Although it has a reputation as a harsh and unforgiving spirit, tequila is now gaining popularity as a sophisticated sipping drink.
It’s the stuff of south-of-the-border legends, conjuring images of Spanish Conquistadors, Poncho Villa and the Mexican revolution, and of sleepy Mexican cantinas.
It also conjures images of margaritas, shots with salt and lime and raucous fraternity parties,
But tequila also has a sophisticated side, and more and more consumers are learning that good tequila, just like good whiskey, good brandy or good rum, has a place on the top shelf of any bar or liquor cabinet.
Brian Moxam, Cayman Distributors sales manager (beer and spirits) and wine sales manager Jodie Petts tasted and discussed tequila and its finer attributes over lunch at the Agave Grill.
Made in Mexico
Tequila is a spirit distilled from the juice extracted from the centre portion of the blue agave, a succulent plant that is a relative to the lily.
To be called tequila, the spirit must be made in Mexico, specifically in the state of Jalisco. Other spirits made in Mexico from blue agave or other types of agave outside of Jalisco are called mescal.
Like wine, there is a sense of terroir – or the land on which the agave is grown – in tequila, Moxam explained.
“Depending on whether it is grown in the highlands or lowlands, it will be different,” he said, noting that blue agave grown in the highland regions are larger in size and sweeter in aroma and taste.
The older the blue agave plant, the better tequila it will produce, Moxam said. Most agave plants used for tequila are harvested when they are between the ages of eight and 10 years old, but some are as old as 12 years.
Types and categories
There are two basic types of tequila – 100 per cent blue agave and mixto, the latter being a blend of at least 51 per cent blue agave and other glucose and fructose sugars, as well as colouring agents. Most gold tequila, like José Cuervo Especial,are mixto tequilas.
Moxam said there were five categories of 100 per cent blue agave, which are the premium types of tequila, including blanco, joven, reposado, añejo and extra añejo.
Blanco, or silver tequila, is the un-aged white spirit bottled immediately or in less than two months after distillation.
Joven is usually a mixto, but can also be a blend of blanco and a reposado or añejo tequila.
Reposado is a tequila aged in oak barrels of any size between two months and a year.
Añejo tequila is aged at least one year, but less than three, in small oak barrels.
Extra añejo is an ultra-aged tequila that has been aged in small oak barrels for at minimum of three years.
“The oak barrels give 100 per cent blue agave tequila its colour,” said Moxam, adding that the barrels are usually oak barrels from the United States, Canada or France, some of which were previously used to age other wines or spirits like bourbon or whiskey.
Through aging and using different kinds of either new or used oak barrels, the flavour components of tequila vary significantly, Petts said.
“It all depends on the tequila house and what flavours they want the tequila to have.”
Not all reposado or añejo are 100 per cent blue agave; some mixto tequilas will also claim these classifications, meaning they were aged in oak barrels, but it doesn’t mean the spirit was made from 100 per cent blue agave.
Different tequilas had different taste profiles. To get an idea of this, six different tequilas were tasted at the Agave Grill lunch.
Mixto tequila like José Cuervo Especial ($31.99/L retail at Blackbeard’s)- or ‘Gold’ – is best consumed in a mixed drink like a margarita or in a one-gulp ‘slam’ shot. It’s also good when cooking with tequila, which particularly complements shrimp, beef and chicken dishes.
Especial is an example of a mixto that is also aged a bit, which is why the word ‘reposado’ is on the label. Jose Cuervo Black Medallion ($25.79/750ml) is another mixto tequila, but it is also añejo, giving it a richer, smoother flavour.
“[Cuervo] Black is quite smooth, just like a good rum,” Moxam said.
The majority of tequila consumed in the United States is mixto, and most of that is used in margaritas. But 100% blue agave can also be used in the popular mixed drink to create an even better margarita.
To test this, Agave Grill hostess Erin Gray first served a margarita with Cazadores reposado ($38.99/L), a pale straw-coloured 100 per cent blue agave tequila.
“That is what we use for our house margarita,” Gray said. “It’s super smooth so you can really taste it.”
