages the success of tequila outside of its native land is in part due to Prohibition in the USA – Canadian whiskey came in from the north, rum from the Caribbean and tequila from south of the border. At the end of prohibition demand remained and tequila has become a mainstay of bars ever since.
Simply put, tequila is distilled agave beer (a similar substance to Pulque, but made with cooked agave plants), in the same way that brandy is ‘just’ distilled wine and whisky is distilled unhopped beer. However, as usual, it’s much more complicated than that. Agave is a cactus like plant, with large leaves above ground and the ‘heart’, or piña, of the plant hiding underground. The agave grown for tequila is a relatively fast growing cultivar of the plant, taking a mere (sarchasm intended) 6-12 years to grow, although they are normally harvested at around 8 years (when they reach a sugar concentration of about 24°Bx). From here the process is similar to regular beer and spirit production:
- The agave hearts are cooked for 3-5 days in large steam powered brick and clay ovens (or more often these days in metal pressure cookers in a shorter time)
- They are then crushed (either using mill stone called a tahona or more modern drum based crushers)
- The juice then has yeast added and is fermented with some of the agave pulp in open vats for 7-12 days, producing a 5-7% alcohol “wash”
- The liquid is then distilled in either pot or column stills (with the more premium producers, as with whisky, preferring the pot stills for the lower ABV and increased levels of flavour that they produce) to produce a spirit at about 40% alcohol (80 proof)
As with many other spirits, it’s at this point that interesting things happen. As with whisky and others tequila is generally matured in wooden barrels (mainly ex-bourbon barrels, as the requirement that bourbon always be matured in new barrels means that there is a ready supply), and there are 4 types of tequila, named based on how long they stay in wood:
- Blanco (white) – this is spirit that is unaged. It will generally sit for up to 2 months in steel tanks to ‘rest’ before being bottled, although some producers get it into the bottle as soon as possible. It is clear and generally considered the least interesting of the varieties – it doesn’t sell much in Mexico…
- Reposado (rested) – this is slightly aged spirit. Due to the climate in Mexico maturation in wood motors along a bit more than in colder climes, and reposado tequila stays in the barrel for 2-12 months. This is by far the most popular form of tequila in its native land.
- Anejo (old) – this is aged for 1-3 years.
- Extra Anejo (extra old) – aged for 3+ years. Due to the accelerated aging compared to whiskies, brandies and the like, you don’t see much very old tequila, with the oldest that the Whisky Exchange staff could think of sitting at 10 years old. However, with the maturation of the market it’s only a matter of time before we get much older ones appearing, with the corresponding price tag…
The naming of tequila is, as ever, still further complicated, as tequila is actually just a type of Mezcal – the generic name for distilled drinks based on agave. Regulations were introduced in 1994 restricting what can be called tequila: To be tequila all the agave used must be Blue Agave, rather than any other type, and it must be produced within a certain geographic area (centred around Guadalajara). To add further confusion, much of the tequila exported in the past has been Mixto, where a proportion of the agave juice has been replaced with much cheaper sugar syrups – it still must be at least 51% agave, but anything up to that can still be sold as Mixto Tequila. Luckily the drinks we tried avoided all of that by being 100% blue agave Tequila.
Anyways, now well versed in what we were going to drink we pounced on the tasting mat laid out before us – three from Tapatio, three from Chinaco and one special extra one from Tapatio. Tapatio, named using the word for a resident of Jalisco, the region containing Guadalajara and most Tequila production, is a producer based in the ‘highlands’ to the east of Guadalajara, near Arandas, the main tequila producing area of the region. The La Alteña distillery was opened in 1937 by Don Felipe Camerena, a former agave grower, with the reins of production now having passed on to his grandchildren. They distill their tequila twice and, unlike most other producers, bottle it undiluted at still strength. I couldn’t find much about it online, with google pointing me at Tapatio Hot Sauce, but with a little bit of poking it seems that Tapatio is the Mexican brand name, with it being exported to the US (seemingly with some changes for legal and local taste reasons) under the name El Tesoro de Don Felipe.
First up was Tapatio Blanco, 40% and rested for a few weeks in steel vats before bottling. On the nose it was a fairly standard tequila smell, with white pepper and general vegetal booziness. However it was quite different to taste, with the pepper being much more subdued than your regular bar tequila, appearing mainly on the finish, the spirit being very smooth and easy to drink and there being a red peppery sweetness to it. My first premium blanco and a nice drink – unexpectedly smooth and not entirely unlike good new make whisky spirit in feel.
To accompany the blanco we were also provided with some Verdita, the green shot in the picture. This is a mix of pineapple and coriander with a touch of mint and birds eye chilli that was made up shortly before the tasting to maintain it’s fresh taste. It was really good, sipped after a nip of tequila, and working well with the peppery finish and sweetness of the tequila.
Next on the list was the Tapatio Reposado, 38%, rested for about 6 months (with different barrels generally being left for between 3 and 9 months) and slightly coloured by the wood, this is Tapatio’s best seller at home. On the nose it had the typical pepperiness, a hint of wood and the astringent vegetably alcohol smell that I assume is the agave. To taste it was quite light and smooth, with more pepper than the blanco and some hints of woody vanilla, rounded off with touch of mint and sliced red pepper. Much more interesting than the blanco and a definite step up.
