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Like single-malt scotches, or small-brewery sakes, tequilas vary according to the company making them, the process, the plants and their growing environment. The temperature, soil, types of equipment, age of the plants and the means by which the plants are baked, and the way the tequila is aged all affect the flavour and body.
Updated May, 2011
Taste, marketing and the changing face of the tequila industry
In his poem Tequila: Panegyric and Emblem, Alvaro Mutis wrote:
Tequila is a pallid flame that passes through walls
Translated by Mark Schafer. From issue 27 of the journal Artes de México.
I recommend you taste tequila in a wine glass - the Riedel Ouverture (408/18) is the official CRT-approved tequila glass (as is their more expensive Sommeliers' 4400/18 glass) if you can find it, but in a pinch any similar wine glass where the mouth tapers in from the bowl will do. I have also used the ISO standard glass for wine tasting to taste tequila.
Drinking from a traditional caballito is always good for sipping if you already know the product, but doesn't allow you to capture the nose as well as a proper wine glass. If you want to discover some of the subtleties of tequila, use a wine glass. You many even find a large brandy snifter helps you appreciate the aromas better.
Here's the basic tasting method, the same method you've probably seen for wine or other spirits:
First check the glass for the colour if it's a reposado or añejo. While colour doesn't affect the flavour, the density or hue can suggest the amount of wood in the tequila and hint towards its complexities. For me the colour is more of an aesthetic pleasure: those copper and brass highlights just add to the pleasure. That's another reason for a wine glass and not a coloured, decorated or opaque caballito.
Swirl the tequila. Look for the legs - the "lagrimas de la agave" - tears of the agave. These suggest essential oils in the tequila. Swirling the liquid also releases some of the molecules into the air for the next step. Carlos Camarena, owner of El Tapatio, has said, "Tequila, like a woman, should have beautiful legs." The long legs should be continuous, and not break quickly, to show the tequila has retained its essential oils.
Next, open your mouth a small amount and gently sniff the glass - opening while you sniff helps avoid the tears that alcohol can bring.
Because it has a lot more alcohol than wine, and alcohol rises quickly, there will be more alcohol at the top of the glass, so different parts will have different aromas. Try to sniff different areas of the glass to see what you can get.
If you use a brandy snifter to taste the tequila, you will discover there are three distinct places in the glass to test - the bottom (closest to the tequila) has the alcohol; the middle has the agave, and the top has the wood. You will need a large enough snifter to allow the aromas to separate.
Then sip a small amount - and hold the tequila in your mouth for about 10 seconds, while sucking in a bit of air. Move it around a bit to get it over your tongue, and suck in some air over top of the tequila to bring the aromas up to your nose again. Breathe out through your nose before swallowing. There are different taste zones on your tongue - four specific areas for salty, sweet, bitter and sour. Try to be sure the tequila washes over the entire tongue.
Swallow, of course, so you can appreciate any finish or aftertaste. I've never been keen on spitting out good tequila. I also recommend you breathe in a bit of air after you swallow to see how the tequila lasts in the mouth.
Here's a sample of a simplified tasting method. I use this for group tastings, with a line for each product. My simplified tasting sheets ask tasters to rate a tequila on nose/aroma (0-3), body/taste (0-3) and finish/aftertaste (0-2) for a total of ten possible points. There are some basic taste keys to check below. More complex tasting records are available that include various aromas, tastes and finishes.
Here's a sample flavour profile used at Liquor and Drink. This is another way to identify the aromas and flavours in tequila. The author has said he is planning to rename 'sour' to 'acidity.'
Remember that everything you eat before a sip will affect the taste of the tequila. If you are interested in properly tasting, stick to bland items like dry bread or unsalted crackers, and cleanse your palette with water afterwards.
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, the use of chemicals 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.
Tasting notes - what I look forThese are some of the characteristics I have found in my years tasting tequila. There are more than 600 different flavours and aromas you can find in tequila, but I find those list below the most common. You may find them in varying amounts, and likely find others. Refer to the tasting wheel for a full list of potential characteristics (click image at left for a larger display or save to your computer and print).
Blanco: Agave nose and flavour should be foremost. Citrus, mint, spearmint, green beans, anise or licorice, freshly cut grass, freshly cut fruits like apple and pear. Peppery and sharp bite - the alcohol is more noticeable in the bite. Slightly oily finish. Should have the strongest vegetal or floral aromas and taste of all the types.
Reposado: Agave still present, although muted. Hints of vanilla, almond, oak, honey, sweet melon, slightly sweet butterscotch or brown sugar. Not too woody. Alcohol is present but less pronounced. Finish is less oily, more silky. Some hint of earthiness is allowed.
