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Salud: A Gentleman’s Introduction to Tequila

Tequila isn’t just for shots and blacking out. It can be as fine a spirit as scotch or bourbon when enjoyed correctly. We show you what to look for in a tequila, how to drink it, and offer a few recommendations.

 

Quite possibly the only spirit more universally infamous than good ‘ol Jagermeister for its face-numbing and night-erasing effects, is the south-of-the-border spirit of choice; tequila. Your stomach may already be clenching as you flash back to a raucous tequila-fueled night out with the boys you almost remember. In Mexico, however, tequila is not just some boozehound’s party fuel; it’s a way of life, one that can be enjoyed among all social classes.

Just as with scotch, fine cigars, even craft beers for Americans, a real Mexican gentleman understands that tequila is about texture, aroma, subtlety, flavor, status, and above all, culture (Ok, so getting drunk may have a little to do with it). In this article, we here at Primer seek to introduce you, formally, to one of the most misunderstood liquors in the world.

First things first: What is tequila?

agave azulTequila is a strong liquor that is made from a type of cactus native to Mexico called agave (Say it with me: Ah-GAH-Vey), particularly, the BLUE AGAVE plant. Other similar liquors are made from other types of agave, but REAL tequila is ONLY made from BLUE Agave (more on that later in the article.)

Region also determines authenticity. Much like Champagne, in order for Tequila to really earn its name, it MUST be made from plants that come from a specific region of Mexico where the Agave plant grows natively (the city of Tequila, and a few other specific areas).

We can trace the earliest roots (no pun intended) of distilling agave to make booze all the way back to the ancient Aztec people. Their drink, Pulque (POOL-kay), is among the earliest known ancestors to tequila. When the Spaniards came, they adopted the drink and began utilizing some of their own European techniques for distilling. This slowly evolved into what is modern-day tequila. Other liquors, like Vodka, have had a history of (sometimes heated) debate over their origins, but there is no question; Tequila is Mexican.

What’s on the label, and what it means.

The tequila you buy will either be “100% Agave” or “Mixto” (MEEKS-toe).  With 100% Agave, the flavors and notes will be very “up front.” If you are a fan of robust, exotic flavors, this will be the type of tequila you want. Mixto, on the other hand, has its flavor “cut” by up to 49% sugar and water. This will NOT make the tequila sweet, only less in-your-face. It will have a more subtle flavor, whose notes will linger for longer. Neither is better or higher-end than the other, it’s simply a matter of preference and occasion.

Beyond the two basic categories we just mentioned, there are also about a half dozen different types of tequila within each. It may sound confusing at first, but trust me, it’s not rocket science.

Here are the one’s you’ll encounter the most.

Tequila Plata (AKA Silver, White or Blanco)

This clear tequila is not aged before storing, and will have the simplest flavor. This is a popular type for mixing since it will “disappear” most and not overwhelm the flavor of the drink. Common at the high, middle, and low-end, beginner shot-shooters (is that a thing?) will like this for its smoothness. Simply put, this is tequila for vodka drinkers.

Tequila Reposado

Tequila Reposado is aged in OAK for 2-11 months before storing or distribution. Among the more popular types of tequila, this medium-amber colored spirit will have a light, but complex flavor, making it the ideal “All Purpose” tequila. You can shoot it, you can sip it, or you can mix it.

Tequila Oro (Gold)

This light amber colored tequila, also called “Joven,” is a mixture of Tequila Plata and Reposado. It’s mostly found in the low to middle-end categories. It’s also usually the strongest, as far as alcohol contents goes and the harshest, as far as flavor goes.

Tequila Añejo

Pronounced “On-YAY-ho,” this is the most complex-flavored type of tequila. It’s aged for at least a year (Extra Añejo is aged 3+ years) in a small oak barrel, giving it a robust, smoky flavor and bright floral undertones (try not to sound too pretentious when repeating that to friends). If Plata is “tequila for vodka drinkers,” this is the tequila for gin fans (and people like me, who just really like the taste of tequila.)

How to Drink It

This actually seems to be the biggest mystery among the uninitiated; nobody seems to know how to drink tequila outside of margaritas and shots.

