Bartenders Guide: Tequila

"The problem with having a big bottle of tequila is that all the things that only seem like a good idea when you're drinking tequila, continue to seem like good ideas." - Frost

Tequila today is undergoing the same growing pains that rum did, in the early 1900's. Once seen as a peasant drink, tequila is finally getting some of the respect that its rich heritage deserves. Sure, it's fun to shoot down...and later, back up...but when you get past the caramel-colored slop that can only be made palatable by sucking on a lime, then you're ready to buckle down and begin your Tequila Education.

Quality tequila is a painstaking work of art, much of which is done by hand. The agave plant takes nine years to mature, before it can be harvested. Few liquors are made from such a prized commodity. Unlike many other liquors, tequila rarely ages well past the four year mark. Oaking tequila is like walking a tightrope, where just a little over the edge can ruin you.

Although I can appreciate a subtly wooded tequila, I believe that a vegetal and fiery plata was not meant to be tamed. I think it is just that quality that makes it tequila, and to subdue it is to turn a tiger into a housecat.

Take your tequila out of the shotglass and put it in a snifter, where it belongs. Don't shoot it, savor it. There is wildness there, but there is elegance, too.

And unless you're trying to stave off scurvy, put away the lime.

Cocktail Shaker

Tequila is an agave-based spirit made primarily in the area surrounding Tequila and in the highlands of the Mexican state of Jalisco. However, U.S. and Mexican laws state that tequila can be produced anywhere in Mexico.

Tequila does not contain a worm. That is a marketing gimmick created in the 40's for Mezcal, which is a lesser-quality product.

Agave is not a cactus, although both are succulents. (Water-conserving plants.)

There are two basic categories of tequila: Mixtos and 100% Agave tequila. Mixtos use up to 49% other added sugars in the fermentation process, with Agave taking up the remaining 51%. 100% Agave is one indicator of a quality tequila.

Jose Cuervo Gold Especial is an example of a Mixto and is not 100% Agave, while some other Cuervo Tequilas are.

Mexican law strictly defines Tequila labeling, in order to ensure quality. The designations are as follows:

Oro "gold" – un-aged "blanco" tequila, blended with rested or aged tequilas, and usually mixed with added sugars, caramel coloring and oak extract to resemble aged tequila (This is what Cuervo Gold is...colored slop.)

Blanco "white" or Plata "silver" – white spirit, un-aged and bottled or stored immediately after distillation, or aged less than two months in oak barrels.

Reposado "rested" – aged a minimum of two months, but less than a year in oak barrels.

Añejo "aged" – aged a minimum of one year, but less than 3 years in oak barrels.

Extra Añejo "extra aged" – aged a minimum of three years in oak barrels.

Although opinions vary, tequila generally does not age well past four years. Despite this, several "ultra-aged" tequilas are currently en vogue. You are free to make up your own mind, but I would not pay top dollar for them without trying them first.