The Tequila Starter Kit

We've distilled down some basic tequila facts for your sipping pleasure.
How you choose to imbibe tequila is up to you, but bartenders and aficionados prefer to sip it. Photo via Wikipedia Commons.
How you choose to imbibe tequila is up to you, but bartenders and aficionados prefer to sip it. Photo via Wikipedia Commons.

With the seasons changing, a switch in your standard spirit is just what the bartender ordered — so consider adding tequila to your fall line-up. Whether your go-to is a tequila and soda, Margarita, Paloma, or a neat pour, the spirit has bucked its collegiate reputation for bad decisions and blurry least among spirit enthusiasts and the bartending community. To celebrate tequila's nuances, we’ve put together a refresher that will hopefully be as useful as that second Paloma.

What is tequila?

At its most basic, tequila is a liquor distilled from a specific varietal of agave tequilana called Weber Blue agave. During production, “The piña is roasted to concentrate the sugars and then crushed or shredded,” says Shawn Soole, owner and bar manager of Foxtrot Tango Whiskey Bar and former general manager of Cafe Mexico in Victoria, B.C. “I would almost liken this process to wine production than the regular concept of grain-based spirit making.”

Once the agave is crushed and the liquid captured, it is either distilled as-is to make “100 percent de agave” tequilas or mixed with sugar to distill a mixto. As long as it contains 51 percent agave, it is still tequila. Some mixtos are produced as carefully as those made only from agave, but not all of them.

A typical Agave Tequilana landscape at dawn in Jalisco, Mexico. Photo via Wikimedia Commons. A typical Agave Tequilana landscape at dawn in Jalisco, Mexico. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

As with the base ingredients, the production also differs widely, says Niels van Horssen, Sales Ambassador at De Monnik Dranken in Amsterdam. “A lot is done by hand, from cutting the agave by the jimador to filling the ovens to squeezing out the juice with the [tahona (stone wheel)],” he says. “There’s just a few distilleries left using this wheel.”

Tequila is produced in the Mexican state of Jalisco, along with designated areas of Nayarit, Guanajuato, Michoacán, and Tamaulipas. It typically falls into two unofficial styles of tequila: lowland, or Tequila Valley, and highland. Since agave plants spend several years in the ground before they’re harvested, the climate in each region affects the flavors in the resulting tequila, just as it changes some of the subtleties of barrel-aged spirits like rum.

But the spirit also comes with an added challenge. It can be difficult to overcome the shots-then-hangover reputation with guests. “In our circle of bartending geekery, it has, and maybe a small percentage of the world has changed, but I think it’s a double-edged sword,” says Soole. "Its emergence is still in its infancy, which means marketing dollars are playing a big role in people’s perceptions.”

Shawn Soole at Café Mexico, which held 150 tequila, mezcal and sotol. Soole previously managed Cafe Mexico in Victoria, B.C., which boasts more than 150 types of tequila, mezcal and sotol.

Types of tequila

For Soole, nothing compares to the subtle flavors of blancos. “I can get bright, vegetal flavours with hints of citrus and pepper from the lowlands, and the creamy texture with almost-Christmas spices from the highlands.”

Blanco, also known as plata, silver, or white tequila, is considered by many to be the purest way to drink tequila because non-mixtos often feature prominent agave flavors. Though most are unaged, it can rest up to two months.

Oro, or gold tequila, is arguably the most likely type of tequila to be an artificially colored mixto. But oro tequila can also be produced by blending aged tequila with unaged to add color and depth of flavor. Well tequila is usually a cheap gold, but 100 percent agave versions are also available.

Reposado, or rested, tequila is aged in barrels between two months and one year. The time in the barrel typically removes some of the burn found in unaged varietals, but are arguably less complex than añejos.

Añejo (aged) tequila is typically darker in color and more complex in flavor than reposado. It must spend between one and three years aging in a barrel, and picks up a lot of flavor from its time in the barrel. Many people consider the older tequilas to be more suited to sipping than mixing, but these make excellent substitutes for whiskey or rum, especially in stirred cocktails.

Extra-Añejo (extra aged) is the newest legal category of tequila. By law, it must be aged for more than three years, which can remove much of its character, and tends to drive up the price of this sector of tequila.

Mechanical wheel crushing agave hearts Patrón employs a mechanized version of the tahona in their Roca line of tequila, which they released in 2014 as a way to honor old-world traditions.

How To Drink It

When it comes down to it, it’s up to you. Sipping tequila has become a lauded option, especially among bartenders and spirit aficionados, but many others prefer to mix a tequila and put it through its paces.

Van Horssen “[sticks] with citrus flavors” in mixing blancos, but turns to stirred cocktails to mix añejos and reposados. Soole, on the other hand, thinks “the best cocktail to showcase individual tequila is an Old Fashioned-style. [Use a] spirit, select a bitter that matches, and [mix with] agave syrup. It showcases the flavors perfectly.”

Clair McLafferty is a writer and bartender based in Birmingham, AL. She is the author of The Classic & Craft Cocktail Recipe Book, and collects (and drinks) whisk(e)y for fun.

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