aka; No, Tequila is Not Yellow.
A Tequila History in Three Paragraphs
Tequila is North America’s first distilled spirit and first production alcohol.
During their exploration of the New World in the late 1400’s and early 1500’s, Spanish conquistadors encountered a fermented beverage called pulque that was produced by the Nahuatl peoples. The primary ingredient in the fermentation process of pulque was the agave. As the early Spaniards ran out of brandy, they searched for a source of fermentable sugar for distilling. They experimented with the agave, which was abundant in the volcanic soils in the Sierra Madre region surrounding Guadalajara.
In 1600, the first tequila factory was established by the “father of tequila,” Don Pedro Sanches de Tagle, Marquis of Altamira. Don Pedro also was the first to begin cultivation of the blue agave for distilling and in 1636, Governor Don Juan Canseco y Quiñones authorized its distillation and manufacture (so he could tax it). However, Spanish rule suppressed tequila production and it wasn’t until Mexican independence that tequila distillers began large-scale production.
The first licensed manufacturer of tequila was Jose Antonio Cuervo who began cultivation in 1758. By the mid-1800’s, his family fields had more than 3 million agave plants. Cuervo was also the first distiller to put tequila into bottles. Today, Cuervo is the largest manufacturer of tequila. In 1873, another major distiller, Don Cenobio Sauza, acquired La Antigua, a company founded in the early 1820’s. Today, Sauza owns about 300 agave plantations and is the second largest tequila manufacturer.
While it is “acceptable” for tequila manufacturers to cut their agave with sugar cane or prickly pear or what-have-you, tequila must be at least 51% agave. REAL tequila is 100% Agave and will proudly say so on the label.
What is Tequila?
Tequila is a centuries old liquor from Mexico. Like many other exotic drinks, nations other than where it originated have tried to brew it. But just like Champagne, Cognac, and Bourbon, if it’s not from where it started, it’s not the real deal.
Tequila is, and can only be, from Mexico. To get very technical, tequila can only be legally produced within 200 kilometers of Guadalajara. If it isn’t grown and distilled in Mexico, it cannot be called tequila. But here’s where things often get fuzzy: the agave plant. Tequila is made from a succulent called the Agave Tequilana Weber plant, or blue agave. (Agave is NOT a cactus. Stop saying it is. It’s more closely related to amaryllis or lilies.) If a tequila is made from anything other than agave, it’s not a true tequila. While it is “acceptable” for tequila manufacturers to cut their agave with sugar cane or prickly pear or what-have-you, tequila must be at least 51% agave. REAL tequila is 100% Agave and will proudly say so on the label.
If the bottle of tequila you are about to buy doesn’t say “100% Agave” or doesn’t bear the letters “NOM” and “CRT” on it, put it back. “NOM” stands for Norma Oficia Mexicana, and it’s the culmination of years worth of laws governing the crafting of tequila. “CRT” stands for Consejo Regulado de Tequila, the official tequila regulating body. They’ve been around for at least 70 years in one form or another.
Side note: the other regulatory body, Camara Regional de la Industria Tequila, is really to help develop the tequila industry, not to apply the rules.
Purists (like myself) will tell you that Blanco is the only way to go.
Now that we’ve gotten through the mumbo-jumbo, here’s the stuff you really wanted to know.
Q: Silver, Gold, Blanco, Reposado, Añejo… what does all this mean?
A: These are all ways of distinguishing the varying aging processes that can be employed.
– Blanco, or “silver” tequila is distilled in copper (like a white wine) and requires very little or no aging. Tequila blanco is clear and has very few impurities.
– Platina or “platinum” tequila, like Blanco is not aged and so remains clear. What sets it apart is that Platina is distilled at least twice, not just once like Blanco.
– Reposado or “gold” tequila has been let to rest in oak casks for 3 to
12 months. This resting imparts a spicy flavor to the tequila and adds a
slight yellow hue.
