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​Tequila 101: A Shot of Helpful Facts with a Lime Chaser

Posted by Teva Kukan on

At Man Crates, we've never met a spirit we weren't curious about. That's why we did a fair amount of "research" to lay down the basics of tequila for you—just in time for National Tequila Day. Watch the video for a crash course in Mexico's most popular libation. Or, if you like moving your eyes from from left to right, read our field report below. Then, when the bartender asks which tequila you prefer, you'll be able to stand proud and order with confidence.

THE MAN CRATES TEQUILA CRAM SESSION

Drinking tequila can occasionally lead to thoughts like, “One tequila, two tequila, three tequila, floor,” or, “Where did this tattoo come from?” And while we all may have a dark and potentially embarrassing—not to mention injury-laden—past with tequila, this spirit is so much more than the shot we tossed back during “fun” college nights we don’t remember. Fact is, tequila can be just as much of a slow sipper as it is a quick hit. Tequila offers flavor and aroma and texture. Keep reading for the story behind the liquor that inspired this dance.

THE ROOTS OF TEQUILA



Tequila can be traced back to the ancient Aztecs who made pulque, which is believed to be the oldest alcoholic beverage in North America. It’s made from the agave plant but is fermented and not distilled, making it more of a wine than a spirit, and is much less potent, coming in around 4-6% ABV. When the Spaniards came, they embraced the drink but began using some of their own European techniques for distilling. This eventually evolved into what is modern-day tequila.

TEQUILA DOES NOT COME FROM MARGARITAVILLE



Tequila is a by-product of the blue Weber agave plant, specifically, those plants located in a distinct region: the Mexican state of Jalisco, including, unsurprisingly, the city of Tequila, and some of the surrounding areas (to legally be tequila, it must come from these areas). Making tequila is pretty intense, due in no small part to the fact that the agave plant has sharp thorns and long, thick leaves, its heart can weigh over 100 pounds and it takes seven to 12 years to reach maturity before it can be harvested. Ay, dios mio!

Unlike wine grapes, which can be harvested annually for production, an agave plant dies after harvest, so it’s basically a one-and-done situation—a new one must be planted each time one is harvested. Ay, dios mio times two. Needless to say, the fact that many approach tequila with a “lick it, slam it, suck it” mentality certainly does neither the process nor the product any justice.



Quick run on how it’s made: The agave is peeled, steamed and crushed. Its juice is fermented in open wooden tanks and then distilled twice in copper pot stills. One of the oldest and most labor-intensive ways to make tequila is the tahona process, which uses a large stone wheel for crushing the agave in a pit. And while using traditional methods like that sounds romantic, it is less common to find them in use anymore. New methods are luckily just as effective, although some say they alter the flavor. Solution: Try all the tequilas!

COLORS OF THE TEQUILA RAINBOW

Well, surely tequila isn’t quite as colorful as a rainbow, but there still is quite a variety. Let’s start with the basics.

Tequila is either 100% agave or mixto. Premium tequila is made from pure agave, while the less expensive stuff, mixto, is a 51% agave distillate blended with other sugars and water and such. And while neither is necessarily better than the other—the difference mostly comes from the intensity of flavor—you can bet that the stuff most frequently consumed in bars and at parties is mixto. No judging, just facts.

From there, we can break tequila down even further into its four official aging categories, each of which offers different flavors and drinking options.

  • Blanco – Also called silver, plata, white or platinum, blanco tequila is aged for less than two months and is clear. It has a simple taste, the kind of which will disappear and not overwhelm the flavor of mixed drinks, like a Margarita or a Bloody Maria. This stuff is also perfect for shots should you be so inclined to do such things.
  • Reposado – Tequila that has been aged for two months to a year in an oak barrel is called a reposado. It’s a light golden/amber color and has a good balance of oak and agave, making it a good all-purpose sort of tequila: It pairs well with food and can be shot, mixed or sipped.
  • Añejo – This treat has been aged between one and three years and is a deep amber, like a nice whiskey. This is complex, smoky, robust and not anything you want to down quickly. Slow down and enjoy this sucker.

  • Extra-añejo – This relatively new tequila category is aged more than three years. It is more difficult to produce and the price point shows it. At $300+ per bottle, if you do anything besides sipping this slowly, well, just stop.

MARGARITA, SHOT OR…?



Many people aren’t sure how to drink tequila if it isn’t in a shot glass or a margarita. We’re here to help. Many of the same rules you apply to scotch or whiskey can be used when drinking tequila. A good tequila will offer a warm kick and should be sipped, not slammed. Stop slamming tequila! Seriously.

If it’s the good stuff, drink it straight—no, savor it straight—and slowly, either on the rocks or at room temperature. Reposado, añejo and extra-añejo are great for sipping. And while you can use those for mixing drinks, that’s best left to blanco.

If shots are your thing, again go with blanco, but always pair it with a meaningful toast, like

“Arriba! Abajo! Al Centro! Y Pa Dentro!”

This friendly toast is meant to be shared with friends and makes excellent use of gestures: basically, arm up, arm down, arm out—health to all—and arm in—tasting the drink. If you find the tequila you’ve chosen is too intense, try it with a slice of lime or a small amount of salt. Or try another bottle.



There are tons of tequilas to taste, and we completely support you investigating what’s out there, but here’s a little help to get started. For higher end tequilas, try these:

  • Don Julio Reposado
  • Gran Patron Burdeos
  • Alquimia Reserva de Don Adolfo Extra Añejo
  • Don Julio Añejo

If you’re looking for something down the middle of the road, look for these labels:

  • Herradura Reposado
  • Fortaleza Blanco
  • Milagro
  • Patron Silver

FAST TEQUILA FACTS, OR DATOS BREVES



All tequila is mezcal, but not all mezcal is tequila. Tequila must be made from blue Weber agave, but mezcal can be made from any of more than 30 varieties of agave, most commonly, the maguey plant, a cousin to blue agave. Mezcal is smokier, more harsh and most often is considered to be less refined and lower quality than tequila. Sorry, mezcal.

  • Tequila was introduced to Americans at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. Other things that made their debut at the World Fair include Cream of Wheat, Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer, Juicy Fruit Gum and serial killer H.H. Holmes. What an event!
  • Beware the worm! You should never buy a bottle with a worm in it—that’s not even tequila (at best it will be bad mezcal). Maguey plants are a favorite food of larvae called “gusano de maguey” that eventually turn into mariposa (butterflies). An old man once told us that the gusano was dropped in to determine the mezcal's proof. The higher the proof, the faster the worm would croak, he said. We checked into it, and this is one of the more sensible reasons we found. Other wilder theories: 1) The gusano was added to enhance the flavor of the mezcal and 2) it's in there for the tourists and brings good luck to whomever swallows it. We like the old man's story best.

Now that you’ve completed your tequila 101 tutorial, pick out your favorite bottles, whip up some tacos (great accompaniment for a nice reposado) and invite your pals over for a tasting to celebrate National Tequila Day on July 24. Salud!