Once upon a time, tequila had a serious image problem. Synonymous with boozy cantinas and monumental hangovers, it was the beverage of choice for fraternity debauches. Barmaids toted it around in holsters for customers to slug down in bizarre shooter rituals. And, of course, the song to which Pee Wee Herman did his memorable dance in Pee Wee’s Big Adventure was—yes—“Tequila.”
But today, all that has changed. The baby boom generation, always on the prowl for something different, has finally turned its attention from wine, single-malt Scotch, fine vodka, and gourmet beer to tequila. During the past twenty years, while the sales of almost all other liquors have declined, in some cases drastically, tequila has been the fastest-growing category of spirits in the country, more than doubling its market share. In 1994 alone, sales of the best brands, those the liquor industry calls the super-premiums, increased by 20 percent. Tequila it seems has turned into a class act. Bars now list it along with brandies and liqueurs for $5 and $6 a glass. Package stores sell the top labels for $35 to $40. Connoisseurs of wines and fine spirits order tequila straight, in snifters—the better to savor every nuance. And cooks are finding that it has a marvelous affinity for food, as both an ingredient and an accompaniment.
With appreciation has come a debunking of tequila myths: It is not cactus juice or Mexican moonshine; it does not make you hallucinate; it does not have a worm in the bottle. The truth is that tequila is as complex and subtle as cognac or eau-de-vie, that the best ones are aged in oak barrels like fine wines and whiskeys, and that it doesn’t take years of study or an arcane vocabulary to appreciate its full-bodied, salty, smoky taste. All it takes is a trip to a reasonably well-stocked liquor store—and the company of a few friends who share your spirit of adventure.
There’s more to tequila than just clear and gold. In fact, there are four categories defined by Mexico’s tequila law, the Norma Oficial Mexicana “Tequila.”< First enacted in 1949, the NOM does for tequila what the Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée does for French wines and cognac: It sets forth which plants may be used to make tequila and where they may be grown, and it spells out government-enforced manufacturing standards.
By law, tequila (which means “volcano” in Nahuatl, the Aztec language, and also refers to a vanished Indian tribe that once inhabited the area) is a double-distilled liquor made in Mexico from the fermented juice extracted from the heart of the blue agave plant: Agave tequilana Weber, “blue” variety. Of course, there’s tequila and there’s tequila. Pure tequila is always labeled 100 percent agave; everything else is blended, legally, with as much as 49 percent cane or other sugar before fermentation. Blended tequilas can taste just fine, but they lack the full flavor of the pure agave ones.
The following four categories can be either pure or blended.
Silver ( plata) tequila, also known as white ( blanco), is fresh from the still and crystal clear. It is not aged, although some producers give it a little “rest” in stainless steel tanks or Oak barrels for up to 45 days. It may be bottled in Mexico, but more frequently it is shipped to the United States in tanker trucks or railroad cars and then bottled here. Silver tequila has the reputation of being harsh, and some is, but a well-made silver tequila from 100 percent blue agave can be excellent.
Gold tequila is, essentially, a creation for the American marketplace; the Spanish word oro is rarely used in Mexico. The legal designation is joven abocado (“youthful but mellowed”), and most gold tequila is actually silver tequila with caramel coloring added to impart a rich hue. Unfortunately, novice buyers often mistake gold tequila for either reposado or añejo tequila, two very different types.
Reposado, or “rested,” tequila is briefly aged in oak between two months and one year, a process that takes the edge off the rambunctious young silver tequila. It may absorb a light straw color from the oak, or coloring may be added. Either way, reposados are quite popular in Mexico. Some fanciers think they are the best tequilas; others hold that the “repose” does little to enhance the flavor. Many reposados are 100 percent agave.
Añejo, or “aged,” tequilas are the finest and most expensive, kept in oak barrels for at least one year (the word añejo comes from año or “year”). Ideally, the aging balances the natural sweetness of the agave sugar and the astringent, tannic quality of the oak. Añejos take on a natural amber tone from the barrel—usually old whiskey barrels bought from U.S. distilleries. Most are 100 percent agave.
Unlike wine, tequila does not improve but rather goes “off” if barrel-aged for more than about four years; nor does it age in the bottle. And there are no tequila vintage years, because tequila is harvested year-round and the quality of the crop is consistent.
The best way to get to know tequila is to drink it, and the best way to do that is to throw a tequila tasting.
Limit your tasting to six varieties; more than that and it will be hard to keep them straight. Serving them in classic tulip-shaped wine glasses will concentrate the aroma, which is part of the pleasure. (If you use shot glasses, people will start slamming them down, and there goes your sophisticated atmosphere.) Give your guests pencil and paper so they can make notes on their favorites. The point is to sip and savor, discuss and compare.
Have plenty of food to eat before and after the tasting—chips, salsa, guacamole, fresh corn tortillas—but don’t have anything too salty. To clear your palate, drink cool water and eat some bread or tortillas between samples.
In selecting the brands, try for a range of qualities. To establish a benchmark, you might start