Mexico is famed for its rich, savory cuisine, there are many different flavors and ingredients to consider. When it comes to Mexican beverages, however, all attention is drawn to one drink: tequila.
Mexico and tequila are inseparable, both culturally and legally. Just as a bottle of Champagne can only be labeled “Champagne” if it originates from the Champagne region of France, tequila can only be labeled “Tequila” if it is produced in specific Mexican states.
This process starts with the harvesting of agave tequilana weber azul from the region, then is carefully fermented and distilled using the same ancient methods the Mexican people have always used.
One of the oldest tequila companies started marketing their product back in the 1750s and by the late 1800s, its appeal had spread across all economic and physical borders.
Harvest and Production
The harvest of the blue agave is simple, but hard work. These large, heavy plants are dug up and trimmed by workers called jimadores. Wielding a big stick with a razor-sharp blade, the jimadores slice off the leaves, then they split open the plant exposing the pina, or core.
The pinas are cooked for several days to convert their complex starches into a simple sugar that is then fermented using yeast. The fermented juice is then put through the distillation process, after which it is stored in oak barrels and aged.
But, that’s just one of the possible tequila-making processes. After centuries of perfecting this process, the Mexican tequila producers didn’t stop there. There are now so many varieties of tequila available, it’s hard to know where to start. Here’s a quick look at some of the basics:
Beyond the Barrel
There are two categories of tequila: 100% Blue Agave Tequila and Mixed Tequila. Only tequila made from 100% blue agave can be labeled “Tequila 100% de Agave.” Any tequilas made with added cane sugar, caramel color, or other syrups and flavorings are labeled simply “Tequila.”
If you decide you only want 100% blue agave tequila, you still have some choices within that category. Some of these may include tequila which has been left in the distilling process longer or aged in barrels longer for a smoother finish. Choose a high-quality tequila blanco and you will enjoy a very pure product which has a slightly smoky taste with fruity undertones.
The mixed tequila, or tequila mixto, has additives to produce some differences in the taste, color, and finish. Tequila resposado is “rested” and aged in wood barrels for several months. The blend of these woody flavors with the agave makes this type of tequila very desirable for sipping, which is a nice way to enjoy the aftertastes of vanilla and cherry.
For the highest quality sipping tequila, though, you’ll want to try one of the extra aged or ultra aged varieties, or tequila anejo, which gives this tequila its richer, deeper flavor. The tequila anejo products may be aged for one year to ten years, or even longer, which explains the extreme range of finishes.
How to Choose
The easiest way to choose the “right” tequila is to consider the drink or food you’ll pair with it.
If you’re making margaritas, for instance, you want to match the flavor intensity of the tequila you choose with the orange liqueur you use. Strong-flavored tequilas will overpower wimpy orange flavors and vice versa. Balance these two flavors properly and suddenly you’ve got nirvana in a glass.
When you start to feel adventurous enough to cook with tequila, just remember the two rules for cooking with wine – only use what you would drink and match the wine palate to the food palate. Those rules apply to cooking with Tequila as well. A little bit of tequila blanco is perfect in a light citrus-based shrimp marinade. Darker tequilas work well in recipes that are a bit heavier and smoky.
When you’re ready to head to your friendly neighborhood liquor store, be sure to write down all your questions and give the proprietor a chance to help you choose the very best tequila your money can buy. Whether you’re mixing drinks, cooking or just sipping, a good bottle of tequila is always a pleasure!