Generally, what makes tequilas different from one another is in the production process: how each distiller bakes the agave, ferments the juice, ages and blends the final product - plus how long each takes. But growing techniques, soil, climate, altitude of the fields, age of the agave when harvested, the type of equipment and other factors also influence the result. Perhaps the most critical difference is between 100% agaves and those made with sugars (mixto). Simply put, the 100% agave products are better in all aspects of flavour, aroma and body.
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Updated May, 2011
My Personal Notes on Tequila
A personal journey to rediscover tequila
Why would a Canadian living 3,000 miles or so away from the agave fields be so fascinated with tequila? Probably because it symbolizes Mexico for me, and it's a little bit of Mexico I can bring back home each time to share with my friends.
Tequila is a uniquely Mexican drink. All the advertising and the promotion north of the border can't change that. No matter how popular it gets among the norte americanos or how many gringos discover it during their vacation week, its soul still lies in the hot sun and arid soil at the foot of the volcano. It still whispers to us of ancient times beyond the ken of our own ancestry. We partake in it like visitors at a Mexican festival - we laugh, we cry, we dance, but we're still only passers by. We paddle on tequila's surface, seldom diving into its depths to fully appreciate its role in Mexican culture and history.
Tequila has an undeservedly bad reputation that comes from a lot of young people having really bad first experiences with cheap (mixto) tequila and the subsequent hangover that everyone wished they would rather be dead than suffer further. Remember kneeling in the bathroom making homage to the ceramic god? Or lying on the lawn desperately holding onto the grass to avoid falling upwards into space? Been there, done that, bought the T-shirt. And the hat, the sandals, the shades...
Okay, before I go any further, let me stick a caveat in here. I'm not really a purveyor of hard liquor. I don't like most of it, I detest most mixed drinks (especially those syrupy concoctions made with soft drinks... ugh!) and as a rule we don't even have much hard liquor in the house (aside from tequila), unless a guest brings it for his or her own use. In case anyone gets the wrong idea, I don't espouse serious drinking or quaffing bottles of tequila. Use your common sense and show restraint. 'Nuff said.
However, I do have a passion for tequila in modest quantities and have been known to enjoy a margarita sipped slowly at a table under a palapa on a Mexican beach as I watched the sun slip into the ocean. That's because I discovered 'real' tequila in Mexico about 25 years ago, quite by accident. I was on my last day in Acapulco, on my own, and was looking for some gifts to bring back for friends. I didn't want to lug back a couple of cases of Mexican beer or a roll of blankets, or some corny sombrero, so I decided to get some bottles of tequila. Nobody I knew drank it, but it would be at least authentic. So I went into a liquor store looking for some.
Imagine my surprise when I was confronted by a wall of varieties. In Canada I'd only ever seen two kinds on the shelf: Jose Cuervo Especial (gold) and Sauza Blanco. The Sauza was clear, the Cuervo Gold a pale yellow. Period. Two types, same illness. Same drunken ritual trying to coordinate the salt and lime, failing miserably and ending up on the floor trying to hang on for dear life as gravity behaved abominably. Ah, youth...
But here in front of me were dozens, maybe 100, different types, colours and differently-shaped bottles.
None of them with a worm, either. Doesn't tequila come with a worm, I asked? No, the shopkeeper told me, sadly shaking his head. I obviously had a lot to learn. And I had no idea how to judge these bottles except by price. So I picked one from shelf A, one from shelf B, and so on, gathering four different bottles to bring home.
Predictably, when I got back, no one wanted the booze because no one liked tequila for the same reasons I initially didn't. And no one wanted to relive those youthful moments. The gifts were politely, but firmly, declined.
The four bottles sat on my shelf for a few months. Then I got curious. I was trying to teach myself Spanish and the labels were about the only thing I had to read aside from my textbook. And even if I could understand the words, they made little sense. Añejo? Reposado? Hecho? The only way to be sure was to try them and decide through empirical means what they meant. I cracked one bottle and poured slightly less than it would take to get an amoeba drunk.
Expecting that bitter, oily taste of yore, I was surprised by the smooth, smoky flavours that came from the liquid. Hmm. I read the label... añejo. Very nice, but what does that mean? A bit like a brandy or a whiskey, although lighter in body, with a very distinct flavour. Then I cracked open another. Dark amber, with a cognac body, a bit woody perhaps. And a third, this time a reposado: lighter on the palette but smooth... and so on. My friends never knew or appreciated what they had missed.
Not what I expected at all. Here were spirits obviously distilled for polite company and civilized drinking. Not for mixing in margaritas, not for chugging, shooting or slamming, not even, I suspected for that confusing salt-and-lime ritual. They were for sipping in a mature fashion.
