Tequila: Not So Simple After All

By Jason Wilson
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, August 20, 2008

JALISCO, Mexico -- Terroir, the precious term that has been mispronounced and misunderstood for years in the wine world, is gaining currency in the spirits world. To wit: Scotch whisky now exhibits terroir; Kentucky bourbon claims terroir. So does rhum agricole from Martinique.

And then there's tequila. "If there's one spirit that we can say has terroir, it's definitely tequila," says David Suro-Piñera, owner of Siembra Azul tequila. "If you do a blind tasting between brands, you could swear that you're drinking entirely different spirits."

That said, understanding the basics of tequila, one of the world's finest spirits, is more straightforward than with wine. To begin, you need to know only two geographical areas of Jalisco: the highlands and lowlands. Then you need to know the three basic tequila types: blanco, reposado, añejo. So talking about tequila's terroir may seem a stretch, but Suro-Piñera is still dead-on in making the connection to winemaking. Like wine, the spirit begins in the fields, where blue agave, a desert succulent, is the equivalent of the grape.

Seeing row after row of spiky agave in Jalisco's fields for the first time was exciting, not unlike my thrill at seeing rows of grapevines as a young backpacker in Europe. In the equivalent of a grape stomping, a jimador, or agave farm worker, even gave me his extremely sharp "coa" so I could hack off the bristly spikes of my own agave -- that is, until the jimador, whether worried for my safety or his work tool, asked for it back.

Differences among producers begin in the field. They can be geographic: highland agave (used by such brands as Patron, El Tesoro de Don Filipe and Milagro) is smaller and considered to be sweeter, while lowland agave (used by Sauza, Cuervo and Herradura) is larger and considered drier. Other differences can be chalked up to growing techniques. Some producers (including Sauza) start from seed, while others plant the "babies" from established plants. Agave takes a long time to mature, about seven years at a minimum, before it ripens enough for harvest, though some plants are left in the field as long as 10 years. Some producers, such as Patrón, like their agave less ripe. Others, such as El Tesoro, want very ripe agave in which the sugars have turned to red sap that looks like blood. "I love to see my agaves bleeding," says Carlos Camarena, El Tesoro's owner.

More differences are created at the distillery. Is the agave cooked whole, or chopped up? Is it steamed, or slow-cooked in an oven? Is it pulverized by a machine, or by the huge traditional stone wheel called a tahona? Is that tahona run by a machine, or dragged around by donkeys (as they still do at Siete Leguas)? Do you distill the tequila slower at a low temperature and bottle or cask it straight away, or do you distill at a higher temperature and then dilute it with water before bottling?

Finally, there is the issue of aging. Reposado means "rested," and, by law, reposado tequila must have rested anywhere from two months to just under one year. Some producers let their tequilas rest only a few months; others, such as El Diamante del Cielo, don't take theirs out of the barrel until the 364th day. Añejo means aged, and for those tequilas, which age for one to three years, the variation is even greater. I experienced those differences firsthand on my agave pilgrimage.

After arriving in the town of Tequila, I had an afternoon to kill and decided to play tourist at Mondo Cuervo, the distiller's shiny visitors center just off the town's colorful main square. The tour itself was not much different from those in the half-dozen other distilleries I'd visited. We wore headgear (hairnets in this case, while at other spots I was given a hard hat). We were shown how the agave comes in from the fields (in huge chunks that can weigh from 50 to 150 pounds) and how it's cooked. We sampled the agave pulp, which tasted an awful lot like caramelized pumpkin. We learned how the pulp fermented and how the juice was distilled twice. We tasted the blanco right out of the still at full strength, a bracing experience with the full spicy, grassy blast of agave.

At tour's end, however, we were ushered into a bar, and our tour guide said, "Now you will taste a real margarita." I watched the bartender grab a bottle of Jose Cuervo Gold, meaning that, even though Cuervo makes premium 100 percent agave spirits, I was about to be served a mixto, a tequila made of only 51 percent agave and 49 percent additives such as sugar or neutral spirits. To add to the insult, the bartender then grabbed a bottle of Jose Cuervo's pre-made, day-glo-colored Margarita Mix. He poured both into a blender and pushed the button.

