Mike Stocks Your Liquor Cabinet, Part 4: Tequila
Here, let’s get the stereotypes out of the way.
I know, I know, was it really necessary to bring out poor Jim Breuer to make my point? It was severe, but sometimes there’s no better way — you have to learn. Tequila is a painfully abused alcohol, one that has long been relegated to the world of bros trying to punish each other, and girls working very hard to be WOO LOTS OF FUN. Everyone knows that it’s painful, peppery to the point of agony, and only properly consumed with the help of a quarter-ounce of citrus and a half-teaspoon of salt.
Tequila is a punishment, a puke formula, a fast-path to drunkenness and a drink to be avoided by the grown-up. Leave it to the college kids, right? Let the bachelorettes power back their shots and leave the rest of us to our adult beverages, lest we are forever tainted by association to titty-flashers, bathroom fist-fighters and agonizing hangovers. Anything else would be a compromise beyond reason, surely?
WOO FUN, ETC.
Ah, if only. But the fact is that not only is tequila enjoying a renaissance as the fashionable neo-whiskey of the 2010s, it is actually a carefully-managed liquor with a long and distinguished history. It’s simply that, like so many other exports from Mexico, the rest of North America tends to get the dregs. Go on and order a Corona anywhere in Mexico other than a resort, and you’ll see what I’m talking about — there’s what we think of as Mexican, and then there’s what Mexicans will actually drink. They agree less often than we’d like to think.
More importantly, tequila shares a common history with liquors like rum and gin, in that its origins are linked with colonialism and poverty. Except where gin was the beverage so toxic it actually reversed population growth in the city of London, only to be supplanted by the rum being brought home by Royal Navy ships from the freshly-enslaved colonized sugar plantations of the Caribbean, tequila is brought to us by the fine tradition of the Conquistadors.
Once the Spanish who’d landed in Mexico had run through their supplies of brandy, it was to the local domestic moonshine that they turned. As with many parts of the so-called New World, the locals had already been at work for centuries to rot ferment various plants until they yielded sweet, sweet alcohol — this time harvested from the agave plant. Within fewer than 100 years, the landed Spanish began to industrially distill a tequila extract for mass consumption. Tax records place this first production at just over 400 years ago, ranking tequila as the oldest distilled liquor in North America.
- Johnny Walker was set up in 1860.
- Jack Daniels didn’t happen until 1866, if you believe the marketing.
- Glenfiddich came to be in 1886.
- Dalwhinnie distillery was founded in 1897.
So, unlike most of the more popular whiskeys, tequila is hardly a johnny-jack-whinnie-come-lately; but, just like whiskey, you know it’s worth getting to know simply because there’s so much history out there. A drink that’s been around this long has surely got a lot going on with it.
Behold the agave, more than three hundred million of which are harvested each year to produce all the tequila that the world may thirst for. The concentration of agave in a given brand of tequila determines its quality and authenticity, not to mention its flavor (and therefore likelihood of being hammered back by women — or bros, guy! — wearing a tee shirt saying KISS THE BRIDE):
- If the tequila contains 51% to 99% percent agave, it’s considered mixtos and generally relies on a mix of agave and grain liquors to provide its punch. Depending on the grain, this can result in a considerably more harsh experience, and likely hasn’t had the opportunity to mellow as completely. This is shooter country, of the kind that will make you regret the potato skins you just ordered.
- If the tequila is 100% agave, it will be noted as such in two places: on the bottle label (usually prominently), and on the price tag. Pure agave tequila is the good stuff, aged in North American or French oak barrels and way more balanced than their blended cousins. This is tequila that actually has flavor, complexity and is often sipped straight out of a snifter, like the brandy that the Conquistadors missed so dearly.
Chances are that if you order tequila from a bar, you’re going to end up with a mixtos variety unless you get picky and go for the top-shelf stuff. As few as 10 years ago, this might well have gotten you laughed at, but since the turn of the millennium the market for premium tequila has caught fire — as a sipping drink it has gained considerable cachet, and while all its traditions may not have caught on, the day is not far from when you’ll have as many people lecturing you about its proper consumption as you saw with vodka, back when the X-Files were on TV.
