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What Do You Want to Know About Tequila?
The Art of Tequila
Tequila – you either love it or hate it. Tequila has been accused of everything from causing the worst hangovers to actually changing someone’s personality! If you’re like most people, though, you probably want to know the following:
- How to choose a tequila
- How to create drinks with tequila in them
- How to avoid the dreaded tequila hangover
You probably won’t mind if a few other Trivial Pursuit-worthy tidbits make it your way as well.
How to Choose a Tequila
Just like sparkling wine made outside of the Champagne region of France cannot be called champagne, agave spirits made outside of Mexico cannot be called tequila. In fact, by law in Mexico, Jalisco is the state of choice for tequila-making, while a few regions in other states have limited permissions.
Tequila is a spirit made from the blue agave plant. The blue agave plant is endemic to the Jalisco, especially the town of Tequila, and some neighboring states. Again like grapes, the agave plant is influenced by the soil in which it grows. This influences the flavor of the tequila. The variations in taste do not vary as widely due to vintage as with wine; rather, brand producers create the spirit to taste distinctive from other brands but homogeneous within the brand from year to year. One way they accomplish this is through aging.
Tequila is aged in oak barrels. There are three levels to the aging process: blanco, reposado, and añejo.
Tequila blanco is the least aged: 59 days or fewer. Sometimes it is bottled directly after distillation. Tequila bottled this way usually tastes strongly of the agave plant from which it comes; it usually exhibits a strong, fiery alcohol flavor. Tequila blanco marks the lowest price rung. However, if the distillery started with quality plants, the tequila may exhibit desirable flavors and be sold as “silver.” Some distilleries choose to age the tequila to mellow the flavor. Tequila blanco is suitable for mixing in cocktails such as Tequila Sunrise and Margaritas. However, some connoisseurs appreciate the clear flavor of tequila silver.
Reposado means “rested;” the tequila has rested in oak barrels for two months to under a year. Because the process takes longer, reposado tequila costs more than blanco. Price is increased due to the type of oak as well. French oak, as with wine, is the ultimate level. However, American and Canadian oak are also used. Oak aging mellows the taste and imparts flavor. At the distillery they may toast the barrel, further imparting such flavors as vanilla and spice. Reposado tequila is best enjoyed with “training wheels,” lime and salt.
Añejo tequila has been aged the longest and is, therefore, the priciest. To be called añejo, the tequila has to be aged in oak for a minimum of one year but fewer than three. Often oak barrels used previously for whiskey or even reposado tequila. The spirit takes on strong flavors from the oak. This is generally considered a sipping tequila.
The above are only guidelines. The tequila you choose will depend largely on your taste. I have friends who drink high-end silver tequila; they eschew any oak-aging at all. I, myself, prefer a reposado as I feel this offers the best balance between agave flavor and oak. However, it is unwise to pay the price for an añejo and then convolute the taste with mixers – unless this layering of flavors is the cocktail mixture for which you are aiming.
Favorite Drink with Tequila
What is your favorite way to drink tequila?
Drinks with Tequila
The top 3 tequila drinks are margaritas, tequila sunrise, and palomas. For all of these drinks, use a blanco tequila; reposado is fine as long as you did not pay for a sipper. Good tequila brands for drinks are Hornitos, Herradura, and Sauza. Any tequila should be fine as long as it is 100% agave.
- Margarita: The easiest way to make this tequila cocktail is with a mixer. However, to make it fresh:
- Simple syrup: 2 parts sugar to 1 part water, boiled until the sugar is dissolved and cooled.
- Lime juice: from fresh limes
- Liqueur: Cointreu, Triple Sec, or some other orange-flavored liqueur
- Mix: 2 parts lime juice, 1 part simple syrup; pour 1 shot tequila then 1/2 shot orange liqueur directly over ice, add mix and stir.
- Tequila Sunrise: Serve this in a clear glass for a pretty affect.
- 1 shot tequila, 3/4 c orange juice, 1/2 shot grenadine
- Mix orange juice and tequila; pour over ice.
- Slowly pour in grenadine, allowing to settle at the bottom – garnish with a cherry and/or orange slice.
- Paloma: This tequila cocktail is refreshing and smooth.
- 1 shot tequila, 1 c grapefruit soda (or juice with splash of soda), 1/4 c lime juice
- Pour tequila then lime juice over ice; top off with grapefruit soda -- garnish with lime.
