The Tequila Story
Tequila begins with the jimador, the "harvester" of the blue agave. It is the jimador's expertise that determines precisely when the enormous piña (heart) of each plant has reached the peak of ripeness. After harvest, the piñas are transported to the distillery, where they are roasted and pressed. The resulting juice (known as aguamiel or "honey water") is fermented and twice-distilled to create a spirit with an alcohol content of 70 to 110 proof. After distilling and optional blending, tequila may be aged in oak or bottled immediately, depending upon its intended style.
Tequila falls into a general category of spirits that includes mezcal, a term that can refer to all liquors distilled from the fermented juices of any type of agave plant. All tequila is mezcal, but not all mezcal is tequila.
In 1978, the Mexican government established the Norma Oficial Mexicana (known as the Normas) to regulate the quality and consistency of tequila. For a spirit to be called "tequila," it must be made from the heart of blue agave plants that are grown within a designated area of the state of Jalisco. By law, tequila must contain at least 51% blue agave juice; the remainder can include other varieties of agave juice, along with cane or corn syrup. The finest tequilas are made from 100% blue agave juice and are labeled as such. These premium tequilas offer a complex range of flavors and aromas, making them the choice of connoisseurs.
Tequilas are also evaluated according to length of aging, with the younger spirits generally regarded as most suitable for margaritas. According to Jalisco state regulations, only oak barrels (usually old bourbon barrels) can be used for aging. As with fine whiskeys and cognacs, aging tequila in oak barrels enriches the liquor with distinctive color, aroma and flavor.
Types of Tequila
Blanco or Plata ("white" or "silver")
These robust spirits represent the original style of tequila, where the clear liquor is bottled immediately after distillation, or held in a tank for no more than 60 days. Favored by many purists, these lively tequilas are said to boast the freshest, most intense agave characteristics. Descriptors include spicy, herbaceous, earthy and peppery.
Aged in oak for two to eleven months, reposado tequilas combine essential agave flavors with a mellow smoothness resulting from contact with the wood. The aging process refines the characteristics of the tequila, creating a wide range of complex nuances, from whispers of vanilla or chocolate to hints of citrus, caramel or spice.
Aged in oak for one to five years, añejo tequilas are generally considered best for sipping, as one would a fine brandy or cognac. These rarified spirits are exceptionally smooth, rich and complex, with the refining influence of the wood deepening the essential agave character. On the palate, añejo tequilas evoke many of the descriptors of reposado tequilas, enhanced by a buttery richness or smokiness resulting from longer barrel aging.
Tequila is traditionally enjoyed both on its own and blended into cocktails. Among the more rustic rituals for drinking straight tequila is to sprinkle salt between one's thumb and forefinger, lick the salt and then bolt down a shot of the liquor, biting into a wedge of lime immediately afterwards. Since this method of service prevents the savoring of tequila's complex nuances, it is not recommended for premium varieties.
In order to derive full appreciation of fine 100% agave tequilas, experts often advise serving the spirit at room temperature, which allows its rich flavors and aromas to shine. However, some connoisseurs prefer the character of chilled tequilas. Blanco and reposado tequilas are customarily presented in specialized glasses called caballitos, while añejo tequilas are often served in snifters to focus their bouquets.
When it comes to tequila cocktails, the margarita reigns supreme. Experts recommend using chilled, 100% agave tequilas of either the blanco or reposado variety. Añejo tequilas are sometimes used as a float, crowning the illustrious "top-shelf" margarita.