Añejo: Chocolate, caramel, stronger butterscotch, burnt honey, sweet potato (yam), vanilla. Sometimes tobacco or leather. Agave may be almost hidden. Alcohol is much less noticeable. Finish is long and silky smooth. Añejos can show off their complexities with pride, but the wood should not be overpowering.
A tequila loses my interest when I can no longer find any agave in it. Agave can be elusive, fragile and sometimes masked by other tastes or aromas, but you should be able to detect it, like the unseen presence of your lover in the house, even though not in the same room. Once that presence leaves, the tequila moves into other areas, becoming more like a brandy or whisky.
Tequilas can be earthy or floral, but should not be acidic or sour. The finish should not be metallic or salty, or any chemical taste. The alcohol will always be noticeable, but should not be a highlight in reposados or añejos (no 'hot' finishes).
What not to do
Slammers, poppers, body shots, guzzle, swig or chug. That's puerile frat house stuff, not something a serious adult drinker or aficionado does. And no, you cannot taste a tequila properly in a margarita or a sunrise. Tequila is a premium spirit. Treat it with respect.
Another consideration: when you participate in a serious tasting, don't wear any perfumes, scented hair gels, after shave or lipstick. These will change your perception of the tequila and interfere with your ability to taste and smell it.
What else should you expect from a good tequila?
In her blog, Dr. Ana Valenzuela-Zapata puts it succinctly and poetically:
"What I look for in a good distilled spirit, regardless of its source is:
In tequilas and mezcales I also expect:
For me, the experience of visiting Tequila and Los Altos has indelibly stamped itself on my taste buds. I can still remember the sweetness of the freshly cooked agave, the sharpness of the raw tequila dripping from the still, the damp muskiness of the bodegas where barrels seep agave into the air, and the heat of the afternoon sun walking in an agave field. But it's even more than that: there's the smell of food cooking at a fonda in the market, the sound of mariachi music playing on a distant radio, the sun rising over the mountains and the long morning shadows stretching across the zocalo, the volcano standing distant, a pale blue silhouette in the afternoon haze. All of those combine in the experience of tasting tequila for me.
A clue to selecting tequilas is to learn to recognize the distilleries. They each have a
NOM registration number supplied by the government, listed on the label. Many distilleries make more than one brand, many produce tequilas for different companies, some have a dozen or more products under the same NOM but competing for space on the same shelf! And some companies which lease space in other distilleries change the location frequently, so their product is often different when produced at the new location.
Some of these products are otherwise identically labelled outside of brand information - the same type, percentage of agave, etc. Knowing who is making the product can help determine its quality, but often it's a guessing game. See below for my NOM list, plus the links page for others. The most complete and up-to-date list is provided by the CRT (Tequila Regulatory Council) at www.crt.org.mx
Handmade tequilas from small boutique producers, using the old practices, are usually among the best tasting. Sometimes distillers number each bottle in a premium brand and may even sign each one. This may identify it as unique, but most tequilas are blends - few commercial single-barrel brands exist. Numbering also does not necessarily indicate quality.
Tequila experts demand that the drink produce a 'pearl' (perla or concha - conch) - a bubble that remains on the surface of the liquid. The bottle is often shaken to see it the bubble appears, or sometimes the tequila is stirred when served. Sometimes a string of bubbles appear around the rim of the glass when tequila is poured. If the perla doesn't appear, the drink is called "tequila cortado" or cut tequila, a contemptuous term meaning mixto - less than 100% agave.
Additives - no matter how good they make the tequila look or taste - can mean hangovers. Mixtos are often coloured or smoothened by such additives. To avoid problems, stick to bottles marked 100% agave or 100% agave azul and drink your tequila straight, without mixers except perhaps a side of sangrita, the traditional spicy tomato-orange drink sipped in parallel with tequila and mezcal. It is generally not, however, served with añejo tequilas.
Even if the alcohol level is no more than other hard liquors, drinking a whole bottle of premium tequila will give you the same earthquake-level hangover as drinking a bottle of whiskey or gin. Moderation lets you come back to enjoy it again.
Many drinkers prefer the blanco generally as the "real" tequila for its stronger agave flavours and more robust aromas. Others prefer a blanco as a dinner drink because it has strength and character that could compete with the flavours of the food.
Reposados are more popular and outsell both blancos and añejos, but not just for price. To many drinkers, they offer a better flavour - spicy, peppery, herbaceous, mellowed from their resting time in the oak, but not too mellow. Several distilleries are now offering premium reposados at similarly high prices as their añejos.
