There are many reasons I love tequila so. But first let me say this to all of you who cringe in incredulity and horror at the mere whisper of the name, not to mention the scent and savor, of tequila: what you think is tequila is not.
And so to a first lesson. In order to be called tequila, the spirit must come from certain areas of Mexico — the state of Jalisco and limited regions in the states of Guanajuato, Michoacán, Nayarit, and Tamaulipas (thanks Wikipedia!)— and be made from at least 51% agave. Cuervo Gold — which most people associate with tequila — is a mixto, a mix of at least 51% agave and 49% soul death — sugar, caramel, bottled headache. So of course you have horrible associations with tequila. You must — yes, must — drink tequila that is 100% agave.
For the spirit I sing of is a life giver, a life affirmer. Unlike all other booze, tequila is a natural upper: it makes you high, not sloppy down. With tequila, you don’t feel drunk; you feel, yes, high. Really. So be careful. A long time bourbon drinker, I began to find the weight of whisky too much for my increasingly fatigued frame. And so I reached for a lighter elixir and found it in the strange, heady brew of the agave. If bourbon became sandbags in the decay of my life, tequila became a welcome rope from above, a lifeline slowing my inevitable descent.
So this is one reason I love tequila so: it is an upper, not a downer. And so generous the next morning you’ll want to kiss the agave pina. For while you might be bit tired the next day, your body and head will not ache and you will not be nauseated. Tequila, prince that it is, lets you be.
But there are so many more reasons to sing tequila’s praises. Agave is strange, tasting of sun and earth and fruit and the calculus of their combination of spice and sweet. Every sip is always new, always fresh, always surprising. With a palate all its own, tequila tastes like nothing else in the world. Every time I imbibe, I am once again surprised, enlivened by what it offers.
Another lesson. Tequila generally comes in three forms: Blanco (sometimes called silver), Reposado, and Anejo. Blanco is not aged, bottled right after distillation. The reposado is aged anywhere from 8 weeks to a year in an oak cask and often one that formerly housed bourbon (an excellent moment of postcolonial cross-pollination). Anejo is aged at least a year but no more than three.
Now, these three variations do not correspond to quality but to preference. This is not good, better, best but a matter of what you enjoy. Usually, I prefer the blanco because one can taste the full pop of the agave, its fruit, its complexity, its sweetness, its earthiness. I like the reposados, too, as the oak can lend shape to the pungency of the agave. As Carlos Curiel, maker of the unparalleled El Tesoro, told me, when done right, the oak frames the agave just so. Usually, I shy away from the anejo as the aging often masks the agave flavor I crave. But to each one’s own.
Another reason for my love. Agave is complex — unbelievably, bewilderingly so. One can taste vanilla, honey, citrus, leather, sun, dirt, mint, smoke, nuts, and that mysterious fruit that can only be agave. And what never ceases to amaze me is that the flavors do not unite. Rather, they harmonize. Drink a glass of bourbon and it’s one smooth experience on the tongue. Drink a good tequila — usually a blanco — and the flavors form an impossible symphony across your palate.
In this, there is a great ethics, a way of peaceful co-existence. Or, even better, a way that different things can maintain their identity while making other things even better. In many ways, tequila has been my great teacher of ethics.
A last lesson before I list tequilas I like. The agave takes around 8 years to fruit. In those eight years, the plant takes up its earth. And so, like whiskey, tequila enjoys a range from highland to lowland. Those tequilas made from highland agave tend to be lighter, headier, more vanilla and citrus; those from the lowlands, earthier and weightier.
And a few practical matters. The flavor of a nice tequila can be quite subtle. It should therefore be enjoyed in a glass with a narrow mouth; too wide a brim and the flavor can be lost to the air. As for mezcal — actually, mezcal is the species, tequila the genus —, it is made from agave but is cooked over fire and smoke which gives it a pungent smoky flavor. I don’t know much about smoky mezcal so back to tequila. A word about Patron: it’s fine — if you don’t want any flavor. It’s for people who want to say they drank tequila but don’t actually enjoy it.
Here, then, are 5 tequilas that make me weep with joy.
El Tesoro do Don Felipe: Reposado
This, to me, is the standard by which I judge tequilas. And it is the one I usually use to introduce people to the way of the agave. It is downright shockingly delectable and surprising — a hint of bourbon-honey-vanilla grounds a hot top heat that sports a little pepper and delivers a sweet whoosh to the head. El Tesoro moves quickly but not aggressively upward, lingering for a sweet moment on the tongue before moving towards the head with a clean, generous “hello.”
Aged for almost a year, this is a rich, smooth tequila that suggests the lowland earth from whence it comes. You can taste the oak, a hint of sweetness perhaps from a bourbon that enjoyed the cask long ago. This is, in fact, a very good tequila if you’re transitioning from whiskey in general and bourbon in particular. Of course, it’s heady like all tequila is. But Herradura, as distinct from the El Tesoro, is grounding, more of lower palate than upper palate elixir. But do not be mistaken: like all tequila, this one delivers a nice high ride.
OK, so some may frown on this newfangled brand created by a San Francisco marketer, but the estate from whence the agave comes is old and the tequila itself is ridiculously good. This is complex, clean, tequila — it tastes fresh, delicate with heart, a little nutty and a little light, a ray of sunshine in your mouth. I promise — yes, promise — that it will make you smile. Very up, very inspiring.
Herencia Mexicana Blanco
This is far and away one of the more strange and distinctive things I’ve ever consumed. It is conspicuously soft on the tongue — pillowy rather than hot and sharp. And it is vegetal, like drinking grass liquor. And yet it’s spicy, too, and a little fruity. It sits in the mouth rather than vanishing in a heat vapor. It will certainly shift what you think tequila is.
7 (Siete) Leguas Blanco
Like the Herencia, this blanco is softer than you think it should be. You’ll taste that agave but, unlike some blancos I like, this one coheres into a vanilla that goes oh-so nice with the desert sun.