The Agave Trilogy pt. I: tequila
Often unfairly dismissed as a cheap party beverage, this fascinating and varied spirit deserves a permanent spot in your drinks cabinet
In this three-part series, Tempus is putting the more ubiquitous tipples of whisky and wine to one side and instead taking a look at some of Mexico's finest agave-based spirits, which have grown in popularity among the knowledgable contingents of British society in recent years. In the first instalment, we look at tequila: although often ignored, overlooked or even maligned by Brits, this iconic and varied spirit is a veritable untapped gold mine of delicate flavours waiting to be dug up, whether it be mixed into a zingy margarita or sipped neat like a fine brandy.
It’s 11:17pm. You’re several rounds down at your favourite city bar or members’ club. Someone calls out the dreaded rallying cry – “shots!” – as the night looks set to either kick up a gear or descend into chaos. Squinting past the mixologist behind the bar, you shudder at a bottle of clear liquid shimmering under the lights that, before you know it, is being poured into shot glasses as your acquaintances pass round the salt. You neck the shot with a grimace before biting into a wedge of old lime that brings yet more tears to your eyes.
This is the baffling experience that comes to mind for many non-Latin Americans when presented with the prospect of drinking tequila, the iconic Mexican spirit harvested from the blue agave cactus plant. Contrary to its undeserved reputation, tequila is not simply a cheap way to cap off a party.
Much like whisky or brandy, the tequila family is a monumental one, encompassing a multitude of styles, profiles and preparation processes, each with its own unique character and suited to very different serving methods. The fine complexities of this spirit are becoming ever more appreciated by connoisseurs, which big-name brands getting in on the action – luxury drinks brand Diageo boasts Don Julio and DeLeón within its tequila portfolio as well as George Clooney’s Casamigos brand, which it acquired in a US1bn deal in 2017.
Like champagne, only agave spirits made in one of five regions of Mexico – the first and best-known being city of Tequila in Jalisco state – can be called tequila (the appellation of origin has been strictly protected by Mexican law since 1974). In the simplest terms the spirit can be split into five categories, differentiated by how long they are aged in barrels after production.
That misfortunate shot of tequila so maligned from murky nights out will almost certainly have been a tequila blanco. Most often manifesting as a crystal clear, transparent liquid, blanco is effectively un-aged – or kept in steel tanks for a week or two – before being bottled.
As there is no influence on the flavour profile from being aged in barrels, blancos are considered the truest demonstration of the skill of the distiller, with the raw flavour of the agave coming to the fore. A quality blanco is the ideal tequila for those who like their margaritas big and bold; its earthy, peppery profile offers a punch to counteract the sweetness of the Triple Sec or, in case of a Tommy’s margarita, the agave nectar.
Adding a small amount of barrel-aged tequila to a blanco transforms it into a tequila joven – a category of tequila that is considerably harder to track down outside of Mexico and its better- quality variants are widely known as a sipping spirit. Joven, meaning young, can also be known as tequila oro (gold) and created by adding colouring or flavouring to blanco.
Hopping up a step is the tequila reposado, aged in oak barrels for 60 to 364 days. The barrels are usually imported from the US, Canada or France, and lend the tequila a smoother profile with hints of vanilla and oak. Although some purists may warn against doing so, a reposado can be added to a margarita for a more unconventional take on the drink, as its thicker, woodier flavour nudges the classic cocktail in a more indulgent direction. However, should you opt for a reposado margarita, the addition of a teaspoon of jalapeño juice or a couple of raw slices of the pepper itself adds a sumptuous zing to this full-on variant of the drink.
Until recent years, The UK market has been mostly unfamiliar with the joys of the final types of tequila – añejo and extra añejo – which boast loftier price tags, relative rarity and, ultimately, an incompatibility with the British perception of tequila as a shot rather than sipping drink.
As any expert will tell you, these super-premium tequilas are best enjoyed neat; to chuck this decadent spirit in a cocktail or knock a measure of it down in one gulp would be nothing short of sacrilege. Instead, sip it straight or with a single cube of ice from a copita (tulip) glass. A whisky or brandy glass will also do at a pinch.
Aged in oak barrels for one to three years, añejo is identifiable by its gorgeous deep amber colour. The complexity of an añejo is its greatest draw, with each producer calibrating their high-end tequilas with signature flavour profiles varying in sweetness and fruitiness, marked by rich notes of toffee and some containing hints of chocolate or even orange.
Those looking for a true collector’s item must track down a bottle of extra añejo, tequila aged for more than three years. These take the añejo flavour profile to the extreme, with a flavour so heavily tinged by sweet caramel that the drink could serve as a showstopping digestivo. Even rarer variants of the extra añejo are occasionally flavoured in rum, sherry or bourbon casks.
As the first distilled drink known to have been produced in the Americas, tequila is steeped in history. It has served as an intangible pillar of Mexican and Mesoamerican culture for almost five hundred years, its iconic agave zing thriving through wars, natural disasters and the colonial era. Simply put, tequila deserves better than the treatment it is subjected to outside of Mexico; it is a fascinating, complex spirit that is more than worthy of your copita, your taste buds and your time.