We then moved on to the last of the regular range with the Tapatio Anejo, also at 38% and matured for 15-18 months in oak. It was darker again than the reposado, and added more oak and a grape fruitiness to the regular pepperiness. To taste this was much more towards what I’m used, with some similarity to whisky – the pepper was light and there was winey wood, drying tannins and an icing sugar sweetness. Interesting, leaning much more towards woody, whisky flavours but with and underlying pepperiness rather than the malt of whisky. The reposado was definitely my favourite of these first three Tapatio tequilas, balancing the interesting flavours from the maturation process with that of the agave to make something that tasted like a tequila as well as having more to it than the blanco.
After these initial Tapatios we moved on to the blanco, reposado and anejo from Chinaco, makers of the first ‘super premium’ tequila. This tequila comes from a slightly different area, Tamaulipas to the east of the regular region, the only tequila to do so. The story behind this struck me as slightly dodgy, but it would be rude of me to read state corruption between the lines. The original owner was a farmer who lost of all his crops due to storms, apart from the hardy agave. He then stuck with agave and made deals to sell it when ripe, but ended up with a load of unsold agave due to his buyers going back on their side of the deal. At this point, in 1977, he founded a distillery, Tequilera La Gonzaleña, and started making tequila, lobbying to have the regions for tequila production expanded to include Tamaulipas, despite it being a satellite area from the rest. The fact that the owner in question was Guillermo Gonzalez, the Mexican secretary of agriculture, changes the feel of the story slightly. This is now all rolled in to the family history along with Guillermo’s great-grandfather Manuel being a famed freedom fighter (one of a group called the Chinacos, hence the tequila’s name) and Guillermo’s children have now taken over the running of the distillery.
Tequila regions, from Tequila.net
Anyways, we started, as expected, on the Chinaco Blanco, 38% and bottled after resting in vats for a mere five days. Chinaco harvest their agave earlier than Tapatio and the soil is much more clay and limestone heavy, leading to less sweetness and more stony flavours coming out in the spirit. On the nose it was slightly peppery with hints of sweet red pepper. To taste it was very smooth, buttery and savoury with a thick mouthfeel, light pepperiness and a sweet, sugary finish. A very different flavour to the Tapatio Blanco, but also very much in a different league pricewise.
To accompany the blanco, we had a shot of Sangrita – a cooked and then cooled mixture containing tomato, orange juice, lime, beef stock, oregano, ‘Da Bomb’ hot sauce (pure capsaicin), mint, salt, pepper and pomegranite molasses (as well as some other ingredients, I think, as the tequila had affected my ability to write quickly). It was an excellent accompaniment adding, strangely, chocolatey notes to the mix of flavours and made me wonder what a tequila old fashioned might taste like…
Chinaco’s maturation process is slightly different to the others, including not only french oak in the process but also whisky barrels (although their website describes them as ‘english oak barrels’ which I don’t entirely believe). As yet there isn’t much of a tradition for using interesting woods when maturing tequila, although with rum now moving into wine finishes and people like Chinaco experimenting with whisky barrels it can only be a matter of time.
Next was the Chinaco Reposado, 38%, matured for about 11 months and about as coloured as the Tapatio reposado. On the nose it had vanilla wood, white pepper and marshmallows, starting to have some hints of whisky flavours in amongst the agave and pepperiness. To taste there was chunk of sweet creamy vanilla and a peppery finish, with not much that wasn’t on the nose. The main thing I noticed was the very creamy mouthfeel, like some young whisky.
The last on the mat was Chinaco Anejo, matured for 30 months and clocking in at 40%. On the nose it had sweet wood and red berries, and was quite pleasant, however the tasting of it divided the room. The mouthfeel was very strange, very thick and syrupy and with an oily nature that led it to coat your tongue in an unsettling way. Flavour-wise it was interesting, with sweet woodiness starting things and bitter burnt wood finishing. In between there was spice, a tannic woodiness that dried out the mouth and a flinty stoniness to it. Very different to what I’d thought tequila to be and not one that I was too keen on, especially due to its strange consistency in the mouth.
As a special treat we had a 7th tequila to taste, described by Declan as the best that he had ever tried (with an admitted bias to the brands that he looks after) – Tapatio Reservas de la Excelencia Extra Anejo. It’s matured for between 3 and 5 years, with most of the mix being at the 5 year end, 40% and over double the price of any other tequila served on the evening. It’s very dark, the tropical climate of Mexico accelerating the aging, and looked more like a dark whisky than the tequilas we’d tasted so far. Again they go with interesting wood, with some new Limousin oak, the loose grained wood sought after in France for it’s excellent maturation characterists, thrown into the mix. On the nose it was all about roses – dried roses, rose water and rose sweets with some vanilla wood and a background of orange smokiness mixed with the ever present agave. To taste it was something else, with agave syrup, limes, demerara sugar and vanilla (almost on the edge of being cloying – a bit like in Innis & Gunn beer) leading to a long dry wood finish. Something really very different and quite special to finish the evening.
While I didn’t run off and buy a bottle of the Tapatio Reposado to take home I certainly won’t be looking at tequila quite the same way again. I knew there was a lot more to it than is generally assumed, but the range of flavour is maybe as wide (as I would have guessed if I’d thought about it) as it is with whisky. More research must be done and thanks to those at my table I now have a list of places to go and do the practical experimentation…
Tapatio Blanco Tequila
Tapatio Reposado Tequila
Tapatio Anejo Tequila
Tapatio Reservas de la Excelencia (Extra Anejo Tequila)
Chinaco Blanco Tequila
Chinaco Reposado Tequila
Chinaco Anejo Tequila
To try interesting tequila in London (as well as eat some good Mexican food) I was recommended a couple of places: Mestizo in Camden and Santo in Notting Hill. Don’t ask for a salt rimmed glass, you might get asked to leave.