Tequila: much maligned, much abused and widely misunderstood. Photo: Johan Leferink
Mexicana – Americana's south o' the border kissing cousin – is my hot pick for drink trends this coming summer.
Sprucing your drink up with a little Central American flavour is sure to blow off those winter cobwebs and bring on the BBQ season. The only trouble is that not all of us are coverts to that quintessential Mexican spirit – tequila. And who can blame those agave spirit naysayers? Tequila is still a much maligned, much abused and widely misunderstood beverage.
If you, like many people out there, have had a negative tequila experience I urge you to give it another go. Tequila is a wonderfully unique and flavoursome spirit, with a rich and varied history. The amount of effort that goes into producing a single bottle of the stuff is astounding – it takes at least eight years to make a single batch!
Tequila is made solely from the blue agave grown in geographically defined regions of Mexico. A plant more closely related to asparagus than a cactus, the agave has been a valuable resource for Mesoamerican peoples for over 9000 years. A blue agave plant takes about eight years to reach maturity before it is harvested, roasted, milled, fermented, distilled and in many cases aged in American oak barrels.
If you're buying a bottle of tequila there are a few things you should look for. The first and obvious steps are whether or not 'tequila' is clearly printed on the label and that it's a product from Mexico. Then there are different grades of tequila – those labelled "100% puro de agave" are generally of higher quality as you can be assured that the agave sugars have not been cut with cheaper cane sugar before fermentation. In Mexico up to 49 per cent of the product may be cut in this way.
Once you've located a 100 per cent agave tequila you can then look for the age statement. Blanco, silver or platino is for un-aged expressions, reposado for 'rested' tequilas being aged two to 12 months, añejo for tequilas from 12 to 36 months, and extra añejo for those aged over three years.
With tequila, however, age does not necessarily denote quality. Many aficionados will opt for the lively, pure and fruity agave flavours of a blanco over aged expressions. Certainly un-aged tequila tells you more about the characteristics of the area in which it is grown than those sipping tequilas that have had their spice rounded by the sweet, toasty notes of American oak.
As a general rule of thumb tequilas from the valley of tequila or lowlands offer more earthy and spicy notes whereas tequilas from los altos - the highlands – offer sweeter and fruitier agave flavours.
What is Mezcal?
Mezcal is a Mexican spirit that shares some similarities to tequila but is not restricted to the use of one type of agave from a geographically defined area. If fact tequila itself is a mezcal, but not all mezcals are tequila.
Mezcal is generally made by roasting the harvested agaves in earthen ovens which impart a smoky flavour to the finished product. It's a spirit that's often village produced – made in small batches in tiny stills. Distilled to proof and, for the most part, bottled un-aged mezcal is a rustic spirit of real character displaying aromas of bitumen, burnt rubber and smoke. It sounds scary, but if you are an Islay whisky drinker (flavoured with the smoke of rotten vegetation) you'll probably find this appealing.
So is mezcal cheaper? Not on your nelly. In fact, quality bottlings fetch a fair price and are still few and far between in Australia. Good bars will stock a bottle or two of premium quality mezcal whilst most bottle shops will only sell cheaper varieties that have an agave worm in the bottom of them. And no the worm won't make you hallucinate or any other such nonsense – it's simply a gimmick.
How to drink agave spirits
For starters put down that lemon and salt. If you're paying over $10 for a shot of tequila – which is not hard to do these days – the likelihood is that you've been given a decent 100 per cent agave variety that doesn't need to be slammed. Whilst I'm not naïve enough to believe that I'll put a stop to shot culture, sipping a quality tequila is a good way to start an appreciation for the spirit – especially considering how long it took for the stuff to get from the field to your glass.
Sangrita – a spiced, often tomato juice based chaser – is a great accompaniment to your tequila should you need a crutch to get you off the lemon and salt – just ask your bartender. If you're going for a really top shelf añejo or extra añejo au natural is the way forward – treat it with a similar respect to a cognac or a single malt and you will be rewarded.
Tequila, as you know is fantastic in mixed drinks too – here's an easy mix to get you started.
The Batanga was created in the town of Tequila in Jalisco, Mexico by Don Javier Delgado Corona in 1961. The things is Don Javier can still be found behind the bar at 'La Capilla' whipping this up this simple but delicious drink today - he's 89 years old.
45ml blanco tequila
Juice of half a lime
Flaky sea salt
Method: Cut a lime in half and use it to moisten the rim of a tumbler glass. Dip it in salt. Squeeze the lime into the glass, add tequila, fill with ice then top with cola. Stir and enjoy.
What's your favourite way to enjoy tequila?