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THE TASTE OF TRADITION
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If you haven’t ordered tequila lately, you’re in for a treat. Today’s best are as smooth and sippable as any of the world’s finest spirits, and Americans can’t get enough of them. A global industry worth over $2.5 billion in 2016 to U.S. suppliers alone, it has also seen a boom in the luxury portion of the market, with high-end brands growing nearly 300 percent in volume since 2002, according to the Distilled Spirits Council.
But while the boom may be new—it started in the late 1980s, according to Antonio Rodriguez, production direc-tor for Patrón Tequila—the spirit itself is anything but. Agave distillation dates back to the 17th century, and the plant was considered sacred by the Aztecs, who ate its flesh and used its leaves for everything from thatched roofs to clothing.
These days, the best-known agave is tequila, made only from Weber Blue Agave grown primarily in the area surrounding the city of Tequila in Mexico’s Jalisco. The exact production method varies by producer. Patrón, for example, brought back the traditional 200-year-old process of making the spirit in small batches. Patrón tequilas are crafted from hand-harvested agave that is first roasted in small ovens before being crushed using both a tahona, a massive volcanic stone of the same type found in the soil that feeds blue agave, and the more modern roller-mill method. The agave juices are mixed, and then aged in three types of wood barrels. At least 60 hands touch each bottle of Patrón tequila from harvest to final labeling and inspection.
But no matter how tequila is made, says Rodriguez, the real flavor depends on the agave itself. “The body of the spirit comes from the raw materials, which is why we only use the highest quality Weber Blue Agave from the most experienced producers.”
Tequila is a type of mescal. The difference is that the agave used to make mescal is roasted in direct contact with the fire, resulting in its smokier flavor.
High or Low? Because it’s the agave itself that gives tequila most of its flavor, where and how that agave is grown makes a difference. “Weather conditions and the mineral content of the soil in the highlands of Jalisco produce agave that makes a sweeter, fruitier tequila, and that’s all we use at Patrón.” says Rodriguez. “Agave from the lowlands has a more herbaceous flavor profile.”
Pure or Mixed? There are two main types of tequila: 100 Percent Blue Agave and Tequila Mixto (mixed). Mixto must contain at least 51-percent blue agave, but the rest is made up of other sugars, plus additions like caramel coloring, oak flavoring, glycerin, and sugar syrup. Many lower-end “gold” tequilas—the ones bartenders often use for mixed drinks or shots—are Mixto, but fine tequilas are made solely from blue agave. You can tell which type you’re buying by reading the bottle: 100-percent blue agave will say “Tequila 100% de agave” or “Tequila 100% puro de agave.” Mixto tequila labels will only read “Tequila.”
Straight or Cocktail? While it’s true that fine tequila is smooth enough to sip like a scotch, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try it in your favorite cocktails, says Rodriguez. The clean bite of Blanco tequila is perfect for a Margarita, he says, or mix it with grapefruit juice, club soda, and lime for a refreshing Paloma—or with your favorite Bloody Mary mix to make a Bloody Maria. Reposado tequila has a slightly spicier body that complements traditionally whiskey-based cocktails like the Manhattan—or swap out the gin in your favorite Tom Collins recipe for a Juan Collins.
Drinking fine tequila at room temperature—the way it is most often enjoyed in Mexico—is the best way to taste its full flavor profile.
1. BLANCO Tequila falls into four categories based on the aging process. Blanco (also called silver, platinum, white, or plata) is clear and unaged; the flavor and sweetness of the agave is evident.
2. REPOSADO Reposado tequilas must be aged for at least two months, creating greater depth and an amber color.
3. ANEJO AND EXTRA-ANEJO Anejo and Extra-Anejo are aged for a minimum of one year and three years, respectively. “Anejo and Extra-Anejo are sipping tequilas,” says Rodriguez. “You want to taste them pure to appreciate their complexities.”
Of course tequila make a great cocktail, but it's just as suited to meals, says Rodriguez. Here, a few of his favorite combinations.
BLANCO | The fresh, clean taste of Blanco tequila is ideal with appetizers, “particularly something fresh and cold, like ceviche or salad.”
REPOSADO | The depth of a Reposado complements a warmer, more flavorful dish very well. “Try it with a complex soup, or even with chili.”
ANEJO | Balance the layers of detail in Anejo with a rich dish, or something spicy. “Beef goes well with Anejo, especially if it has a bold spice rub.”
EXTRA ANEJO | Like the finest aged spirits, this one’s a natural for after-dinner sipping. “But there’s no reason not to drink it with dessert, too. Maybe with something light and creamy like flan or crème caramel.”
Like any fine wine or spirit, tequila is best tasted with the guidance of an expert. But if you’re enjoying it at home, follow the advice of Patrón’s Antonio Rodriguez:
1. TEMPERATURE “Serve tequila at room temperature. Cooler temperatures can mask the flavor profile, hiding the best flavors—and any defects.”
2. DRINKING VESSEL “A true tequila glass is similar to a Champagne flute, but they’re difficult to find outside of Mexico. So I always suggest a snifter, which helps to concentrate the aroma, so you can get all the details.”
3. ICE, SALT, LIME “To really experience tequila, sip it neat, without ice. Salt and lime used to be added to alleviate the harsh flavor, but with a quality crafted tequila, you don’t need that.”
4. NUMBERS AND LETTERS “When shopping, look for the NOM (Normas Official Mexicana) number and the letters CRT (Consejo Regulador de Tequila). The NOM identifies the distillery, which can be important because some distilleries produce as many as 70 different brands of tequila, so it’s good to know where your brand was made, and CRT means the distillery operates according to approved processes.”