On a regular basis, students interrupt me during class in my History of Mexico course. Right in the middle of my fascinating lecture on how the French invasion resulted in a humiliating defeat at the hands of a Mexican army...
"Can you explain the different types of tequila?" asks some student.
For this I went to grad school? I am eminently qualified to teach a course about Mexico: I have traveled extensively in the country, I have degrees in History, Anthropology, and Latin American Studies, and most important of all, I meet the standards for the Sarah Palin International Diplomacy Test: I can see Mexico from my house.
"Yes, I can." I calmly answer. And shortly, you will be able to, as well.
First off, real tequila comes from Mexico and is made from the Blue Agave plant. Some scoundrels have smuggled plants out of Mexico to start farms in Australia and South Africa. I don't know what they will call their beverage (Aborigine Piss? Cactus Crud?) but real tequila comes only from the area surrounding the Mexican city of Tequila.
Supposedly, the Spanish conquistadors ran out of their prized brandy relatively soon after theyconquered the Aztecs in 1521. Without sufficient wine to distill to make brandy, they turned to the local Aztec alcoholic beverage, pulque. Today, pulque is considered a drink for the lower classes, and is decidedly unhygienic. It is not exactly pasteurized: I have held glasses of it up to the light and actually seen things swimming in there! No sane person would drink it. I love it.
The Spanish distilled the pulque and produced tequila. By 1600, it was being mass-produced. And--predictably--within a few years, it was being taxed by the state.
Today, they still gather the root ball of the blue agave, roast it, mash it, and place the agave juice in a vat to allow natural fermentation. This lightly-fermented juice is then distilled and the end product is tequila. If you age this for less than two months (if at all), and then bottle it, you have Plata (silver) or Blanco (white) tequila. This is the cheapest brand or quality, and is suitable for mixed drinks, where the kind of tequila you use absolutely doesn't matter.
Well...actually some companies color and flavor Plata with caramel and the resulting concoction is called Oro (gold) or Joven (young) tequila. This is the perfect tequila to never buy or drink under any circumstances. It is also the most popular. With Morons.
If you bottle the tequila in oaken barrels, for anywhere from two months to a year, you have reposado (rested) tequila. This is a fine "sipping" liquor, with flavors that vary from very sweet (indicating the agave plant is from the highlands), to a complex, herbaceous flavor. This is my favorite tequila.
A good reposado is a great tequila to enjoy while talking with friends. I recommend trying it in Zacatecas at my favorite bar; Quince Letras (pictured). Go late at night and contemplate the history of this old silver mining town nestled in the high sierras. Men were sitting in that bar when Pancho Villa attacked the town a hundred years ago, and they will probably be doing the same thing in another hundred years. Somewhere around midnight, you may hear a shrill whistle outside the bar. A street vendor with a an old steam-powered calliope on a cart makes the rounds of the bars and restaurants. For practically nothing, he will sell you a steam-cooked sweet potato covered in cinnamon to enjoy with your tequila. I miss Zacatecas...
Back to the distillery. If you let your tequila age in a fine oaken barrel (the best ones are second-hand bourbon barrels purchased from the Jack Daniels distillery) for anywhere from one to three years, the result is añejo (aged) tequila. Age it longer than three years and you get Extra Añejo--and the price goes up exponentially.
The longer a liquor is aged in wood, the less harsh the alcohol flavor and the milder and smoother the taste. In my own humble opinion, the añejo tequila loses some of the distinctive flavors I like--perhaps it has been aged too much. I like good strong-flavored liquor and spicy food--after all, if the taste is too mild, how can I be sure it's bad for me?
While I personally buy reposado, I will be happy to drink your añejo.
There are two popular misconceptions about tequila that need to die. First, there is no worm in the bottom of a bottle of tequila--unless you have stumbled onto some tourist crap especially produced for pendejo gringos (Spanish for rich tourist). You can find worms in the bottom of Mezcal (Spanish for "turpentine"). If you see a bottle of Herradura for sale with a red worm in the bottom of the bottle, you will not be the first person to have pulled that cork.
The other misconception is that whole "lick-shoot-suck" nonsense. You might need salt and lime to cut the alcohol taste of mezcal, but you do not need it for a shot of reposado. Have you ever seen someone suck a lime after drinking expensive cognac? No! And for exactly the same reason. People who use salt and lime while drinking fine tequila are no better than those people who use ketchup in a fine French restaurant. (But, if you do use ketchup, the French waiters will surrender.)
This discussion is much more important than you might think. Researchers in Mexico have just discovered that the natural sugars found in agave juice, called agavins, are natural inhibitors of diabetes and obesity. Yes, this research actually shows that drinking tequila can help prevent weight gain. Who knows, doctors just might start prescribing a nice reposado for your health. It would certainly help sell Obamacare.
And, as an expert on Mexico, I know it works. After all, none of us has ever seen a fat Mexican.