Tequila Discovery

I haven't drunk Tequila for many years, and certainly had never sipped it before. I first tasted Tequila while I was working in the Far East where I was introduced to what were incorrectly called 'tequila slammers'. The Tequila would normally come out on a Friday or Saturday evening, when we were already 'well oiled' with iced cold beers. The tequila also normally took the blame for the hangovers the following morning.

Until I started drinking Whisky at the end of 2010 I probably didn't really know where Tequila originated from, although I have vague recollections of the Mexican association. I certainly wasn't aware of what it was made of, or even cared for that matter, it was all about having a blast!

However, with my recent conversion to Whisky I've started to investigate other distilled spirits, and so with a holiday booked to see family in Mexico City I thought I ought to find out a little more about Tequila and to taste and saviour a number of different types and brands during my three week stay.

So what is Tequila?
Fields of Blue Agave
Tequila is a distilled beverage made from the Blue Agave plant, a succulent, primarily in the area surrounding the city of Tequila, which is about 40 miles Northwest of Guadalajara, and in the highlands of the western Mexican state of Jalisco. The Blue Agave plants grow into large succulents, with spiky fleshy leaves, that can reach over two meters in height. 

The Aztec people had long made a fermented beverage from the agave plant which they called 'octli' (later, and more popularly called 'pulque'), long before the Spanish arrived in the area. 

Legend says when the Spanish conquistadors ran out of their own brandy, they began to distil the agave fermented beverage to produce what was probably North America's first indigenous distilled spirit. It was first produced in the sixteenth century near the location of the city of Tequila (which was not officially established until 1656) and it was first mass produced around 1600, although probably known as a Mezcal back then.

Harvested piñas
Tequila is produced by removing the heart or 'piña' of the the blue agave plant in its twelfth year. Harvesting consists of stripping the heart of it's leaves to reveal the piña which is then cut from the ground. After harvesting, the piñas are transported to ovens where they are slowly baked in order to break down their complex starches into simple sugars. Then the baked piñas are either shredded or mashed under a large stone wheel.

The extracted agave juice is then poured into either large wood or stainless steel vats for several days to ferment, resulting in a wort, or 'mosto', with a low alcohol content. This wort is then distilled once to produce what is called "ordinario," and then a second time to produce clear "silver tequila." A few producers distil the product for a third time.

From here the tequila is either bottled as "silver tequila", or it is pumped into wooden barrels to age where it develops a mellower flavour and amber colour. Usually, there are noticeable differences in taste between tequila that is made from lowland and highland agave plants. Plants grown in the highlands often yield sweeter and fruitier-tasting tequila while lowland agaves give the tequila an earthier flavour.

There are two basic categories of tequila: mixtos and 100% agave. Mixtos use no less than 51% agave, with other sugars making up the remainder. Mixtos use both glucose and fructose sugars. I decided that I would steer clear of the 'Mixtos' and only try the 100% agave tequila

Tequila is usually bottled in one of five categories:
  • Blanco ("white") or plata ("silver"): white spirit, un-aged and bottled or stored immediately after distillation, or aged less than two months in stainless steel or neutral oak barrels
  • Joven ("young") or oro ("gold"): a mixture of blanco tequila and reposado tequila
  • Reposado ("rested"): aged a minimum of two months, but less than a year in oak barrels of any size
  • Añejo ("aged" or "vintage"): aged a minimum of one year, but less than three years in small oak barrels
  • Extra Añejo ("extra aged" or "ultra aged"): aged a minimum of three years in oak barrels
With 100% agave tequila, blanco or plata is harsher with the bold flavours of the distilled agave up front, while Reposado and Añejo are smoother, subtler, and more complex.

As with other spirits that are aged in casks, tequila takes on the flavours of the wood, while the harshness of the alcohol mellows. The major flavour distinction with 100% agave tequila is the base ingredient, which is more vegetal than grain spirits.

Mexico has claimed the exclusive international right to the word "tequila", threatening legal actions against manufacturers of distilled blue agave spirits in other countries, and Mexican laws state that tequila can be produced only in the state of Jalisco.

Tequila is most often made at a 3840% alcohol content (7680 proof), but can be produced between 3555% alcohol content (70110 proof)

Tequila Discovery #1

Mezcal Sanzekan Joven (48% abv)
The first Mezcal tasted on my trip to Mexico
This artisan distilled Mezcal was tasted at a wonderful little restaurant off the square in Coyoacan. We first went to see the Frida Kahlo Museum and then walked into the town, and eventually settled down for traditional Mexican food at the Corazón de Maguey restaurant. They had a great selection of Tequilas and Mezcals on hand and great food was served, but the constant troupe of children selling cheap toys, chewing gum and sweets, as well as the passing street buskers was a little off putting, worse still was the organ grinder that was 'playing' in the square which seemed to go right through me. Perhaps it would have been better to settle inside the restaurant!

