Rick Stein once said a man could starve in a room full of artichokes. The agave plant creates many of the same problems, but on the booze side of the equation – you’d be a long time sober. The pineapple shaped fruit (pina) is buried beneath an afro of metres of sharp, silvery blue leaves. These leaves can grow up to two metres long, while the fruit beneath will likely only ever yield two or three bottles of tequila.
Jimadors, the Mexican farmers who grow and tend these succulents for the production of tequila and mezcal, have a plethora of issues to contend with in their production. The agave are all hand harvested, but the leaves are extremely poisonous. Amazingly the poison is also the cure, when you cook them down they release an ointment that is the best cure for the wound.
There’s also the long growth cycle – the fruit of the agave tequilana takes between eight and 12 years to mature – picked too early and the fruit can be bitter, too late and it will be too sweet. Both faults raise their head during distillation and, of course, eight years is a long time to have wasted if you get it wrong.
The plant is perennial (as opposed to annual which will die each year), but will only flower once in its lifetime. It’s standard practice for the jimadors to decapitate the agave of this flower to focus the plant’s attention on growing the most potent fruit. While stressing the fruit by killing the flower is common practice, there are those in the game now suggesting this practice is actually constricting the genetics of the agave plants. As it was with the supermarket tomato it may become with agave.
The battle for survival is one the agave is used to. They favour high altitude (above 1500 metres) and old, volcanic soils. In fact, the growing conditions and region are considered so important to the success of the agave plant they are now geographically protected (in the same way Champagne can only be produced in Champagne). Mezcal has a larger demarcation zone, covering much of central Mexico, while tequila is smaller and slightly skewed to the west. As such all tequila can also be classified as mezcal, but not all mezcal is tequila.
What to look for in a bottle of tequila
Always look for the word “tequila” on the bottle – it sounds simple, but an image of a Mexican dude, an agave or a nacho does not make it tequila – it should also say it is made from 100% agave.
In the case of a real tequila, separating yourself from those tequilas of your youth, you are going to have to step it up a notch in the finance department too. If you imagine those eight years of investment, compared to a seven month growth cycle for a grape, it’s not going to be the same price as a bottle of wine!
The age of your tequila
- Blanco (also known as white or plata or silver tequila)
This tequila is aged anywhere between zero and two months – meaning it can be bottled immediately following distillation or can spend a little time in oak or stainless steel tanks. They’re usually quite pale and have a strong, upfront agave expression.
Best for: those who like a clean, pure taste and aren’t afraid of a little burn.
Cocktail hour: Blanco is for any mixing – great for margaritas, using in punch or just mixing with tonic.
- Reposado (rested)
These tequilas are rested from anywhere between two months to a year. They have a little more colour, a little bit of oak with flavours of light spice like cinnamon and vanilla and a sweet agave flavour.
Best for: those who like their tequila a little more easy-drinking.
Cocktail hour: It’s great straight up but also great for any stirred drinks, like a Manhattan.
- Anejo (aged)
This is pretty special, as the tequila will be aged from one to three years. They’re also usually stored in smaller barrels giving them more time on oak and a more intense maturation. They’re toasty, heavy cinnamon, less sweetness and delicious.
Best for: the connoisseur, it’s a very smooth tequila.
Cocktail hour: you want to drink this like a Cognac, in a big glass, to really get the most out of it.
- Extra anejo (extra aged)
Extra anejos must be sealed in oak barrels for at least three years (but there’s no maximum). Think dried apricots, desiccated lime, coconut and spiced mango. It really sucks all the wood out.
Max’s three favourite tequilas
- Ocho – This is the only tequila in the world that creates tequilas working with single site and annual vintages. The sites are changed up each year for each new vintage. It’s a blanco, but is rested in a stainless steel tank for two months, settling the molecules and rounding it out, leaving behind the bite. It’s very pure and I love it straight.
- Fortaleza – this one’s more for special occasions (it’s more expensive). It’s made in a distillery that used to be a museum – it’s a pretty special place. Look out for the distinctive pina-topped corks.
- Don Julio – a huge brand, probably one of the biggest ones, but they still make a fantastic tequila! The blanco is a great all-rounder.
How to drink your tequila
- In a tasting glass is probably best. Ice is a possibility – it will constrict some of the flavours, also making it a little more viscous. This way the tequila’s not so sharp, the temperature lowers, the molecules get thicker, you get that little mouth coating as opposed to that really sharp acidity you can get.
- Mixers – For simplicity soda is nice.
- Paloma -– In Mexico they make this cocktail with a can of Squirt (a local grapefruit-flavoured soft drink), here you can substitute for some tonic water and grapefruit as an aperitif.
- Patanga – Teuqila mixed with coke and a salt rim
- Roseda – a tequila twist on a negroni, with Campari and sweet vermouth