Tantalizing Tequila; Margaret Swaine’s Spirits Review
I’m not just imagining it. Every time I went to Mexico I was certain there were hundreds more tequilas available than on my previous visit. Now after talking with some tequila experts I know it’s true. According to those in the know there are today over 140 tequila distilleries in Mexico and more than 3,000 registered brands. Enough to give you a colossal headache if the current versions weren’t so smooth and sophisticated.
The gentlemen who filled me in on the latest were Juan Pablo De Loera, a Tequila Technician who has a tequila bar in Guadalajara and now travels the world with the Tahona Society team and Steffin Oghene who was General Manager of London’s Green & Red Bar (home to one of the largest selections of 100% agave tequilas in Europe) for three years. Both were in Toronto to lead tequila seminars.
Juan told me the cocktail scene at Playa del Carmen in Riviera Maya was the best in Mexico and from my experience there I’d agree. The bustling seaside town holds an annual tequila fest and also has a Hacienda Tequila Museum on 5th Avenue, its main street. The museum is rather hokey but the collection of tequilas for sale is enormous including the deluxe versions that sell for hundreds of dollars a bottle. It’s almost impossible to decide what to purchase. They do pour free samples – I tried a dozen or so before I made up my mind- not a bad way to go shopping.
Most of the production however of tequila takes place in another part of Mexico – Jalisco. The climate in Jalisco is ideal for Blue Agave cultivation, tequila’s primary raw material. (Agave Tequilana Weber Azul is one of over 130 species of agave and the only one authorized for tequila.) Jalisco represents a wonderful fusion of the past and present. Along with distillery tours and tastings, visitors can experience ancient archaeological sites, 300 year-old haciendas and the colonial heritage of Guadalajara, Jalisco’s cosmopolitan capital and Mexico’s second-largest city.
In 1974 the Mexican government designated Jalisco and four other Mexican states as the only regions that could produce government certified tequila. Jalisco produces the vast majority, some experts suggested about 98 per cent of all tequila, as tequila production is authorized for the whole region. The others can only produce in small strictly defined areas within their state. The spirit itself got its current name from the town of Tequila, named after the Tequili tribe who first inhabited Jalisco.
This spiny succulent Blue Agave plant, deified by the Aztecs, is the key to tequila’s unique flavour. Distantly related to the lily and aloe family it takes from seven to nine years to grow to harvest size. Maturity is important to get the correct sugar levels. Some producers such as Sauza are encouraging earlier harvests at six years old, by using modern methods of sugar extraction and aiming for a fruitier profile.
High end producers such as Herradura and Olmeca own their own agave fields and tightly control the harvest. San José del Refugio, located in the town of Amatitán in Jalisco is the tequila-producing hacienda that has been making Herradura tequila since 1870. It’s an impressive place to visit and many take the Tequila Express train, a 90-minute ride from Guadalajara through the agave fields to Herradura. Express is a bit of a misnomer, as the historic passenger train is really more party-central complete with Mariachis, snacks and plenty of tequila.
Herradura still has the traditional old stone ovens used to cook the agave piñas (pineapple-shaped heart of the plant) before fermentation. Olmeca also uses those slow cooking “hornos”. A modern invention is the auto-clave, a stainless steel pressure cooker than speeds up the process; the agave is cooked in a few hours instead of days as in the hornos. After cooking the hearts are then crushed, shredded or grounded into a pulp. Sausa has perfected a “diffuser process” that extracts the sugar without the need to cook the piñas – mechanical shredders break down the fibers, then just the juice is cooked.
The most traditional places use a Tahona, a large stone wheel turned by donkeys, oxen or tractors to crush the piñas. It pivots in a circular space (often a cement well) mashing the pulp of the agave into a coarse paste to extract the juice. Olmeca is one of only six distilleries left using the Tahona. The Tahona society takes its name from this process. Olmeca Tezón is super premium tequila made from 100 per cent agave using the Tahona method – the un-aged Tezón Blanco is freshly herbal; Tezón Reposado, aged 8 – 10 months is multilayered and smooth with a touch of spice; and Tezón Añejo, aged 18 to 20 months is velvety and creamy with agave and cognac-like notes. I haven’t seen them on LCBO shelves for a while but if they do reappear, I recommend you grab a bottle or two.
By law all Tequila must be produced from no less than 51 percent of sugars from the blue agave, with the rest from other natural sugars, most commonly corn or sugar cane. Tequilas containing more of the blue agave sugars have a more pronounced agave taste. If the label doesn’t say “100% Agave,” or a similar statement, the product is mixto tequila. I prefer the 100 per cent agave tequilas – I love that special, somewhat herbal and spicy, agave taste.
The majority of aged (añejo) tequilas spend their time in ex-bourbon barrels but lately there’s been some testing with former cognac and sherry casks to give different finishes to the final spirit. Single cask tequilas are another new to market product.
One thing is certain, tequilas are getting increasingly sophisticated and numerous. Sip and savour them instead of downing them in one gulp, with the lick salt and bite a lime ritual. That’s so old college.
For all reviews by Margaret Swaine, click here.