Mezcal is similar to Tequila in that it is made from the Agave plant, but a wild variant of maguey. The artisanal process, which has been transferred from generation to generation, uses wild maguey and other process of fermentation and distillation are 

This 'Joven' Mezcal is a young bottling and possibly a mixture of both blanco and reposado. It was very difficult to find information about this bottling except that it was made from 100% Agave wild Papalometl from El Peral, Chilapa, Guerrero, and distilled by (Master Mezcalero): Benigno Sánchez. The piñas were baked in May 2011 in electric ground kilns and fermented in wooden vats before being double distilled in copper stills.

So what did I think?
Smoky Citrus flavours were immediately apparent on the nose. It was my first nosing of any Tequila or Mezcal and so really didn't know what to expect. There was also a vegetal nose which did remind me of succulents. It was quite smooth on the palate and I thought there was even a little vanilla in the taste. I had a very generous measure and it went down really well with my meal, I certainly enjoyed my first taste of Mexican spirit.

Tequila Discovery #2

Don Julio Blanco (38% abv)

My first real Tequila in Mexico, chosen by my sister-in-law and tasted in the very famous 'La Opera Bar' in Mexico City.

Opened in 1876, La Opera is rather uncharacteristically ornate for a cantina. Amid the velvet drapes and chandeliers, you can order Huachinango a la Veracruzana (red snapper with olives and tomatoes), eel stuffed with avocado and a considerable selection of Spanish-style tapas from jamon Serrano to boquerones. But for all the flourishes, and the steady stream of tourists who find their way there, La Opera retains an aura of authenticity and a considerable dollop of charm. Look up at the bullet hole in the ceiling directly above one of the booths opposite the bar it was reputedly put there by Pancho Villa.

Don Julio founded his own distillery in 1942 and since then has aspired to produce Mexico's finest Tequilas by perfecting traditional methods.

Tequila Don Julio Blanco is the base from which all of their other variants are derived. Commonly referred to as "silver" tequila, its crisp agave flavour and hints of citrus make it a popular choice.

So what did I think?
Being a Blanco the spirit is clear. The nose has light caramel and crisp agave aromas blended with hints of fresh citrus, notes of lemon, lime and grapefruit. It's light on the palate, a little sweet and the agave is the main flavour profile with the citrus freshness livening it up. The finish is lightly drying with a touch of black pepper. I went back for seconds, but wasn't allowed to hold and photograph the bottle in this cantina. A little like new make spirit, not a great deal going on, and without the alcohol kick the Scottish spirit has!

Tequila Discovery #3

Hornitos Reposado 100% Agave (38% abv)
Amazing black pepper nose with this Tequila
We spent a week out of the city, staying at a large freshwater lake at Tequesquietengo. One evening we went out for dinner at the fabulous Hacienda Vista Hermosa.

Sauza Hornitos Reposado is a 100% de agave Tequila, rested for  two months in 10,000 gallon oak vats, Hornitos Reposado takes on a smooth, mature character that delivers the purest agave flavour possible from barrel treated tequila.  The initial heat of Hornitos Reposado leaves a complex and perfectly balanced warm, mellow finish

So what did I think?
This Tequila had an absolutely stunning black pepper nose, and was just like sniffing the pepper pot. The black pepper was on the palate too. I sipped this one alongside a traditional Sangrita, Mexican style with a slice of lime too. I gave up the lime quite quickly as it was too overpowering for the delicate agave flavours, but the peppery Sangrita complemented it perfectly.

Tequila Discovery #4

Jose Cuervo Tradicional Reposado (38% abv)

My second tequila at the Hacienda Vista Hermosa and my Sister-in-Law joined me. We were recommended by the barman to taste this straight from the freezer and paired it with the home made Sangrita.

Jose Cuervo Tradicional Reposado Tequila is rested in oak barrels six months to achieve a smooth, refined taste. Tradicional is the first Tequila created by the Cuervo family in 1795. The bottles are hand-crafted, numbered, and marked with the year of production.

So what did I think?
This was very refreshing, probably because it has been chilled. There was a peppery nose again, but in contrast to the previous dram this had white pepper on the nose, taste and finish along with the sweet agave flavours, a little vanilla from the wood and spicy heat from the pepper.