There are many other drinks with tequila in them.
- Bloody Maria: Substitute tequila for the vodka in a Bloody Mary; I like to exchange the tomato juice for V-8
- Salty Chihuahua: Tequila, lemonade, and lime in a salt-rimmed glass.
- Margarita variations: strawberry, grapefruit, watermelon, coconut, beer….
In Mexico, Mexicans drink tequila straight.
What About the Tequila Worm?
We've all heard that authentic tequila should have a worm at the bottom – and the person who gets the last shot has to eat the worm. Disgusting.
All of the tequilas mentioned above are without the tequila worm and, except for Jose Cuervo Gold, they are all 100% authentic (no Cuervo worm either, by the way.) Even in the dustiest dive bars in Mexico that I dared to go into -- and they were pretty authentic -- did I ever see a tequila worm. That's because there is no such thing. The worm is supposed to be in the bottom of a mezcal bottle; mezcal is tequila's brash cousin. Putting the worm in bottles of mezcal started out as a marketing gimmick in the 1940s. Though the worm does come from the agave plant, and Aztecs did consume these, there is no "authentic" tradition that you need to eat a worm from a tequila or mezcal bottle. Again, disgusting.
Have you ever seen that t-shirt: 1-tequila, 2-tequila, 3-tequila, floor. Tequila has a reputation for causing the worst hangovers; it's also been said that tequila makes people mean, but Food & Wine Magazine conducted an experiment that disproved this.
Tequila does not create any worse a hangover than other alcohols. If you drink too much, you have essentially poisoned yourself with alcohol, and that is the same whether it's tequila or blended scotch. The tequila culture may take some blame: how often do people exhort their buddies to do a "blended scotch shooter." In addition, college kids don't go to Scotland for crazy spring break parties: the lucky go to Mexico where they drink, of course, tequila.
The key to avoiding a tequila hangover comes in choosing a good tequila. Here are some of the other best tequila brands:
- Patron: Of course, everyone knows about Patron tequila. Some liquor distributors state that Patron tequila is so popular because the company markets itself brilliantly. However, this does not mean Patron is a fine tequila. It is, and drinking it is less likely to cause a hangover.
- Don Julio: This is probably the second-best known tequila brand. Don Julio is smooth and runs about $50. However, at a tequila tasting I tried Don Julio 1942 Blue Agave. This tequila is double-aged – they call it a "double- añejo" – and subtle-vanilla like a fine brandy. A bottle goes for about $100.
- 1800: This is a good tequila that runs a little cheaper than Don Julio. It does not drink as smoothly as Don Julio, but the reposado is fine with training wheels.
- 1921: This tequila brand is not as widely available as 1800, but it is a little bit better for the price; it drinks more smoothly. Go to the 1921 website for places of distribution.
- Corzo: Made from just the heart of the blue agave plant (most other tequilas use more of the plant), this tequila is also triple-distilled and mellowed twice in between distillation cycles. Luckily they do not market themselves as much as Patron or Don Julio or the prices would be similar for top shelf. This is my personal favorite.
There also cheaper tequila brands worth drinking. The ones I named above – Herradura, Hornitos, and Sauza -- are the best for avoiding tequila hangover. Other decent tequilas are Olmeca, Cazadores, and Milagro. Unless you buy the premium version of these brands, they are not sippers. If you find yourself in a "Let's do tequila shooters," situation, though, choosing one of these brands should be fine.
The #1 tip to avoid the dreaded tequila hangover is to ensure the brand you have chosen is made with 100% agave. If the label does not state this, avoid the brand. These tequilas are finished either with sugar alcohol or grain alcohol, both of which induce hangover. Jose Cuervo Gold, by the way, is not 100% agave, though other Cuervo selections are.
59 days or fewer in oak
Suitable for making cocktails
2 months to under a year
Suitable for training wheels or shooters
1 year to 3 years
The best way to choose your favorite tequila is to go out and try some. There are many bars, especially high-end Mexican restaurants, that feature several brands of tequila. Try one of the brands mentioned here or ask the bartender for recommendations. If you like a bit of a bite, opt for silver-grade tequila. If you drink brandy, try añejo. For a flavor in between, reposado is a good bet. Just remember 3 pieces of advice:
- Look for 100% agave.
- You get what you pay for.
- Don't eat any worms.