Guest drink: Tequila!
Tuesday 19 September 2017
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For some, it’s a slammer. For others, sunrise. Sip with sangrita and it will soothe away your worries. It’s Mexico’s flagship spirit, previously maligned for getting students wrecked in a salt and lime combo, and now one of the hipster trends in the drinks world. We take a look at what tequila is all about, and why it’s taken so long to take Britain by storm.
Across the deserts of Mexico grow large, cactus-like agave. They’re not cacti, though; they’re lilies, or so some botanists will tell you. As wheat is to Weissbier, agave is to tequila, and with their strange, sword-like spikes, an agave farm is a lot more interesting than the fields a certain prime minister may or may not have run through as a teenager.
We also doubt Mrs May was doing tequila slammers as a teen, which seemed like the default serve for underage clubbers in the 90s. But as they grew up after the new millennium rang in, tequila did too, blossoming like an agave flower into a mature drink worthy of lingering appreciation.
In 2016, Mexico exported 197.9 million litres of tequila. Compared to 64.6 litres in 1995, that’s an astonishing rise. With such an increase in demand, the price of mature agave soared.
In 2001, Peter Day reported for the BBC that “bandits are hijacking lorry-loads of cut agave on the way to the distillery, or stealing it from the fields by night”. Blimey.
You’d be forgiven for thinking there were only three types of tequila: white, silver and gold (cheap, expensive, exceedingly expensive) but there are almost as many distilleries making tequila as there are making whisky in Scotland: 100 versus 115, at the last count, and there are likely many more unlicensed home- producers in Mexico (we wouldn’t put it past the Scots either). And with 600 brands on the market, that’s a huge amount of variation. To make matters worse – or better, depending on your thinking – tequila is just a type of mezcal, which in 2011 was heralded as tequila’s “earthier, country cousin” by the New York Times.
Mexico pushed out the low-quality booze and kept the best, 100% blue for its own
Mezcal is the fermented and distilled juice of agave plants, from all regions of Mexico. If you want to call something a tequila, it has to be made in the state of Jalisco and a few other provinces only; an appellation that chimes with millennial ideals of craft and localism. The eponymous town of Tequila and nearby Arandas make the most exceptional varieties. If you want “100% blue agave tequila” on your label, 100% of your wort needs to come from Weber blue agave.
‘Mixto’ tequila can be as little as 51% Weber blue agave, which means a lot of what you see at the supermarket gets 49% of its parentage from corn syrup. Then there’s the added sugar, artificial flavour, additives, and it’s no wonder you spent your first clubbing experience with your head down the toilet.
Dave Worthington is an ambassador for Maverick Drinks: “Tequila of old (when I was slamming it) was dreadful stuff – cheap ‘mixtos’ where most of the blend was industrial grade alcohol. It was great for giving huge hangovers!”
These are the tequilas we knew from the 80s and 90s, cheap and dirty, prime for mixing to hide how loathsome they were. Mexico pushed out the low-quality booze and kept the best, 100% blue for its own bars and restaurants. But in the 80s, tourists picked up on this hidden nectar, and brought word back home, mostly to America.
This is where Patron was started up in 1989 by the founder of Paul Mitchell hair products, John Paul DeJoria, and Martin Crowley. Bar-by-bar, Patron persuaded luxury drinkers, with its decanter-style bottle and thick cork stopper, that this was the new XO cognac. In 2014, for the first time, Americans drank more 100%-agave tequila than mixto and, last year, 100% agave exports increased by 17% in only eight months. It’s the phenomenon of premiumisation that accounts for tequila’s new rave reviews.
With 1000 registered brands, not all can match Patron. There’s an inevitable dilution in quality, like with the recent craze for gin.
Back in the old days when tequila was a drink for Mexican cowboys, ranchers and bandits (so says Hollywood), the hearts of blue agave, a pineapple-y pina that can weigh up to 100kg, were steamed over days in deep stone holes or large brick ovens to break down starches into lush, rich sugars, and squeezed out by mules (harnessed to a mill stone). The premium tequilas are still made this way, but mass production demands the use of technology for the more demanded brands. Autoclave ovens with steam injection favour efficiency over unpredictability and mules have been replaced with John Deere tractors.
Either way, out comes the sweet rich ‘’honey water’’ or aguamiel that forms the wort. Many brands have their proprietary yeast for fermentation, perhaps developed from the old days when inoculation came from the wilds of the desert. Centuries- old copper-pot stills do the distillation for premium, 100% blue agave brands like Arrogante and Tapatio. For the more industrial tequilas, tall column stills are used that often eliminate thick and tasty compounds in favour of smoothness.
What’s produced is clear, and strong enough to knock your sombrero off.
