|Learning Center - Spirit Education|
By Brian West
I’ll admit it. I’m a tequila snob. These days, I rarely do shots anymore; I prefer to sip my spirits—to enjoy every drop. This means, unfortunately for my wallet, that the cheap stuff just won’t cut it anymore. If you’re the same way, this article is exactly for you. If, on the other hand, shots are still your thing, well this article just might make snob out of you. You’ve been warned.
The thing I find most fascinating about tequila is its obvious terroir. Terroir is a fancy wine word meaning, loosely, that the drink is displaying characteristics in taste and aroma of the geography, geology and climate of where a food item is grown. It wine, it’s all about the grapes. In tequila, it’s about the agave.
I read somewhere recently that “whereas most spirits age in the barrel, tequila ages in the plant.” I think that’s profoundly important to understanding and appreciating quality tequila. All tequila is made from the Blue Weber Agave plant, a relative of the lily plant (not a cactus, as many assume). These plants take typically between 8 and 14 years to mature, but sometimes 20+ years. That’s a lot of time for the plant to take on the terroir of the surrounding region. This terroir is so important to tequila manufacturers and aficionados alike that every distillery has a number, or NOM, that identifies it. These NOMs provide discerning consumers hints as to the terroir they can expect within the bottle.
One the agave plant is fully mature, the jimadors, or harvesters, use a bladed tool called a coa to cut away all the leaves on the agave plant and dig up its root, its heart, also called a piña. These piñas (sometimes weighing hundreds of pounds) are painstakingly removed from the ground by hand. They are then roasted or steamed in giant ovens, pressed for their sugary juices, fermented and distilled. Some tequilas, called mixtos, then mix the resultant distillate with neutral grain alcohol. These are considerably cheaper, but also contain far less of the pure agave distillate and therefore have less agave character. The best tequilas do not use this practice, opting to give their customers only pure agave distillate and water. These tequilas can be identified by the “100% de agave” (or something to that effect) on the label. These are the only tequilas I’ll be featuring below.
Lowland vs Highland
This is an oversimplification, but tequila can be broken into two basic groups: Highland and Lowland. This simply refers to where the source agave is grown. As the name implies, Highland tequila is made from agave grown in high altitudes, up in the mountains of Mexico. Lowland tequila, therefore, is agave grown closer to sea-level, or in valleys.
Altitude plays a significant role in the development as well as, therefore, the terroir of the agave plant. Due to different soil composition, temperatures, pressures and moisture levels, agave grown in the Highlands tend to be sweeter, fruitier and lighter.
Demetrio Blanco Tequila | Cabo Wabo Tequila Blanco | Herradura Reposado Tequila