TEQUILA STYLES, AN INTRODUCTION
THURSDAY 27TH OCTOBER 2022 | BY RODRIGO MAMMANA, STORES GENERAL MANAGER
Up until recently, the mere mention of "tequila" was invariably associated with teenagers downing shots of the cheapest product and suffering from Homeric headaches the next day. "Premium tequila" was already known, but it was confined to select circles of producers and enthusiasts, rarely outside of Mexico. These times are over. Wait a minute: I am not saying that young people with an extremely limited budget and thirst for booze started to spend the money that they do not have on fancy tequilas, but that when they got older, started to pay attention to more refined products, and started to understand that this amazing Mexican spirit could indeed be smooth and be enjoyed sipping without needing lime to mask the faults of an industrial badly made “Mixto” (I will better explain later). These same people also started to figure out that, in the world of premium tequilas, there are distinct categories with different styles and flavours, each of them adequate for diverse occasions.
Before starting to talk about styles, it is important to define what tequila is. My intention here is not to be too technical (as per the article's title), but to give a general understanding of the peculiarities and rules that makes tequila a unique spirit. Ok, here we go: what is tequila?
A Brief History of Tequila
Almost all alcoholic beverages in the world have a legend where someone forgot a fermentable ingredient in a bowl, barrel, whatever, and then another chap decides to drink the stuff and thinks that is talking with the gods. Yes, there is a similar tale in Mexico, saying that much before Cortez, a group of peasants in Jalisco were running away from the storm and found shelter in a cave. There was lightning, thunder (in this order), and… a field of agave on fire! They ate the stuff, left some cooked agave there, and many days later someone drank that and saw stars.
This is an excellent story when you want to make something special but only explains the fermented product. They ignored the distillation process that started probably with the Chinese, and later the Arabs mastered the technic and bought the gift to the Europeans. I am not a historian, but I guess that the Spanish “conquistadores” maybe helped a little with the distillation process.
Legends apart, several pre-Hispanic records are mentioning a milky and seductive liquid; they were referring to pulque, a drink produced by fermenting maguey (the original name of agave) which is still popular in some Mexican regions. The “wine” made with maguey usually was fermented with the addition of some herbs called “octpatli,” and had a white colour and harsh flavours. Many indications suggest that the consumption of pulque was not exclusively for intoxication, but also as a medicine. It was only after 1600, during colonial times, that the distilled pulque started to be produced on large scale. However, King Carlos III ended their happiness by banning the production of "mezcal wine" in the colony, so as not to interfere with the Spanish wine market. It was only in the late XVIII Century that the banning was lifted by Fernando IV. The first license was granted to Jose Antonio Cuervo, who had a popular taverna in the city of Tequila. After him, Don Cenobio Sauza and Herradura also established factories in Tequila town. It was only in 1904 that new enterprises started in the Highlands, notably Tequila Centinela producing high-quality tequilas in Aranda s (There are also lowlands and highlands in Mexico, both much higher than Scotland: lowlands are around 1500 metres, and highlands are more than 2000 metres. The agave plants in the highlands are larger and contain more sugar than the ones in the lowlands). Tequila's popularity increased during the Mexican revolution, with exports to the US increasing exponentially. Prohibition was also a factor that boosted its production, but the real popularity of tequila outside Mexico started in the 1990s.
Definition of Tequila
In the same way that official regulations determine the rules and procedures to produce wines, Scotch Whiskies, Cognac, etc, there are specific rules to be followed if you want to put the name “Tequila” on the label of the product. The rules and regulations of tequila are made by NOM ( Norma Oficial Mexicana) and certified by Consejo Regulador del Tequila (CRT), and the main ones are described below.