With that in mind, we still live in a world where most people think that there are still worms at the bottom of tequila bottles (which is a marketing myth that dates back nearly 50 years, hooray entrepreneurship!), so this is one occasion where it really doesn’t hurt to become one of those overly-informed connoisseurs. Not only will it spare you from buying the paint-stripping blends that will pull the color out of your insides, it will actually guarantee you a fun and interesting drinking experience.
I know! From TEQUILA! I KNOW!
Blanco (or silver) tequila is by far the most common variety that you’ll encounter, no matter what movies will tell you about heartbroken adventurers and the yellowish hooch they’ll slosh down to drown their sorrows after the love interest is apparently killed in a jet explosion. This is for the simple reason that, like many other liquors, tequila is aged in oak — a process that is both expensive and lengthy. Oak barrels have a vanishingly short life as effective storage and flavoring vehicles, and carry a significant cost to import the wood from Europe or the the northern reaches of the US or Canada.
With that in mind, those who are interested in the full-bodied flavor of a 100% agave tequila without having to pay for the fully premium experience of an aged liquor — which is to say, THE VAST MAJORITY who just want something to put in their margaritas — will encounter a wide variety of blanco and silver tequilas. The key thing to look for with these is most surely that they are not a blend, unless you plan on smothering them so thoroughly with other flavors that nobody will notice the blended alcohol.
Most of the entry-level Blancos will run you between $28 and $40 for a 750mL bottle, though the high-end ones will soar into the hundreds of dollars. It’s not necessarily encouraged that you choose a Blanco if you’re looking to be a true tequila snob, though, because these will have been aged in a steel vessel or only lightly aged in oak. Complexity of flavor is not their stock in trade.
Tequila anejo is where you get into premium territory, with tequila that has been aged anywhere from twelve months to three years. You will definitely notice the difference, because there’s a good chance that you will not be able to comfortably afford a bottle of anejo, as compared to the booze you’re usually accustomed to buying.
Rightfully so, because on first sight, anejo is only a little bit visually different from tequila oro, a considerably less expensive beverage that isn’t actually pure. Many oro (or Gold) tequilas are actually a mixto, a blend of liquor derived from agave and grain spirits, then colored and flavored artificially. It’s only too easy to be sticker shocked away from two visually indistinguishable bottles of liquor, and then pushed down to the cheaper (in every single respect) bottle that will deliver an infinitely inferior flavor.
Anejo is where you start to discover that, just like whiskey, you get what you pay for — and people really start to get contentious about what that may be. There’s an emerging argument that says anejo tequilas are actually aged for too long, obscuring the flavor of the agave with all that darned oak. So much for years equaling quality, I guess, but how remarkable that across a single range of liquors there can be such a wide variety of taste: from nasty puke-inducing fire-water all the way up to counterfeit bourbons. How remarkable that this is now the discussion popping up around tequila, a liquor still popularly relegated to the Blackout Liquor category.
There’s so much to explore, and one hardly knows where to begin!
Somewhere in between college-gut-blasting and oak-tainted wannabe bourbon is the true, natural flavor of a liquor that’s been around almost as long as the concept of the New World (and all the post-colonial emotional baggage it carries). The rest of North America is only now just becoming aware of just how rich and fascinating a beverage tequila can be, and the marvelous means of sampling it are just waiting to find their way into hip novelty bars.
Consider, for example, The Bandera. Named after the Flag of Mexico, it consists of shot glasses filled with lime (green), tequila blanco (white), and sangrita (red). One sips from the tequila and then alternates between the lime and sangrita, to create a mix of flavors that are something like a sequential cocktail — the combination is not done in the glass, but on the actual palette of the drinker, a single sip at a time.
This is the kind of approach that would appall and possibly stir to violence the Scotch drinkers of the world, but there’s still hope to ingrain this kind of fun into tequila before it’s too late, and descends into pretentious douchebaggery. Tequila deserves a place in everyone’s liquor cabinet, but for more than simply shot fodder. Here is a drink that’s been around for longer than America and Canada combined, and it’s about time to sample all the fun and variety that goes with it.