Surprisingly, the Cazadores reposado was pleasant straight – or neat – although it would have been more enjoyable served cold. Moxam agreed that particularly in Cayman’s climate, straight tequila can sometimes benefit from chilling.
The three tequilas that followed all fell under the classification of premium 100 per cent
blue agave tequilas. Cazadores añejo ($51.99/L) is a gold-coloured sipping tequila aged in small American oak barrels. It is one of Mexico’s best-selling tequilas – not overly complex but authentic.
Tasted next was Casa Noble Crystal ($47.99/750ml) an award-winning blanco tequila. This full-bodied tequila proves that even white tequilas can have wonderful complexity. Fantastic on its own, Moxam had Gray make margaritas with this fairly expensive spirit to demonstrate that good tequila isn’t wasted in a mixed drink, but actually makes for a superior margarita.
Finally, the Casa Noble añejo ($66.99/750ml) was tasted straight. This deep amber-coloured tequila is silky smooth and amazingly complex, with strong notes of vanilla and caramel. It would not be out of place at all with dessert after a fine meal, or sipping with a cigar after dinner.
Moxam said that these kinds of premium tequilas are where the market is heading.
“Tequila is not just a shot or for margaritas anymore,” he said, noting that sipping tequilas like Casa Noble are becoming increasingly popular here in Cayman.
“The average palate in Cayman has become more sophisticated over the years,” he said. “Premium tequila is one of those things like [premium] rum that is now becoming trendy.
He noted that tequila was selling well in Cayman.
“It’s one of the few [spirits] that is growing right now. We’re very pleased.”
How to drink
About 70 per cent of all tequila consumed in the United States is in margaritas. The other popular way to drink tequila in the US – and Cayman – is by the shot with salt and lime. A person licks the top of their hand in between their thumb and forefinger and then pours salt on it. A wedge of lime is held between the thumb and forefinger and then the salt is licked, a shot of tequila is ‘slammed’ in one gulp and then the lime is bitten, a process that all happens in a matter of seconds.
In Mexico, tequila is often drunk with sangrita, a spicy blend of tomato juice, citrus juices
, salt, onions and hot peppers. Sangrita is sometimes used as a mixer, but more often used as a chaser or in alternating sips.
Premium sipping tequilas are generally consumed neat in straight shots, without accompaniment. Even chilling is considered bad form with top-quality tequila because it mutes the flavours.
Petts said one popular way to drink añejo tequila is with a wedge of orange or a small amount of fresh squeezed orange juice.
“It’s a very good flavour combination. It really brings out the flavours of the tequila,” she said, adding that cinnamon was one flavour she could taste strongly when Casa Noble añejo was combined with a little wedge of orange. M
oxam noted the Cuervo Black was good in a mixed drink called Charro Negro. Mixed with Coke and lemon, this drink is a different twist to Cuba’s classic rum drink, the Cuba Libre.
“When you taste it, it’s not harsh,” Moxam said. “You could sit down and have a few of these.”
One fun way to consume tequila is in a Jello shot, something Gray made for the Mexican Independence celebration in September.
“I used one pack of lemon [Jello], one pack of lime, 20 ounces of tequila and 32 ounces of tequila,” she said.
Like just about every alcoholic beverage, tequila goes well with food, and particularly seafood.
To test its compatibility with food, Gray served some of Agave Grill’s favourites: two different kinds of taco trays, one with East End pork belly and another with shredded beef, both topped with homemade slaw; pulled pork quesadillas and tequila shrimp quesadillas; chicken enchiladas and tequila shrimp enchiladas; roasted pumpkin with cumin sauce; refried beans and black beans.
Gray said that tequila is used as an ingredient in several Agave Grill dishes, particularly those with shrimp.
“Tequila goes really well with shrimp; it just gives it an added zing,” she said.
For dessert, Gray served chocolate chilli lava cake with vanilla ice cream. The dessert paired well with Casa Noble añejo, and the ice cream particularly blended well with the vanilla undertones of the tequila.
On 22 October, tequila aficionados will be able to see for themselves what foods go best with the beverage, when Agave Grill hosts a five-course meal, paired with different tequilas.