You can apply most of the same rules to tequila that you would to whiskey or scotch. If drinking something good, an aficionado will drink 3-5oz. out of a snifter (a low-ball glass also works) served at room temperature, or on the rocks. That’s it. There’s no need to shake the glass or sniff it, the aromas will become more prevalent as you are drinking. One drink should last you most of the night (gentlemen sip, folks).

Remember, the good stuff is to be enjoyed, not pounded. If the flavor is too intense for you, salt about an inch of your glass (don’t salt the whole thing) and have a slice of lime (preferably key lime) on hand as a quick chaser. A good tequila should have a warm kick to it, and it should start in your chest (don’t ask me how the timing works, it just does.)

When taking a shot, always remember to raise your glass before drinking if you are with company. It’s not required that a full, heavy hearted toast be delivered upon every shot, but it’s generally considered a courtesy to give your fine drink and even finer company the nod. If everyone is taking a shot (this is where the fun begins!), then a good customary toast is, in unison, “Parriba!” (everyone raises their drinks) “Pabajo!” (everyone touches the bottom of their shot-glass to the table) “Pal Centro!” (drinks meet in the center) “Y Pa Dentro!” (Drink). Once again, if the flavor is too intense; salt, shot, lime.

If you want something different (and ZESTY!), make yourself Sangrita (Sang-Greeta) by combining orange juice, tomato juice, and cayenne powder. Take this sweet/spicy mixture in alternating shots with your tequila of choice, no salt or lime needed.

What the heck is “Mezcal?”

Remember when I said that REAL tequila is made from BLUE agave and only in very specific regions? Well, when those guidelines are not followed, what you have is mezcal (Mess-Call). Made from the more common Maguey plant (a cousin to the blue agave), mezcal has a smoky and MUCH harsher taste to it. It is not a strict rule, but generally speaking, mezcal is considered lower-quality and less refined than tequila.

OK…so we’re all curious about The Worm!

Simply put, the worm is a gimmick. It started in the 40’s to add a “hand crafted authenticity” appeal to sell cheap mezcal to tourists. It’s important that you know that real tequila NEVER (EVER) has a worm in it. When you see a worm at the bottom, THAT IS NOT TEQUILA, and it’s likely not even very good by mezcal standards.

If you just can’t resist the allure of consuming a fermented and preserved booze-worm, keep in mind that you will very presently be on-your-ass-drunk and likely vomiting. I don’t know the chemistry behind it, but that little worm PACKS A PUNCH.

What everybody is drinking, and what YOU should drink.

When shopping for tequila, here are some brand recommendations (remember, these are based on my opinions and experience. If yours differ, that is OKAY.)

HIGH END

What everyone is drinking: Patron Silver
Very likely the most popular top-shelf tequila today, Patron is very quickly becoming something of an icon in bars and clubs.

What YOU should drink: Don Julio Reposado
Look, I know a lot of you love Patron because it’s so smooth. Please understand, THAT IS WHAT’S WRONG WITH IT. Be honest, how often is the most popular thing also the best (Bud Light, anyone?) A good tequila SHOULD have a warm kick to it, and it should taste LIKE TEQUILA. Don Julio, in my humble opinion is the perfect choice for someone who wants to enjoy tequila for what it is. The flavor will be complex, and will tell the world that you don’t want what everyone else is drinking; you want what’s GOOD. When you’re ready, graduate to Don Julio Añejo.

MIDDLE END

What everyone is drinking: Jose Cuervo Especial
Cuervo is the best-selling brand of tequila in the world (Bud Light, anyone?)

What YOU should drink: Sauza Hacienda
Sauza Hacienda is a fantastic little drink. At around $25 for a good-sized bottle, this reposado tequila has all the taste and quality of a top-shelf tequila at a price that can keep a party going all night. It’s fantastic in mixed drinks, and perfect to shoot. It’s Sauza’s best kept secret.

LOW END

Don’t drink low-end tequila. JUST. DON’T.

My grandmother once said to me “Tequila is the most unifying aspect of our culture. (In Mexico) even our very language can differ from region to region, and from wealthy to poor.  Tequila though, is universal. The richest man can raise his drink to the poorest, and while the tequila flows, all will be well.” Even if you’re not Mexican, take a little pride next time you sit down to drink North America’s first native spirit. Salud.