Others prefer the cognac-like complexities of the añejo tequilas, with their rich aromas and chocolate flavours; the perfect after-dinner sip, but some like it any time. Best to have a bottle of each to satisfy everyone's tastes!
Tequilas vary in taste considerably. There is a very real difference between brands you will soon learn to recognize, but there are other difference to look for: between tequilas made in the lowlands and the highlands (although this may be difficult with some brands that use agave from both areas), between those aged in American and French oak, between those made in Jalisco and outside, even between different batches of the same brand. You will have to sample many brands before you find the one(s) that suit you best.
What to consider when tasting tequila
Slow cooking of the agave hearts won't caramelize the sugars as much, so it tends to create a sweeter, smoother drink with less bitterness in the finish. Also, the draining off of the first expression of juice - the 'bitter honey' - at the start of the cooking process helps make for a sweeter, cleaner tasting tequila.
The large multi-stage milling machines tend to water the agave juice more than smaller machines or the tahona. While the large machines are more efficient, they can produce a higher water-to-juice level in the wort, which in turn can create 'thinner' tequilas. Those using smaller machines with fewer watering passes, or more traditional equipment like the tahona, tend to make fuller tequilas, with more body and agave in the nose.
The yeasts used in the fermentation stage affect the tequila by imparting their own ingredients into the wort. Commercial brewers' yeast may result in a blander tequilas as well, with fewer of the floral or citrus highlights. Yeasts derived from natural sources and cultivated, or natural yeasts that are airborne will create more complex tequilas. Some companies use chemicals to start or help a yeast culture to grow. While there is not quantified study to determine how or if these affect the final flavour, many aficionados believe they impart a chemical or metallic aftertaste.
The water used in the wort is very important because it adds many characteristics, and the hardness (mineral content) will impart different flavours. Natural springs or mountain water should result in a different tequila than one made with filtered or municipal tap water. Some of these minerals will be catalyzed in the fermentation or distillation, creating taste elements that will vary from producer to producer. Some distillers pride themselves in using natural water, others in using absolutely pure (distilled) water. Again, not study has been done to determine which is better.
The ripeness and sugar content of the agave at harvest time of course plays a role. Ripe agave change chemically as they age. Many have noticeable reddish marks on the head. These contribute to the flavour of the wort, but too much (more than 10%) adds a bitterness.
Also the time when the agave is harvested affects the sugar content - those picked just before the rainy season have the highest concentrations of sugar and least water content, those picked during or after have the lowest. In general, I find highland agaves produce a sweeter tequila with more vegetal notes. But again, a lot can happen in the process to alter the result.
The wood type, the length of aging and the size of the barrel also affect reposado and añejo tequilas, imparting a wealth of tastes and aromas. Giant wooden tubs impart considerably less wood into a reposado than storing tequila in 600 litre barrels. How many times the barrel has been used also changes the final product (as barrels get used, they impart less of their essence into the tequila). And, of course, the master blender makes the final determination, since few tequilas are 'single-barrel' products and are products of a particular blend - thus tequilas can vary between production lots. It is always an adventure to taste tequila!
I won't presume to offer you a tasting and my recommendations here - tequilas and mezcals vary considerably and I have found my enjoyment of them changes with my mood, the foods I'm eating, the time of year and the company I am with. In general, I like a blanco before or with a meal, and a reposado or añejo afterwards. My own preference leans towards blancos with their stronger agave presence and vegetal aromas.
There are far too many brands I haven't tasted for me to make a fair comparison, and several other web sites have good reviews. However, in general I prefer smaller distilleries, traditional processes and slower cooking of the piñas. These, I believe, make a better tequila. Fast cooking tends to caramelize the agave sugars, which can result in a burnt honey undertone or some lingering bitterness.
Almost every distillery has its strengths and the capacity to produce a surprisingly good product. Companies that make popular mixtos, for example, may also make smaller lots of an especially good extra añejo. Don't judge a producer by a single product or product family.
Surf the Web or read the posts in the Blue Agave
forum for some product reviews and comparisons. Taste is, however, very subjective and what one person raves about another may dismiss.
I do recommend you try some products from the smaller distilleries (read the NOM for clues as to who produces what products) because they often use traditional methods, make smaller batches and are less hurried in their production. I also recommend only 100% agave in your choices, but whether blanco, reposado or añejo - it depends on the brand and your own palate.
Explore and enjoy! Sip in good health. Salud!