Tequila Discovery #5

1800 Añejo (38% abv, bottle #10897 2011)
One of my favourites of my Tequila discovery
On one of the days we were staying at Tequesquitengo we travelled up to Cuernavaca, the capital and largest city of the state of Morelos The city was nicknamed the "City of Eternal Spring" by Alexander von Humboldt in the nineteenth century and it has long been a favourite escape for Mexico City and foreign visitors because of it's warm, stable climate and abundant vegetation. It's only around 50 miles South of Mexico City, but traffic problems can make this a difficult journey, especially if you're living in the North of Mexico City.

We had a wander around the old quarter taking in the Cathedral and the castle before finding a small artisan market where I bought myself a rather decent Panama hat. When lunch was calling us we found the wonderful restaurant  'La India Bonita'.

I was hankering for an Añejo and was pleased to find this one in their bar. Tequila Reserva 1800 Añejo is 100% de Agave, double distilled, and aged in mostly French oak and a small portion from American Oak for up to 3 years. 1800  Añejo  is a rich, smooth, well-rounded Tequila with a spicy Agave taste.

So what did I think?
Looking back that this was one of my favourites of my Tequila adventure. It has a rich dark colour from the wood, and the nose has a lovely bourbon vanilla note, deliciously sweet with a light agave taste and so very smooth, and a light peppery finish. I wish I had brought a bottle of this back with me now.

Tequila Discovery #6

Herradura Reposado (40% abv)

I was hoping for a second Añejo but either something was lost in the translation or they simply didn't have a second Añejo, so for my second dram in 'La India Bonita' this was served

Herradura Reposado Tequila is aged in American oak barrels for 11 months. The soft flavour of the wood combines with the Agave to give life to the most famous rested Tequila in Mexico and the world. Casa Herradura has produced this 100% Blue Agave Tequila for over 24 years, and its' traditional taste can be enjoyed in more than 50 countries.

So what did I think?
I was pleasantly surprised with this Reposado, I found it to be very smooth with white pepper spicy notes, a little vanilla, citrus, and sweet baked agave. It also went very well with their home made Sangrita.

Tequila Discovery #7

Don Julio Añejo (38% abv)

Another meal out in Ceurnavaca and this time in a 'pseudo' Chinese restaurant! P.F.Chang  is a chain of restaurants found in the new large shopping malls in the cities of Mexico and also in America I understand. This restaurant was located in a new Mall just outside the very beautiful city of Cuernavaca. The food was superb, and staff very friendly and our waiter spoke very good English too. They had a good selection of Tequilas as well as other spirits, but I chose another  Añejo  as I was beginning to find a preference for these.

Rich, distinctive and wonderfully complex, its flavour strikes the perfect balance between agave, wood and hints of vanilla.

So what did I think?
Rich amber in colour and a complex nose of citrus; limes and grapefruit, creamy vanilla from and caramel along with the baked agave.

Smooth on the palate with honey and butterscotch flavours in the sweet agave. 

The finish is lightly spiced with a honey sweetness. I really enjoyed this and decided I need a second one of these just to make sure.

Tequila Discovery #8

Don Julio 70 Cristalino (39% abv)

Tequila Don Julio 70 Añejo Claro is a truly unique product that redefines the Añejo tequila category by embodying the rich, complex flavor of a traditional 100% Agave Añejo in a liquid that is filtered to become a clear spirit. in Jalisco.

Tequila Don Julio 70 originated from Master Distiller Enrique de Colsas special reserve and was launched in honour of the 70th anniversary of the year Don Julio González began perfecting the art of tequila making. To create this unique masterpiece tequila, Tequila Don Julio hand selects the finest blue agave plants at the peak of their maturity. The agave is then hand harvested and twice distilled at La Primavera, the distillery founded by Don Julio González. Tequila Don Julio 70 is aged to perfection in reclaimed American white oak barrels for 18 months, then carefully filtered for extra smoothness and its unique clarity.

So what did I think?
I got to enjoy this in the Del Angel Inn in Taxco, the fascinating mountain top town, famed for its silver mines. Now on the tourist trail, almost every other shop was a silversmith. After spending some time in the incredible cathedral, we managed to get right into the local market that winds its way through the very narrow cobbled streets which was a fascinating insight to life there.

The restaurant served traditional Mexican fare, and my Sister-in-Law chose this special Añejo to accompany my meal. The nose was very feint but sweet vanilla caramel along with the sweet agave flavours. It was smooth a creamy on the palate and very enjoyable, I went back for seconds again.