About

Ricardo E. Presas is a public speaking coach and educator who, when not workin' hard for The Man, is busy running his own freelance film and video production company in Texas. You can keep up with his most recent projects and ramblings by following him on twitter.com/ricardopresas.

 
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  • http://.... Gustavo

    great article! 3 years ago i switched from tequila to mezcal, forget the worm… the joven or blanco is better tasting than any tequila, and the aged version can take bourbon anytime… i made the switch while in Guatemala, in a small joint called cafe no se, there they brought mezcals from Oaxaca, Mexico. AMAZING! the richness of their product was impressive… nowadays they are selling in the states and australia, look for them: ILEGAL MEZCAL.

  • Ricardo

    Thanks for reading Gustavo!

    I will agree that I have had some EXCELLENT Mezcals, and their growing popularity is only good news for afficionados. Real tequilas availability may be going down a bit in the coming years, so it’s good to know that Mezcal culture may be ready to take over where tequila lets off.

  • http://thewhatzine.blogspot.com Patrick

    Fantastic article! Tequila is my favorite drink, and while I do enjoy it on the rocks, I’ve recently been enjoying a tequila tonic every now and then as well. I’m looking forward to getting some Don Julio Reposado!

  • http://tequilaknight.com/don-julio-tequila.html Rodolfo Jacinto

    That’s exactly right Ricardo, Patron tequila is overrrated and Don Julio is an excellent substitute for the same price. I actually made the case for Don Julio on my tequila website. Nice to see my preferences are shared by people in the States.

    It also baffles me how people can settle for “just OK” when excellent is just around the corner.

    Thank you for keeping it real… the industry sure needs it!

  • cisco

    i cannot recommed el jimador’s anejo enough.

  • Javier

    Great article, and I couldn’t agree more about replacing Patron with Don Julio. It’s one of the best tequilas that I’ve ever had.

    The only thing that I would add is the suggestion to check out 30-30 tequila as a perfect Middle-End price point. Despite its name, it’s a really great tequila that goes for around $25 (Reposado) and $30 (Anejo), but rivals tequilas that are $15-$30 more expensive.

    Also, there’s a website (www.tequila.net) that has tequila reviews, information about distilleries, tequila bars, and just about anything that you could ever want to know about specific tequilas.

    • Bastille

      30-30 is a great tequila. In line with the main stream Cabo Wabo for half the price. Cabo is looked at in the same way as Patron by tequila snobs, though I think Cabo is a legit tequila whereas Patron is not. but 30-30 is the real deal.

  • Ricardo

    Javier,

    Thanks for the link! I spent hours browsing it last night!

    Cisco,

    Yes, El Jimador is great. It’s easily in my top 5 favorite brands alone with the two I mentioned.

    Rodolfo,
    I live on the Mexican/American border, and my father and his whole family are originally from mexico (they immigrated legally), tequila is BIG in my family.

  • http://www.ezbeanz.blogspot.com thundergeoff

    Don’t eat the worm! I loved the article. It is very informative, educational and lots of fun. I like the how-to portion for the guys like me. I didn’t know too much about tequila but now I feel like I’ve learned something.

  • Darcey Kobs

    Great article! However, I disagree that tequila has to be aged to be great. One of the things that I like best is that blancos have their own distinctive taste without aging.

  • Mot-Mot

    Nice Article, very informative about tequila.
    Sometimes our best buddy here in mexico is MR. JOSE CUERVO, we usually drink weekly LOL, because this one is very affordable… :)
    Salud compaÑeros… :)
    I really like this article…

    Saludos!

  • Ricardo

    Darcey,

    I agree completely. Each has a distinct flavor, and fits certain moods. I find myself drinking Plata more in the summer because it has a nice crispness to it. If it sounded like I favor reposado or anejo, it might be because summer isn’t here yet!

    Thanks for reading!

  • cisco

    seasons are key to many a drink be it tequila, whiskey or beer. cigars as well, though, activity is also a factor there.

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  • Daniel Reyes

    Awesome! I liked the how you asisted with the pronounciation for those of us who don’t “habla”. A fun and Informative read! Keep them coming, looking forward to seeing more!

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