Tequila has been a growing category for the last couple of years, only to see 2020 explode the tequila market. With celebrity endorsements, new brands and marketing everywhere, it’s time we actually learn a little bit about tequila itself!
Tequila is a spirit distilled from the blue agave plant and is permitted to be produced in Jalisco, Guanajuato, Michoacán, Nayarit, and Tamaulipas. The agave is hand harvested by jimadores where they remove the leaves, leaving behind the large piñas which are then slowly baked in ovens to break down the sugars into fermentable fructose. Once roasted there are two different ways the piñas are crushed to extract the nectar. Modern technology can be used to crush them by machine, which typically produces a cleaner, more straightforward product. Whereas you can also do the traditional tahona stone wheel to crush the piñas, often giving a more earthy, fibrous flavor and texture to the spirit.
Once the agave nectar has been extracted, it is set to ferment via inoculation as well as through wild yeast and bacteria, this is where a lot of the regional flavors come from as each area will have its own wild yeast and organic materials that will sway the flavor of the spirit. Once fermentation is complete the liquid is run through two sets of distillation. The product at the end of the second distillation is your silver or blanco tequila! This can be either bottled and labeled as such or it can undergo further aging in oak barrels and can become either Reposado, Anejo, or Extra Anejo tequila depending on how long it is aged for.
Silver tequila is untouched by oak, so where do the differences in flavor come from? First there is the agave that is being harvested. While all tequila is produced from blue agave, also known as Blue Webber, there are still regional variances on the plant itself, differentiated by highland and lowland agave. Highland agave is characteristically sweeter and fruitier tasting than the lowland which is known to be earthier in flavor. These combined with the fermentation process as well as the method for crushing the piñas will give you the differences from distiller to distiller.
The other three styles that see oak aging is where a lot of the attention is going these days though! Reposado is aged from 2-12 months, Anejo 12-36 months, and Extra Anejo anything over 36 months. Extra Anejo was just designated a category distinction in 2006, previously Anejo just encompassed anything over 12 months. Unlike bourbon, tequila does not have to be in a new barrel every time. Thanks to that, most tequila is aged in casks that previously held bourbon and were shipped down from the US once they were done aging our whiskey! Bourbon barrels are known to impart a strong vanilla note onto the tequila, typically the first time the barrel is used they will only age the reposado in it, as it needs less aging and is less likely to have the powerful bourbon flavor overpower the softer notes of the agave. The used barrel can then be refilled with silver distillate and aged for longer with less impartmenting of flavor to the tequila, allowing it to mellow out more and find its sweet spot. Extra Anejos, however, are all about the oak. They want to take that flavor and meld it to their own characteristics. Good Extra Anejo tequila will remind you of a fine brandy or rum even. Sweet fruit notes hiding between vanilla and spice, there is a lot going on with these and is why they are defining the premium category as well.
So why drink tequila? Between its more natural fermentation, the pureness of the ingredients being used, tequila is one of the cleaner spirits on the market, especially when drinking silver or blanco. The sugars have all been fermented so it’s a lower calorie and 0 carbohydrate beverage coming in at typically less than 70 calories per 1oz. pour. The non-science factor is that because of this, most consumers find themselves feeling better in the morning as well. Did I mention that it is also delicious and wonderful to make all sorts of cocktails with besides your classic margarita? There is nothing out there that mixes better with some fresh squeezed fruit. Try swapping silver tequila for vodka or rum in your everyday cocktails as well, you might be surprised how much you enjoy tequila now that it’s not associated with shots of it while in college!
—Chris Pankiewicz, General Manager