Tequila Discovery #9

Tres Generaciones Añejo (38% abv)
With Grappa glass and a mass produced Sangrita
On our final week in Mexico I wanted to start buying some bottles of Tequila to take home. The UK Duty Free allowance is a paltry one litre each, so would only be allowed to bring two litres of Tequila home with us. Ideally I didn't want to be limited to just two types, so was hoping to find a store that held half or quarter bottles. We checked a couple of stores out in the city, without luck but then found a great liquor store that had a range of Reposados in 200ml bottles. I took five different labels to make up a litre of my allowance. Unfortunately Añejo was not available in a smaller bottle, so bought this full size bottle of Añejo for drinking during the final week. I got to know this one quite well, my Sister-in -Law and I almost finished this off before we left.

This triple distilled Añejo Tequila has a rich, 100% blue agave flavour enhanced by 12 months in toasted American oak barrels where it gains its delicate amber hue, an array of subtle flavours, and its unique smooth, smoky finish. 

So what did I think?
The liquor store had an impressive range of whiskies, brandies and of course tequilas, it also had a range of glassware and I bought a couple of Grappa glasses to act as nosing glasses too.

It has a great looking bottle with its planished copper styling around the top of the bottle and wooden topped cork stopper, each of these bottles are filled and labelled by hand. 

This pale amber tequila has a strong toasted oak nose, light-cooked agave and a hint of caramel-vanilla sweetness to it. It's very smooth to taste with sweet Demerara sugar initially, then the soft oak flavours before the smoky agave. The finish is spicy black pepper and oak. Most evenings during our final week were spent sipping this alongside a Sangrita, a nice discovery.

Tequila Discovery #10

Tequila Corralejo Reposado (38% abv)
At Abuelos infamous Paella party on our last weekend there were two new Tequilas for me to try. First up was this Reposado from Corralejo. The first thing noticeable about this Tequila is the striking tall blue bottle - too tall for most drinks cabinets I'm sure!

This Reposado is "rested" for four months on three different kinds of oak - French, American and Encino - and represents a highly unique approach to the use of wood for influencing tequila flavour. 

This method has been validated by three Gold Medals in international tastings and the "Double Gold Medal" at the 2001 World Spirits Competition.

So what did I think?
With a light straw colour, and delicate fragrances of vanilla, peppercorn, brine and honey on the nose, it was fresh and fruity on the palate. Lots of lemon and lime flavours accompanied by a honey sweetness and warming peppercorn. The pepper stays right through to the very end.

Tequila Discovery #11

Mezcal Fandango Reposado (38% abv)

The final Tequila Discovery of my trip to Mexico and another Mezcal was enjoyed at the Paella party. This is another artisan Mezcal and comes in a distinctive metal labelled bottle. Distilled in Oaxaca (wa-ha-ca) which is the very centre of the Mezcal region. Again being an artisan bottling it was very difficult to find out much about this.

So what did I think?
There is a lovely smoky nose and taste to this Mezcal and very different to the Tequilas tasted over the vacation. Mezcal is not something that appeals to my Sister-in-law, but I certainly enjoyed the camp-fire smokiness to them. 

This one has a smoky agave sweetness with some light vanilla notes too. It went down really well with the seafood paella.

In Summary

We had a great vacation, and it was a real treat to taste the Tequilas and Mezcals in Mexico. I would have loved to have visited the areas where they were produced and take a distillery tour, but this was first and foremost, a family holiday. The Tequila and Mezcal tasting were the sprinkles on top of the icing. In almost all cases the spirit was enjoyed with real Mexican food, which was just superb.

I definitely preferred the Añejo Tequilas and was particularly fond of the 1800 out of the ones tasted. I think all of the Tequilas tasted are available in the UK, although I haven't really looked into it. I doubt the Mezcals I tasted, but I'm sure it won't be long before artisan Mezcal will be available here.

I brought home a further five different Tequilas home with me which I've yet to open. This short foray into the spirit of Mexico has been very enjoyable, it's not whisky but it is very enjoyable to saviour.

I have no plans to further my Tequila journey at present, my whisky journey is now back on track, but I will be updating this page with the next five discoveries as the bottles shown below are opened.

The Tequila stash I brought home looking splendid in the late summer sunshine
So watch this space for further updates later in the year, and maybe next time I visit Mexico, I'll get to walk through the Agave fields.

1 comment:

Whiskey Detectives said...

Nice tequila coverage. It's always fun to branch out from the whisky and experience other spirits. Then, you can avoid getting burned out on one type of booze. I've been to Cuernavaca and Mexico City before as well, and really enjoyed my time there, mainly in Cuernavaca. Cheers!