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