– Añejo, a.k.a Reserva, tequila is aged in oak casks for no less than 12 months. Añejo takes on the properties of an armagnac or a whiskey; taking a large amount of flavor from the barrels. Añejo tequila is often a deep gold color.
– Claro is a relatively new form of tequila. Distillers will take aged tequila and re-filter it. This extra filtration removes the color of an aged tequila and usually takes away some of the barrel notes. The end result of a Claro tequila is: Blanco appearance with a Reposado or Añejo flavor.
All that said: Purists (like myself) will tell you that Blanco is the only way to go. It’s been said that “Blancos are a real man’s drink and if you ask a true tequila drinker he will say that tequila should only be ‘Blanco'” and I agree… 99% of the time.
Q: What does quality matter? Don’t you just do shots of the stuff?
A: Does quality in a brandy matter? Would you do a shot of a beautifully aged Cognac? Sheesh. These misconceptions come from years of being forced to drink that yellow anti-freeze *coughCuervocough* that dares to call itself tequila. You do shots of that because it’s nasty and you want it over and done with. Proper tequila should be sipped like brandy. If you must, have it with lime or sangrita.
Q: Have any recommendations? (a.k.a., “I hate tequila”)
A: Of COURSE I have recommendations! I’m of the opinion that if you like a nice whiskey, brandy, or bourbon, you’ll like a REAL tequila. Just do yourself a favor: don’t buy tequila from the supermarket! Your selection will be limited and the prices will be inflated.
My number 1 recommendation is: Don Julio Blanco. If you’re looking for a “real” tequila experience (for about $40), this is it. Mild “tequila bite,” good flavors, heady nose all come out of a bottle of Don Julio, no matter what age you get. Oh, and at $130 a bottle, Don Julio 1942 is the most excellent Añejo you’ll ever taste; drink it from a brandy snifter! -See, there are exceptions!
Second on my list only because it’s prohibitively expensive: Claze Azul. Their
Tequila Plata is smooth, so velvety, so beautiful that you won’t believe you’re drinking tequila. It’s a tequila to be sipped on its own. No shots, no margaritas, no sunrises… sip it solo in brandy snifter. Yeah, be *that* guy. At over $100 a bottle, you *should* be that guy!
And my number three recommendation:Tequila 1921 Blanco. It’s artisan crafted by a man who honestly loves his job. Your local liquor store probably won’t have it in stock, but check specialty wine shops and BevMo. I’ve found Tequila 1921 in local stores for as little as $35, but it usually retails for $45.
Now, in the “bang for your buck” department: Espolon. You should be able to find Don Julio and Espolon in your local liquor store and Espolon will be pretty cheap; coming in at under $22. Just because it’s not in a fancy little jug-shaped bottle doesn’t mean it’s unworthy. It’s a great little tequila, smooth, slightly sweet, and one you don’t need to feel guilty about making margaritas with!
Hidden Gem: Asombroso. Asombroso El Platina is an excellent way to ease yourself into a nice tequila addiction. It’s not too pricey and is velvety smooth. When you’re man enough to admit you like pink, try Asombroso la Rosa. It’s aged for a few months in French Bordeaux barrels. This aging imparts a pink hue and the distinct taste of French wine. It’s the ONLY aged tequila in my house. I know, I know… it’s not clear so I should shun it, but there are exceptions!
Q: How do I make a nice margarita?
A: I’m glad you asked. Here’s my favorite recipe and one that’s excellent for showcasing a bottle of Espolon or Don Julio:
*The BoozeGuru’s Classic Margarita
2 parts lime juice (fresh lime, not reconstituted, not frozen, not sweetened) -Only use Key or West Indian limes, NEVER use Persian as they’re too bitter
2 parts Cointreau or Triple Sec
3 parts silver tequila
Add all ingredients to a shaker. Add a handful of ice. Shake well. Strain and serve up in a chilled cocktail glass, or serve over (just dump the whole shaker) in a tumbler.
So now you know more about tequila. If you’re of legal drinking age, go out and get some!