There’s an old cine film of me from the early 70s, aged six: I’m standing on a dusty road near Guadalajara, squinting into the sun; my shadow is starting to lengthen behind me, as are those of the agave plants in fields abutting the mountains that encircle the city. The plants are already taller than I am, even though they have another three years to go before they are ready to be harvested and turned into Mexico’s most famous drink – tequila.
The story of tequila is one of time. The finest, authentic tequila is made from just two ingredients: blue weber agave and water. It takes between seven and 10 years for each blue weber agave plant (a type of succulent native to the Jalisco region) to reach maturity before it is harvested by hand by farmers (jimadores) who work from dawn till noon to avoid the sun’s heat, using their coas (razor-sharp, long-handled blades) to detect when the agave is ready for harvesting.
“The el Jimador process begins with a long wait,” says Ruben Aceves, global brand ambassador for Casa Herradura. “All of our tequilas start with the same process: blue weber agave plants are carefully harvested, cooked and milled to extract all the sweet, pleasant juices, which are then naturally fermented and distilled.”
Just like champagne and stilton cheese, tequila has protected status. This means genuine tequila can only be produced in five states of Mexico: Nayarit, Guanajuato, Michoacan, Tamaulipas and Jalisco. The latter is where 99% of the spirit is created – fitting, as it’s also home to the town of Tequila. The other main rule is that tequila needs to contain at least 51% blue weber agave – with the best examples made from 100% blue weber agave by experts who understand that the only other things needed are water, expertise and a little patience.
“Forget about shots with lime and salt; those days should be over,” says Aceves. “By drinking authentic 100% blue weber tequila quickly, people are missing the joy of sipping an incredible spirit with a lot of character.”
There are three main types of tequila – all made from the same base liquid: blanco, reposado and añejo. Blanco – a clear liquid – is ready after less than two months in a neutral oak barrel, and is commonly used to make cocktails; reposado – which means rested – will go into a 200-litre white American oak barrel for two months to gain colour and more complex flavours, such as vanilla, caramel, a hint of toasted oak and a flash of citrus. And finally there’s añejo – meaning aged – which matures in the barrel for one to three years, resulting in a rich, dark, golden liquid, perfect for fans of cognac and brandy.
For those who want to move away from shots, but aren’t sold on sipping tequila straight, the answer is simple: cocktails. “With a good-quality tequila, you can enjoy a variety of different cocktails,” says Aceves, explaining that tequila’s flexibility is its great advantage. “It can be blended with pretty much any mixer, juice or liqueur.”
Most of us are familiar with the margarita – deservedly one of the world’s most popular cocktails – but that is far from the only option. “El Jimador Blanco is a very nice option for gin drinkers,” says Aceves, suggesting we prepare an el Jimador martini straight up or mixed with club soda, or a T&T (tequila and tonic) – letting the tequila sit with a twist of lemon or lime skin before adding the ice and tonic water. If, like me, you’re a reposado fan, I’d suggest replacing the lemon or lime with clementine or tangerine peel to complement the more complex flavours of aged tequila.
However, for a true taste of Mexico, it’s all about the Paloma – the country’s national cocktail. Made with fresh grapefruit juice or grapefruit soda, lime juice, and most often blanco tequila (although some mixologists do use reposado), this is a cocktail to drink on a sunny day with friends. “To me, a Paloma represents the simple and wonderful alchemy often present in Mexican drinks, where you take a simple set of ingredients and turn them into something delicious,” says Lily Ramirez-Foran, a Mexican cook and author of Tacos. “A Paloma is a celebration of citrus flavours; it is summery, refreshing and relatively simple to make.
“And yes, good tequila should be treated like good whisky,” she adds. “You take your time and sip it slowly, appreciating the flavours and craft that went into its making.”
So there we have it; whether you choose to have it straight over ice or in a fruity cocktail, the only incorrect way to drink tequila is quickly.
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