Not that I could convince anyone else, however. None of my friends at the time seemed inclined to change their perception of tequila, so I had to enjoy them alone, in my own sweet time, while I pondered the cosmos. As Anais Nin once said, "We don't see things as they are. We see things as we are."
Something triggered inside me the moment I took my first sip. There's a line that reaches back from the pale liquid, a connection that passes through dry fields lined with rows of pale blue agave, through the tumult of Mexican history, burrowing deeper into the past, beyond the Revolution, beyond the Conquest, nestling into some dark and mysterious world of warriors and kings. To drink tequila reminded me of a line from Allen Ginsberg's immortal poem, Howl:
"...angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night"
Well, I have gone back to Mexico almost every year after that first trip - 25 years ago - and experimented some more every time. I learned you can't judge a brand by its price. I brought back a bottle or two every trip, sometimes more, often the same brands because I became unwilling to change in case I discovered these marvelous drinks were only bright islands in a dark ocean of mediocrity, but sometimes a new bottle would find its way into my suitcase.
Those shelves stacked with neat rows of multi-hued, mysterious bottles called to me, like sirens, and I never forgot nor ever stopped searching the shelves for clues in the bottles of amber liquid. Tequila remained a mystery, haunting me, inviting me to discover its secrets.
Flying over Teotihuacan on one trip south, I was gripped with a sense of awe as I gazed at the ruins visible far below. Thirty thousand feet away, the City of the Gods still had the power to reach up and amaze me. I realized at that moment I really didn't know Mexico at all. Here was a land rich in culture and history, but it was foreign to me, despite my many vacations there. I was just a transient here, another ignorant gringo - not surprising for a tourist, but I was abashed at my ignorance of things Mexicana, and decided to correct it. And tequila was a landmark in that voyage I had to explore.
I decided to do some serious research and learn what this fascinating drink was really all about - who made it, how and what its roots were. I opened the door and fell into a new world, discovering 100% agave tequilas, reposados, añejos and even premium mezcal. I started writing to companies, to distributors, to the Mexican embassy and consulate. This was back before the Internet was around - no email, no web pages.
Slowly, I started to build a knowledge base about tequila. I put my experiences and knowledge into a column for the newspaper I edited. A year or so later, when the Internet was finally available locally, I expanded that one column with everything I had learned, and put it online. That was in 1995. I've continued doing it ever since, updating, changing, adding to it. From one page to many. And I continued to research as the Internet developed and opened new sources of data.
Then I started my forum in 2004 and got to know - and love - a wider community of tequila aficionados, many of whom I am honoured to know and call friends.
In 2006 and again in 2007 and 2008, my tequila education went up a degree when I went on tours of the tequila industry and finally had the chance to see for myself how it all came about, to take photographs, to actually walk among the agave in the fields. Those trips resulted in this new, revised web site, as well.
We hold private tastings in our home, a few every year, trying to introduce a widening circle of friends and co-workers to premium tequilas that we bring back from our trips to Mexico. In 2007, I hosted my first local restaurant tasting, with a PowerPoint presentation, slides and a talk on tequila, sponsored by 4 Copas Tequila and a surprise donation from Voodoo Tiki Tequila. I did the same in 2008, with support from Voodoo Tiki and Casa Noble.
I still have a lot to learn, but the research has been educational - and a lot of fun. You can't really appreciate tequila without understanding at least some of the history of Mexico, so the journey has brought me a lot closer to a country and culture I have come to love and respect.
In Tequila: Panegyric and Emblem, the poet Alvaro Mutis wrote:
"Tequila has no history; there are no anecdotes
Translated by Mark Schafer. From issue 27 of the journal Artes de México.
Since I began this site, I have been led inexorably down the path to discovery of premium mezcal, in large part thanks to Ron Cooper, of Del Maguey Mezcal. I also managed to find and try some local mezcals in Zihuatanejo. I was pleasantly surprised by the flavour - not as smoky as I expected: more delicate, with floral notes and a smooth finish. But consistency is lacking and where one batch may be satiny smooth, the next is like gasoline. Not so Ron Cooper's Del Maguey mezcal.
Ron provided me with several bottles of his Del Maguey mezcal for my edification. One was a rare wild mountain tobala mezcal, one of only 500 bottles made each year and an exquisite delight. Ron also shipped two bottles of his limited-edition Chichicapa and San Luis del Rio añejo mezcals. I had the pleasure of opening them and sharing these treasures with friends at a tasting event we hosted in our home. All were well received and highly regarded by the tasting panels. His pechuga rated top marks, higher than even the premium tequilas we had laid out for tasting at two occasions.