Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Tequila: don't slam it

When you hear the word Tequila what comes to mind – the worm at the bottom of the bottle? Hideous hangovers from one too many Tequila slammers? Whatever thoughts Tequila inspires, they are unlikely to live up to the refined recollections one associates with wine. Though the spirit has noble roots – Aztec royalty used to drink it as a digestif.

It was with interest and an open mind that I headed to Mexican mecca Café Pacifico in Covent Garden for a Tezón Tequila masterclass. Like Champagne or Cognac, Tequila takes its name from its appellation of origin; the town of Tequila. The spirit is made from the agave plant, which is not a cactus as is widely (and wrongly) thought. There are over 200 varieties of agave in Mexico, but only Blue Weber Agave is used in the production of Tequila.

Much like wine, Tequila production is strictly controlled, and the spirit can only be produced in five small regions around Guadalajara in northwest Mexico. The agave plant grows on volcanic soils rich in minerals and takes around 6-8 years to mature, depending on its terroir. Plants in the highlands mature more slowly than in the hotter lowlands, where the sugars ripen earlier.

A beautiful turquoise colour, the plants are cut and left to steam in a brick oven for 36 hours to help increase their sugar content. The juice is then squeezed out and placed in fermentation vats made of American oak, where yeast is added. The spirit is double distilled before bottling, or, in the case of the Reposados and Añejos, barrel ageing.

Like wine, flavour is obtained from the oak barrels and differs depending on the amount of time spent in cask. French oak imparts a chocolate aftertaste while American oak offers vanilla sweetness. Barrels can even be charred – old Bourbon barrels are becoming increasingly popular as they offer attractive sweet smokey aromas associated with Bourbon and Whisky.

There are two types of Tequila - 100% Agave Tequila (made solely from Blue Weber Agave) and Tequila, a blend that must contain at least 51% Blue Weber Agave. The final 49% can be a blend of sugarcane and corn sugar. 100% Agave Tequilas are considered superior to blended Tequilas, offering higher overall quality and purity of flavour.

Tequila is the fastest growing spirit in the UK, reflected by the emergence of The Tequila Society (www.thetequilasociety.co.uk), set up earlier this year by flame-haired comedy actress and TV producer Cleo Rocos to promote the category. Chatting to Rocos, she seemed keen to promote the spirit's slimming benefits: 'Mexican women use it to diet as it contains virtually no calories – I swear by it'.

I was advised to approach the Tequila tasting in the same way I would a wine tasting - first smelling the spirit, then giving it a swirl and allowing plenty of air in when tasting. First up was the straight-to-bottle Tezón 100% Agave Plata. As it has no contact with oak, the agave flavour really comes through, so you get lovely, gin-like herbal notes on the nose.

Moving onto the Reposado, the first thing you notice is the colour. A year in oak turns Tequila pale yellow. The nose was totally different to the Plata - with wonderful vanilla sweetness, charcoal and peaty aromas on display. The Añejo I tried was aged for two years in Bourbon barrels, giving it hints of maple and a lovely long smokey length. It was fascinating to compare the three, and witness the affects of barrel ageing. 

Last on the tasting menu was 'Diva', a pink Tequila soon to be shipped to the UK. Aged in Merlot barrels for eight months, giving it an attractive Provencal onion skin colour, the spirit was astonishingly wine-like. The nose showed fascinating Port-like flavours – raisins, prunes, sultanas, Christmas cake and chocolate, while the palate was smooth, full and feminine with a long peaty finish.

But what of the worm I hear you cry! You will never find a worm in a bottle of Tequila. They only appear in Mezcal, an almost identical spirit made from Agave potatorum. The addition of the worm has nothing to do with imparting flavour, it's more of a marketing ploy to show the spirit is strong enough to kill the worm. Producers pluck the worms from the agave plants and pop them (still wriggling) into the bottles.

1 comment:

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