Firstly, tequila must be produced by fermenting sugars from the Tequilana Weber Agave. The Blue Agave is a succulent plant with long, thick, fleshy and spiked leaves that have a blueish tint. A very productive plant, the Blue Weber reaches 2 metres when fully mature. There is no doubt that this agave was selected as the most suitable option for making Tequila. This is due to its high yield, long growth time, and ability to hold more sugar than any other agave. Tequila was produced from at least nine varieties of agave in 1887, according to a reference. According to plant conservation studies, there were traditionally four closely related subspecies of tequila agave: azul (blue), sigün, criollo, and variegated azul. However, it can be blended with sugars from other sources, provided they do not exceed 49% of the blend.
Do you remember when I mentioned the “mixto”? Yes, that is the case. Even knowing that the best quality tequilas are produced with 100% Blue Webber agave, this rule opens the gates for whom want to produce a cheaper and industrial product (yes, the teenagers’ headaches mentioned at the beginning of this article). It is also important to highlight that Mixto tequilas can be sold in bulk and bottled in other countries. 100% agave tequilas must be bottled in Mexico. This is the reason why you see “ 100% Agave” written on the label of premium tequilas; it is a good indication that at least the producer is trying to make a better quality product. Tequila also must have an ABV between 35% and 55% and must be produced in the Jalisco area and a few other municipalities: Guanajuato, Michoacán, Tamaulipas and Nayarit.
Ok, you already know a few stuff about tequila. But why do they have different colours? When we talk about cheap Mixto tequilas is easy: Silver is white, Gold is golden. You don’t even care how they got that colour, right? You shouldn’t, as tequila “gold” is coloured with caramel. However, when we refer to premium tequilas made with 100% Blue Webber, you probably noticed that there are three main categories and a few others that are starting to become trendy. Following, you have a description of these different styles:
Blanco (white) tequilas are bottled after the distillation without any ageing in barrels. The good quality Blanco tequilas have a fresh, clean and fruity flavour, and it is exactly this freshness that you want when you make classic cocktails like Margarita or Paloma. This doesn’t mean that you can’t sip a white tequila neat: the best producers make great tequilas with perfect balance, delicious on their own.
Despite the practice of ageing agave spirits in large oak vats being very common for a long time, the “reposado” category was officially implemented in the mid-1970s. Reposado tequilas are aged between two and twelve months. Due to the hot weather in Mexico, the ageing process is much faster than in cold places like Scotland or Cognac, so reposado tequilas have enough time to extract some layers of flavours and aromas from the oak, gaining complexity like vanilla notes and a mellowed texture. Many tequila enthusiasts think that reposado should be always appreciated as neat, but there are a lot of great cocktails that can be done in this category.
It is commonplace to hear that the Anejo category (which ages more than one year) is "too oaky", and you won't be able to appreciate the nuances of the agave flavour. Nevertheless, this argument is only partially true, because too much oak is only bad if your base spirit lacks the structure to balance it with the oak. I agree that there are many unbalanced Anejo tequilas, but great producers are capable to make outstanding products from this category.
Extra Anejo tequilas must age in oak barrels for more than three years. Due to the reasons explained above, the intensity of flavours coming from the wood interaction is predominant, and almost nothing is left from the fresh flavours of agave. Depending on the quality of the oak used, this category can develop extraordinary complexity and can be enjoyed in the same way that you do with a fine Cognac or Scotch.
A recent trend in the premium tequila market, Cristalino is a peculiar style which consists of a clear and translucid product, although having the complexity of the aged ones. To achieve this result, activated charcoal is used to filter the aged tequila and remove the colour (normally, after the filtration, they use cellulose to remove the “dust”). Usually, Cristalino tequilas are aged like Anejo or Extra-Anejo, but there are a few excellent Reposado Cristalino. Colour removal without removing other flavours is a very complex task, and only great distillers are capable of doing so. Too much carbon removes flavour and colour. Despite the Cristalino style being permitted by Tequila Regulatory Council, it is not an official category. Producers are obligated to show evidence that the product was aged to have the “Cristalino” on the label.
Having learned that fine tequila can be enjoyed in the same way as great spirits, why not step out of your comfort zone and start exploring this fantastic drink? Whether in cocktails or enjoyed straight, quality tequila is always a fascinating experience, full of culture, passion and history. Salud!