Yes, my pilgrimage to the seminal town of Tequila was rewarded with a margarita that could easily have been made by the lunchtime bartender at a suburban Applebee's back home. No wonder I later learned that no one in the state of Jalisco drinks margaritas.

Now, I might be accused of harping on the worst stop of my trip, but that margarita at Mondo Cuervo highlighted the main reason tequila has not yet won the hearts and minds of the average drinker in the United States.

Sure, sure, we keep hearing reports about tequila's rise, and we see the sales of premium tequila grow every year; according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, tequila imports have grown almost 50 percent since 2002. But that growth is driven mainly by geeks like me, people who see the value in spending $40 or more for a spirit made with 100 percent blue agave. When I offer most acquaintances a tequila, a large majority of them say something like, "Ugh, tequila. I just can't drink that. Not since this bad night in college."

Frankly, I am tired of hearing about people's bad night in college. I am also tired of people kidding themselves that "it doesn't matter" whether you use a low- or high-quality spirit in a cocktail.

A plea to Mexico's Tequila Regulatory Council: Can we stop with the mixto tequila already? If the tequila industry truly wants to improve the image of its product, then it ought to ban mixto altogether.

I've heard a lot of talk about the importance of changing consumer perceptions: that tequila is not just a frat-party shot; that good tequila doesn't give you hangovers; that tequila truly exists on the level of a fine, aged whiskey or brandy. All of that is true, as is the fact that fine tequilas are not cheap and that you can even splurge, as with Scotch or cognac, on high-end choices such as Gran Patron Platinum ($189), El Tesoro Paradiso Extra-Añejo ($121) and Siete Leguas 5-Year D'Antaño (about $200, if you can even find it in the United States).

But the average consumer is still not getting the message. Worse, too many people maintain an irrational fear of the spirit. Why? Because all of the nice premium brands are sitting on shelves in liquor stores next to godawful, headache-inducing mixtos that cost a fraction of what real tequila costs.

"To me, mixtos are nonsense," said El Tesoro's Camarena. "Have you ever heard of cognac made with 51 percent cognac and 49 percent sugar?"

The El Tesoro distillery is the opposite of Cuervo's. The owner himself gave us the tour. Camarena spoke of the importance of eschewing traditional yeast during the fermentation of the agave and instead letting the microflora in the open air do the work. That is how unique flavor is created, he said: "It's where the magic happens."

Even smaller, and more traditional, was Siete Leguas. There, with little fanfare, we tasted our tequila while sitting on fold-out chairs in a dark room, the glasses set on a paper towel. Sipping Siete Leguas's añejo was a revelation: It was smooth and floral, with hints of caramel, but without losing the essence of the spicy, herbal agave from which it was made.

You hear a lot of aficionados declare young, unaged blancos to be the purest expression of the spirit and criticize añejos as taking on too much wood and losing the sense of the agave. The tasting at Siete Leguas convinced me that is not always the case. "If you have a very good blanco, you'll have a good añejo," said Lucrecia Gonzalez, whose family owns Sieta Leguas.

When I visited the distillery at Hacienda Patron, master distiller Francisco Alcaráz also expressed his preference for blancos ("I like the flavor of tequila") and asserted that tequila becomes "very woody after three or four years in a barrel. It loses a lot of character."

But he also pondered whether it was a bad thing that many añejos take on the complex characteristics of brandy or whiskey in the barrel. "Maybe we need to take a scientific look at this," he said. "We should take the best tequila, rum, bourbon and cognac, and see what the taste difference is. Maybe at this point, what we're all chasing is a similar luxury spirit."

It's interesting that someone at Patron raises that point, since it's become fashionable in cocktail geek circles to turn one's nose up at Patron. The company is too big, right? Too many ads, right? It can't possibly be good. Ridiculous. Let's be clear: If it hadn't been for Patron entering the market in the late 1980s, there wouldn't be a premium tequila market in the United States. You'd still be drinking Cuervo Gold.

It reminds me a little of teenagers who hate a band as soon as it becomes famous. It also, strangely enough, sounds like the sort of debate that routinely happens in the wine world.

Yes, to enter the world of tequila is to slip down a rabbit hole. Which probably proves how much more complex it is than most people think.

Jason Wilson's Spirits column appears every other week. He can be reached at food@washpost.com.

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