Is there any more misunderstood alcoholic beverage than the much-maligned tequila? Yes, we all have stories of late night encounters with Mr. Jose Cuervo from our youth, but I wonder why so many still spread that bad reputation across the entire spectrum of this finely crafted spirit?
Those of us who are true fans of the better styles of tequila enjoy sipping it more than single-malt whiskey or aged rum. Good tequila is more complex than most people realize. My first experience with fine tequila came from a tasting in a tequila bar in Playa Del Carmen, Mexico, and I was amazed at how smooth the best ones are.
Tequila must come from one of five states in Mexico, and the majority of the production comes from the state of Jalisco. And yes, there is a town named Tequila in this region.
Tequila can only be made from the blue agave plant. Blue agave takes up to 10 years to mature, and since the plant can only be used once, producers must replant it after harvest. The core of the Agave is called a Pina, as it can resemble a pineapple. Once workers strip away the spiky leaves, the Pina is left, weighing as much as 90 kilograms.
Tequila-makers split the large cores, roasting them slowly in big ovens, which turn the starches to turn to sugar. The cooked product is then fermented in vats, using yeast to turn the sugar to alcohol. After two distillations, you have tequila.
The tequila we drank in college is called Mixto. It’s made from approximately 60 per cent of the above blue agave, and 40 per cent other sugars (usually from sugar cane). This results in a cheap product of mixed quality. Some producers add colour to the white Mixto, but the result will taste the same, so don’t let them fool you.
When only using 100 per cent blue agave, you end up with the best tequila, the only one with an authentic certification on every bottle. There are four types of 100-per-cent agave tequila.
Blanco is aged less that two months, and is clear and transparent. It is the base for all Agave tequila. Joven is mellowed with caramel or other colouring to appear aged, but is still very strong. It’s the most popular tequila style in North America. Reposado, meaning rested, is aged in oak barrels or casks for more than two months, and up to a year. Most of these casks come from American bourbon producers. This style of tequila tends to be mellow, with a pale colour.
Finally there’s Anejo and Extra Anejo. Anejo tequila is aged more than a year and up to three years, while Extra Anejo is aged more than three years. These tequilas impart more mellow flavours from the barrels and the aging process. The fastest growing category in recent years is Super-premium, and many of these are aged eight or more years, using high quality bourbon or sherry barrels.
So what is the right way to drink tequila? There is no right way, per se. It’s versatile. If you insist on shooting it, at least slightly chill the tequila first, and use Blanco or Reposado to avoid the headache the next day.
For sipping, use a brandy snifter or port glass and make sure you buy Anejo or better. You will be amazed at how smooth this will taste, and your preconceptions about tequila will disappear.
Our tequila selection in Halifax has improved dramatically over the last few years, and looks to get even better as its local popularity grows. Some good tequila I have tried recently includes Espolon Reposado, Hornitos Black Barrel, and Tromba Blanco. All of these are under $50 and offer great value.
The perfect mix
Want to make a great margarita this summer? Follow this recipe, which never fails me, as it avoids all those sugary pre-mixed products, allows you to taste the tequila, and still goes down as smooth as a hot summer weekend.
• 2 oz. of good quality Blanco, Joven, or Reposado tequila (save the really expensive stuff for sipping).
• 1 oz. of Grand Marnier (here’s where you splurge, but use Triple Sec if you have to).
• 2 oz. of freshly squeezed lime juice.
• 1/2 oz. of Agave Nectar Sweetener (from any health food store).
• Shake with ice and strain into two martini glasses.
The under-$25 wine review
2014 Two Oceans
Sauvignon Blanc Sparkling Wine
South Africa, NSLC, $13.99
Summer is a great time for sparkling wine and this one is a great value. Notes of lemon zest and fresh-cut pineapple. Persistent bubbles; toasty flavours; reminiscent of a much more expensive sparkler. Nice crisp finish with just a hint of sweetness. Enjoy with fresh shucked oysters on the back deck. 91/100
2013 Grand Pré Rosé
NSLC and Bishop’s Cellar, $15.99
Beautiful pink salmon colour. Made with two Nova Scotia hybrid grapes: L’Acadie Blanc and Marechal Foch. Flavours of cherry and ripe raspberry, but not cloying. It has that famous Nova Scotian crispness, and a pleasant dry finish. I’d like to have the fresher 2014 vintage, but this is still holding very well. Perfect for a weeknight barbeque with grilled pork sausages. 90/100