Once round the distillation merry-go-round, the spirit is called ordinario, twice it’s silver tequila.
Either it’s kept just the way it is or poured into barrels for maturation and, depending on the time served, it becomes a blanco, reposado, anejo or extra anejo (for those three years old or more). Volcanic spring water brings it down to a palatable 40% for export.
In the past decade, US sales have soared by 65% and consumers want artisanal excellence, not sad shooters. Jon Anders Fjeldsrud, brand champion for Mexico at Amathus Drinks, says: “There is more interest in the category, consumers are getting more educated in how to correctly drink tequila and we are seeing better brands on the market.
Tequila Calle 23, Siete Leguas, Tequileno and at least ten others are made by Mexican families following the same old methods passed down through generations; no chemicals, in the family distillery with agaves grown at home.” Cleo Rocos, creator of award winning AquaRiva Tequila was once the right hand woman to Kenny Everett.
Now she is a producer and comedian in her own right, author of The Power of Positive Drinking and co-founder of Tequila Society. After years of importing the best premium tequilas to the UK, and befriending Tomas Estes of terroir-focused Tequila Ocho, Cleo sought to make an affordable spirit with the warmth of agave flavours but minus the burn of budget mixtos.
“It’s a passion that evolved from my first experience of 100% agave tequila 16 years ago, and I set out to make the best tequila for the best price,” she says. The Consejo Regulador del Tequila noticed Cleo’s infectious enthusiasm and entrepreneurship, awarding her “most influential woman” in the industry in 2009.
It’s for the bartenders too – they’re artists, and they deserve to work with oils, not crayons
Her agave is hand picked, and she spent 11 months with master distillers perfecting a recipe that reduces any burn in her tequila, distilling to very, very low levels of methanol. “I get no bigger thrill to see people enjoy my tequila and to feel fantastic the next day. It’s for the bartenders too – they’re artists, and they deserve to work with oils, not crayons.”
Cleo is delighted for George Clooney, who just days ago sold his tequila brand Casamigos to drinks giant Diageo for a cool $1billion. Sean Coombs and Justin Timberlake make up the rest of the celebrity contingent. Tequila is hot right now, and in America, which receives three quarters of Mexico’s tequila exports, Diageo’s Don Julio has seen sales increase by a quarter each year. The UK is a much smaller playground
for tequila, but expanding nevertheless. Drinks experts Vinexpo show that 208,000 cases arrived here from Mexico last year, up from 170,000 four years ago. It’s Spain that’s caught the Mexican fire, with a 600% increase in the same amount of time.
So how should you drink your tequila?
For mixtos, you might do as the Germans, by knocking it back in a European version of the slammer, popping in a wedge of orange and sprinkle of cinnamon on the hand. The world’s most popular cocktail, according to National Chamber of the Tequila Industry, is a margaritha.
But for 100% agave, when you’ve paid out for the best of the best, you should enjoy it slowly and carefully, like a fine whisky or a craft beer. “Today’s commercial tequilas are polished with great-looking packaging and a slick marketing campaign,” says Jon. “Consumers are sipping a more modern, more generally consumer friendly product, more natural in flavour, softer and sweeter than the older and more traditional brands.”
Dave Worthington offers a recipe for spicy sangrita from his Mexican sister-in-law, to be drunk in tandem with a fine tequila: Tomato and lemon juice mixed with good old Worcester sauce, Tabasco, finely diced onions and coriander, salt, and pepper. “It’s very much like a Bloody Mary without the vodka,” he observes. “It’s normally chilled, but very fresh. Spike it with tequila and it becomes a Bloody Maria.”
It doesn’t take a cynic to realise that part of tequila’s success is the never-ending cycle of fashion; what’s old is new, what’s forgotten is hip, tequila is the new gin is the new vodka and so on. But craft tequila makers like Cleo and consumer obsession with locality, provenance and purity means there will be no sunset on tequila’s newfound fame for a very long while.
- The ticuilas were a tribe who inhabited the hillside of a volcano bearing the same name, located near today’s city of Tequila. The name tequila may also originate in the Nahuatl word tequitl, which means work or employment, and the word tlan, meaning place.
- Thea worm is a moth larvae that lives on agave, but it’s put in after as a gimmick
- Blue agave takes 5-8 years to grow and mature. Until then, they will not have produced the sugars needed in fermentation.
- Agave plants are pollinated almost exclusively by long-nosed bats native to Jalisco.
- Three shot glasses of lime juice, tequila and sangrita is a popular flight of drinks known as “The Mexican Flag”.
- The original painting of AquaRiva’s label was created by a 17-year-old art student whom Cleo Rocos met on the subway.
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