The Extras: So You Want to Drink Tequila Like A Grown Up

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If shots in college and blended margaritas are the extent of your experience with Tequila, it’s time to expand that perspective. This Mexican spirit is more complex than you might expect. It can be enjoyed in many ways, if you know what to look for and how to order it.

To help beginner tequila drinkers like yourself become better acquainted with it, we created this simple guide. Not only will it help you appreciate the spirit more, but it will also have you drinking tequila like a pro in no time.

What is Tequila?

Tequila is the most well-known and recognized spirit produced in Mexico. While stories of its origin vary, many believe the spirit has been produced for thousands of years.

There are certain extensive requirements for the spirit to be called Tequila.

It can only be made in in five specific Mexican states: Jalisco, Michoacán, Guanajuato, Nayarit and Tamaulipas. As well as it must be made with blue agave, or agave tequilana, one of more than 200 recognized varieties of the agave plant.

Finally, it must be approved by Mexico’s Consejo Regulador del Tequila (CRT), or Tequila Regulatory Council.

It must be made from a minimum of 51% Blue Agave, with legislation allowing for the remainder to be made up of a neutral spirit made from cane sugar juice. Those that are 100% Blue Agave are labelled as such while those made with less than 100% are called ‘mixto’.

All tequilas are required to be aged for at least 14-21 days, it must be made from 100% natural ingredients and be a minimum of 38% alcohol.

How is it made?

Tequila is distilled from the juice of Blue Weber agave plants, which take about eight to 12 years to mature. The plants are harvested by skilled farmers known as jimadors, who cut away the sharp outer leaves to obtain the massive heart, or piña, of the agave, which can weigh between 80 and 200 pounds. The piñas are then baked or steamed—turning their starch into fermentable sugar—before being milled to remove pulp from the sweet juice, and placed into a fermentation tank. Next comes the addition of yeast, which eats the sugar, resulting in a substance that’s left to condense and liquify. The fermented juice is then distilled two to three times, resulting in blanco tequila. Other forms of tequila are created by aging in oak barrels for various lengths of time.

How many types of tequila are there?

Two! There’s 100% blue agave tequila and mixto tequila. The former is made entirely from the blue agave plant, with no added coloring or sweetening elements. (It’s right there in the name, “100% Blue Agave.”) If sugar or molasses or any other ingredients have been added to the tequila, then it’s a “mixto.” Mixto tequila contains a minimum of 51% blue agave, the remainder can be composed of other sugars. That amber-colored stuff you drank in your early 20s? That’s mixto tequila, with additives.

What’s all this Blanco, Reposado, and Añejo business?

The two categories of tequila above are divided into a variety of styles:  

1) Blanco (white): Blanco tequila is either un-aged or slightly aged (less than two months) in stainless steel or neutral oak barrels. It’s clear, and according to aficionados, represents “the purest taste of agave.”

2) Reposado (rested): Darker and possessing more depth of flavor, this tequila has been aged at least two months but no more than a year.

3) Añejo (aged): The darkest of the three, añejo has been aged at least a year, but no more than three. It has great complexity of flavor, with whiskey-like notes from the aging process, including vanilla and oak.

4) Extra Añejo (very aged): The growing category of extra añejo features tequilas that have been aged at least 3 years in oak barrels.

What’s the best way to drink tequila?

The best way to drink tequila is exactly the way you prefer to drink tequila. There’s no wrong way, and it depends on the type of tequila you’re drinking. Some of the best tequilas are as enjoyable neat, and slowly sipped, as the finest whiskies and rums. Some people like taking tequila shots with lime and salt—though it can be argued that’s an amateur move. Citrus and hot sauce go especially well with the fruity, spicy notes of tequila—which is why tequila cocktails like the Margarita, Bloody Maria, and Paloma are so delicious.

How to Identify a Quality Tequila?

The best way to identify a good quality tequila is by reading the label, which tells you where the spirit is made. If the tequila is a product of Tequila, Mexico (yes Tequila is an actual town), then the spirit is not a knock-off.

The best tequilas are made from 100% agave, specifically blue Weber agave. If a tequila is mixed with cane sugar, has additives or flavoring, and does not mention the word “agave,” do not drink it.

Mezcal vs Tequila:

Mezcal is defined as any agave-based spirit, so all tequilas are essentially mezcal, but not all mezcal is tequila. Tequila is only made from blue agave, whereas mezcal can be made from more than 30 varieties of agave (including blue). Both spirits are made from the heart of the agave plant (or piña). in tequila production, the hearts are steamed before distillation. whereas mezcal piñas are roasted underground. This gives mezcal its smoky flavor.

What to Make With Tequila Besides Margaritas:

While there is absolutely nothing wrong with a Margarita, there are far more creative and expressive cocktails out there that highlight tequila’s unique flavors. The Paloma is probably the most popular tequila cocktail in Mexico, and its refreshing, tart grapefruit flavor is the perfect foil for blanco tequila’s pepperiness. The El Diablo, a classic from Trader Vic’s 1946 book, Trader Vic’s Bartender’s Guide, is like a Moscow Mule on steroids; it combines reposado tequila with bittersweet crème de cassis (blackcurrant liqueur) and spicy ginger beer. One of the best ways to enjoy the complexities of an añejo tequila (besides on its own) is stirred into a Oaxacan Old Fashioned, a play on the traditional bourbon cocktail made with agave syrup and spicy mole bitters.

However you choose to consume your tequila, just make sure that you take a moment to enjoy the spirit for what it is: way more than a short cut to dancing on the bar.

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