Cast your mind back to your late teens: sticky dancefloor; ill-fitting printed shirt; late-night kebab. Now conjure up the taste in your mouth the following morning. We’d wager it’s tequila, with a back-palate of regret. The agave-based spirit that came in fluorescent plastic shot glasses – invariably served the wrong side room temperature – is not as you remember it.
In the last five years, our appreciation of tequila has evolved, and some think it’s poised to overtake gin as the most stylish drink. Where once bar shelves would be populated by poor relations of quality tequila – that luminous yellow stuff, we’re looking at you – now it’s not uncommon to see a dozen tequilas to pick from, in hues ranging from gold to amber and colourless. In the last 18 months alone, sales of tequila and its sister spirit mezcal have grown 37 per cent, and these aren’t the kind of drinks that come with a side-serve of salt, lemon and shame.
What Is Tequila Made Of?
Tequila’s production can be described as basic, in the best possible sense. The only ingredients are agave, yeast and water. It’s made from a Mexican-indigenous succulent called Weber Blue Agave, a close relation of the American Aloe plant. It has strict laws that govern its production, such as the fact that it can only be made in five states in Mexico, although most of the production takes place in the western state of Jalisco.
The agaves are harvested after growing for six to nine years; only the growers determine when it’s ready in a process of selection that’s passed down through generations of farmers. The heart of the agave plant is the ‘pina’, which can reach up to 60-80kg in weight. The agaves are transported from the field to the distillery to be cooked, then crushed before the juices are extracted and fermented before being distilled.
Different Types Of Tequila
Every tequila falls into one of three key ages — blanco, reposado and añejo — defined by how long the agaves are distilled for. Ranging from up to two months to three years, each has its own specific characteristics, tastes and uses.
Blanco Tequila: Maximum Age Of 2 Months
Blanco tequila, also known as plata or silver, has a smooth mouthfeel and shouldn’t burn. Tequilas from Jalisco are usually a little sweeter with hints of citrus and have a slightly peppery finish.
Reposado Tequila: Aged Between 2-12 Months
In a reposado tequila, which literally translates into ‘restful’, you’ll find vanilla, butterscotch, fudge, dried fruits and honey notes as well as subtle spices like cinnamon.
Añejo Tequila: Aged For 1-3 Years
Having spent the most amount of time in the barrel, añejo tequila takes on a light woody note, along with the flavours of dark stone fruits like cherries, dark chocolate, maple syrup and caramel.
Which Type Of Tequila Is Best?
“If you normally drink a white spirit or a young spirit with a character like white rum, pisco or gin then I would recommend trying a blanco tequila,” says Deano Moncrieffe, European ambassador for Don Julio and Casamigos tequilas. “If you like bourbon, Jack Daniels or lightly aged rum, you should try a reposado tequila,” he adds. “If you like aged spirits with more complexity like whisky, you should try an añejo. And if you order up an after-dinner drink like cognac or brandy you should definitely try an extra añejo.”
The Best Tequila Brands By Price
Before you hit the booze aisle, Moncrieffe has one piece of advice. “Always go for a tequila that’s 100 per cent agave,” he says, adding that others will be split with a liquid that inevitably creates a lower-grade product.
Getting the good stuff needn’t leave your wallet feeling the burn after, providing you know the right brands. These are the best to buy at every price point.
Spending this kind of money, the main flavour profile you can expect is black pepper and a sizeable hit of alcohol. For certain blanco tequilas here, you’ll also get citrus notes, which works nicely in cocktails. In fact, these pours are made for mixing.
Here, you can expect more nuanced tasting notes and really start to appreciate the different taste profiles quality tequila opens up. Look out for caramel flavours and hits of spice that will hold sway long after you’ve sipped.
Parting with a little more cash has its benefits. You can expect the mouthfeel to be as smooth as silk, with plenty of sweet notes and an almost coffee-like after taste with the darker options. Take time to taste the liquid properly and allow it to roll all over your tongue.
How To Drink Tequila
Step away from the shot glass. Quality tequila is not to be downed in one. “The best way to taste it is to take a sip and hold the liquid in your mouth for a minimum of five seconds,” says Moncrieffe. “The idea is to allow all the flavors to coat different areas of your mouth and then swallow slowly.”
The receptacle you drink from also has an impact on the overall effect. “You can sip a good-quality blanco tequila out of a small sherry glass, enjoy good quality reposado tequila in an old fashioned whisky glass with some ice and zest of orange, or even try an añejo in a warm brandy glass.”
What Is Mezcal?
It’s impossible to talk about tequila without a mention of mezcal, which many consider to be tequila’s sophisticated sibling. Its prime difference in production is that instead of being steamed, the pina is roasted in an underground firepit that gives it smoky, earthy characteristics.
“There are hundreds of different varieties of agave, all with their own preferred regions and environments to grow in. Mezcal can be made from any of those, where tequila only uses one,” says Jon Darby, owner of east London agave-spirit specialist bar Sin Gusano, which runs ticketed tasting experiences called the Mezcal Appreciation Society (MAS). “Think of agave spirits as wine, and tequila as just one type of grape. So in a sense tequila is a mezcal.”
If you’re in a bar which has two different sections for tequila and mezcal, you can trust that they take the spirit seriously. Though if you’re really interested in understanding the nuances, order up a mezcal. “There’s a far broader flavor spectrum with mezcal than there is with whisky for example. Once you get into it, you can start to taste particular regions because of a certain chalkiness or mustiness,” says Darby.
“You can also pick out particular varieties of the plant – some come with an inherent green and grassy flavor while some have a robust and almost cheesy profile. Industrialized production techniques that apply to many tequilas lead to a more homogenized product that’s far less of its region and less representative of the hand of the maker. Think of it as eating a Babybel rather than a comté cheese from a local producer in France, or flatpack Ikea furniture compared to the antique table in your nan’s house.”
Should You Eat the Tequila Worm?
“At the beginning of the 1950s, bottles of mezcal that contained a red or golden worm began to attract a lot of attention. A rumour quickly circulated that the worm was an amazingly potent aphrodisiac. It wasn’t,” says Moncrieffe. “It was a marketing ploy started by Jacobo Lozano Páez, who operated a drinks company in Mexico City. Most people mistakenly associate the worm with tequila but, as mentioned above, it originated in mezcal.” So, by all means, eat it, just don’t expect anything good to come of it.