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A new age for Tequila and "Agave Spirits"

It seems lately that every single celebrity is jumping on the tequila band-wagon. Mark Wahlberg, Rita Orta, Michael Jordan, Kendall Jenner...The list seems endless. It makes sense from a business perspective, however; according to the Guadalajara Post, tequila and mezcal are set to overtake vodka as America's favorite spirit (no doubt fueled by anti-vodka sentiment in light of current events). Furthermore, it isn't just any tequila and mezcal that everyone is after--it's the good stuff. While many reading this may have sworn off tequila after an ill-advised night of "ten rounds with Jose Cuervo," it might be time to revisit this misunderstood spirit. The old adage that "tequila is mezcal, but mezcal is not tequila" is not as accurate as it used to be. Mezcal is in a sense a broader category of agave spirits, as it can be made from a handful of agave species; however, it might be more accurate to say that "tequila is tequila and mezcal is mezcal, but they are both agave spirits."

The best tequila is made from 100% Blue Weber Agave, Agave tequiliana weber var azul. Not only is tequila restricted by species of agave, but it also can only be made in five areas within Mexico: Guanajuato, Jalisco, Michoacán, Nayarit, and Tamaulipas. As for Spain's wines, there is a Consejo Regulador del Tequila in Mexico which ensures the authenticity of tequila products and has designated these regions for tequila production. When buying tequila, you want to look for a couple of things on the bottle; firstly, you want to ensure that it is 100% agave, which will be written clearly if so. The term mixto means that other non-agave sugars were added. Secondly, you will want to look for the NOM or Norma Oficial Mexicana. The number next to this will indicate which distillery distilled the tequila. Some distilleries are smaller, while others will distill for many different brands. A simple google search will take you to the right place.

If you are really serious about your tequila, you will want to look for indications that the agave piña (heart) was "stone ground" or "elaborado en tahona." As in wine making, juice from the fruit must be released in order to begin the fermentation process. While originally the piñas were attacked with bats and machetes to release their juice, a much less intensive, yet still artisanal method of production is to use a tahona, a large volcanic stone rolled over the agave to gently press the nectar out. It can be machine powered, but the really traditional estates use donkeys or horses. Other methods include running the agave through a mill or using the ultra-industrial diffuser to shred the agave and extract the sugars with the help of hot water and even sulfuric acid.

While the process of extracting the sugars from the agave hearts may not seem important (we just want the juice right? and as much as we can get!), it has a huge impact on the quality of the final product. European wine laws strictly regulate the permitted yields per hectare from the grapes. This means that some juice will be left inside the grapes, potential profit will be lost, but quality will be protected. I like to think of the tahona process as the bladder press used for chardonnay production in Burgundy. An inflated bladder slowly presses the grapes to gently release their juice--how slowly can be controlled electronically by the winemaker. This process ensures that the highest quality juice is collected. A simple smashing of the grapes might release more juice, but it would also risk breaking the pips (grape seeds), which would then release bitter compounds into the future wine. While the diffuser in tequila production can make more tequila, it will lack the complexity and smoothness of tahona-crushed production.

Then there is mezcal, the mysterious and even more misunderstood cousin to tequila. Production is centralized in the area of Oaxaca, although there are other areas of production as well. Whereas tequila is limited to one agave species, there are dozens (perhaps more) varieties of agave used in mezcal production. That said, only several are used frequently, and espadin is the most popular variety for production. As with wine production, some mezcals are blends and some are single-variety products. Different varieties of mezcal thrive is different microclimates; therefore the concept of terroir, so hallow to the wine enthusiast, is also of great importance to the mezcal afficionado. Mezcal is commonly said to have a "smoky" flavor that distinguishes it from tequila, but this is a generalization that is becoming more inaccurate as the mezcal industry continues to grow. Del Maguey is probably the most widely available brand of mezcal; while I haven't seen Bozal in Mississippi, this artisanal mezcal producer seems to be on the rise in specialty shops. I've seen their products in Louisiana, Florida, and Missouri. Del Maguey's Vida is their "entry level" mezcal. While not overtly smoky, it does have a characteristic petrol aroma/flavor that lovers of aged Riesling will appreciate. It runs about $40. If you're willing to pay extra, for about $70 you can purchase Del Maguey's single village mezcal Chichicapa. Fun to say and very delicious, this is a complex and herbal mezcal that changes in the glass over time, much like a fine wine.

While there are other agave spirits, tequila and mezcal are definitely leading the pack in the current market surge. Another Mexican, and recently Texan, spirit making headway in the market is sotol. However, this is not technically an agave spirit as it is made from a plant in the asparagus family! I have never tried sotol, so I won't speak further about it here. It is starting to appear more frequently in specialty shops, though, so keep an eye out. If I've intrigued you to go out and try some artisanal Tequila and Mezcal, you should know that they are meant for sipping and not shooting. Even better, they pair very well with food. Tequilas from the highlands "Los Altos" tend to be fuller bodied and fruitier, while those from the Valley "El Valle" tend to have more herbaceous and pepper flavors. You could think of the difference as similar to that between the fuller bodied, fruity Chardonnays from Burgundy's Côte d'Or and the crisp and mineral Chardonnays from Chablis. In general, blanco tequila pairs well with fish and herbal dishes such as fresh salads. Reposado tequila pairs well with poultry and pork, and añejo tequila pairs well with more flavorful meats such as beef and lamb. Mezcal can be aged in barrels , but tends to be unaged. Because of the boldness of its flavors it can be a little bit more difficult to pair with food, but I would tend toward the same pairings for a blanco tequila. If in doubt, you can always enjoy mezcal with the traditional slices of orange sprinkled with sal de gusano, a traditional blend of spices with salt, chili peppers, and crushed and roasted agave worms.

Salud! and here are some tasting notes for the tequilas I tried as I prepared for this post:


Patron Estate Release-42%ABV-$90


This is a very smooth and pleasant blanco tequila. However, it didn't quite have the complexity and intensity I expected when I paid $90. Honey, agave, and cocoa on the nose with flavors of baked agave, bitter herbs, white pepper, lime, and beeswax. Sip it on its on, or pair with a white and flaky fish simply baked or sauteed with some veggies on the side.


Fortaleza Blanco-40% ABV-$50

This is hand's down one of the best blanco tequila's I have ever tried. Aromas of Castelvetrano olive, vanilla, and agave are intense while the palate is lush and herbal all at once. Flavors of olive, agave, lime, and vanilla are balanced by those of thyme, petrol, and rosemary. The finish is buttery and herbal. Perfect as a digestif or with some mahi mahi fish tacos.


Del Maguey-Single Village-Chichicapa-48%ABV-$70


Although this mezcal is getting up there in ABV, it is not out of balance. Aromas and flavors of chocolate, baked agave, petrol, mint, and dried chili pepper. Very complex and herbal, and like a fine wine, changes in the glass over time. The intense herbaceous character of this mezcal can make it tricky to pair with food. You need a dish equally as intense, so some minty tabbouleh or chicken in a chocolatey, peppery mole sauce would do the trick.


Teremana-Reposado-40%ABV-$30


In the realm of celebrity tequilas, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson certainly does a great job of promoting his brand. I was intrigued to try some after watching his movie Red Notice, in which his character is seen sipping on Teremana Reposado at the bar. It has intense aromas of vanilla, agave, honey, and lime that continue on the palate with the addition of caramel and chocolate. A pleasant sipper or a good choice for premium cocktails. It would also pair well with pork carnitas or BBQ nachos.


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