Rediscovering the Diversity of Tequila
This article was originally posted by The Tasting Alliance.
It’s no secret that tequila’s market share continues grow at breakneck speed. According to market reports, agave-based spirits became the third largest spirits sector in the U.S. overtaking vodka and rum in 2021. But why is tequila so popular?
It would seem that a spirit that is only allowed to be produced from one plant, the Blue Weber agave, and made mostly in one Mexican state—Jalisco, with minor production allowed in Guanajuato, Nayarit, Michoacán, and Tamaulipas—would be simple and bland. But ironically, the rules governing the production of tequila by the Consejo Regulador de Tequila (CRT) established to protect the integrity of the beverage, actually allow for dizzying diversity, creativity, and innovation.
The versatility and agility of the category is key to its ongoing success and has allowed the spirit to fill millions more glasses every year. Let’s learn more about the diversity of Mexico’s largest spirit export.
Tequila is produced from the fermented sugars found in the Blue Weber agave — or Agave tequilana — plant. The agave core — or piña — is cooked, allows for the extraction of sugars to be extracted, fermented, distilled, and, depending on style, aged. With several distinct styles, there is a tequila profile to match every palate. Following are the four main styles of tequilas with some award-winning examples to try:
Silver/Blanco/Joven: Unaged or very briefly aged for smoothness; agave characteristics prevail, as does some heat, and impression of sweetness. Try Calle 23 Blanco. Reposado: “Rested,” or aged in wood barrels for 2 months but under a year, to soften the spirit. Try La Mala Reposado.
Añejo: Aged between 1 and 3 years, the most popular and complex style, with softened heat, prominent wood character; but with expression of vegetal agave still present. Try Casazul Añejo.
Extra Añejo: Aged over 3 years, this category is for those favoring intense wood characteristics. Try El Tesoro, Extra Añejo.
Go High or Go Low
Much like wine, terroir, or the combination of climate, geography, and soil, can play an important role in the ultimate expression of tequila. Most of the blue agaves are grown in Jalisco but there are distinct differences between the climate and soils of the regions known as “El Valle,” the valley, or lowlands and those from “Los Altos” or highlands.
In general, tequilas produced with agave from the El Valle tend to be bigger and bolder with herbal, floral, vegetal, citrus, and earthy aromas and flavors. Tequilas from the higher-elevated and cooler Los Altos, however, tend to be softer, more delicate, and slightly sweeter. In addition, agave plants can take a minimum of six years to mature in El Valle, but those planted in Los Altos can take up to 12 years to reach full maturity.
Unlike other spirits where the bulk of the production centers around the aging process after harvesting and distillation, tequila requires a vast amount of time invested in front-end cultivation. To truly discover the differences between the regions, compare blanco tequilas. The lack of oak aging allows for the inherent vegetal qualities of the agave to shine. Savor Kah Blanco or El Ultimo Agave Blanco for a examples of the bolder and earthy characteristics of El Valle. By contrast, try Cierto Reserve Blanco or Tequila Ocho Plata to experience the sweeter, softer notes typical of Los Altos.
Sip, Shoot, or Mix?
With an increase in small batch, artisanal producers crafting the spirit from family recipes, there are plenty of reasons to sip, as opposed to shoot, tequila. The opportunity to appreciate tequila’s different styles, nuances from terroir, and artistry imparted by the master distiller should not be rushed.
For a sipping tequila that showcases the vegetal characteristics of agave, choose an exceptional, unaged blanco such as the smooth, spicy, yet fruity Volcán de Mi Tierra. For those wishing to experience a softer tequila with more caramel and vanilla notes try the award-winning Proeza Reposado. Bourbon or whiskey enthusiasts will appreciate the full-bodied oak notes of Corralejo Añejo — which is also one of the few tequilas from Guanajuato — or Black Sheep Extra Añejo which oozes oak, honey, and baked agave flavors and aromas.
Of course, where would tequila be without its partner Cointreau in a Margarita or without grapefruit soda in a Paloma? Tequila’s versatility makes it the perfect ingredient for the universe of cocktails and is the spirit of choice for mixologists everywhere. For cocktails, blanco tequilas are the preferred style as the smooth, unaged character compliments mixers and bitters. Try mixing General Gorostieta Joven or Hotel California Blanco in your next libation and see why tequila remains the cocktail workhorse.