Visitors to Tequila are often surprised to hear that the town’s eponymous spirit is more complex than its reputation lets on. As with alcoholic beverages considered more sophisticated, like champagne, tequila is subject to strictly enforced appellation rules: true tequila must be made from at least 51 percent Weber blue agave grown in the Zona Protegida por la Denominación de Origen – essentially all of Jalisco plus parts of Nayarit, Michoacán, Guanajuato and Tamaulipas. The balance can be made up with alcohol from sugar or corn, but a good tequila will be one hundred percent agave, which gives more intense and flamboyant flavours, and will be stated on the label.
The agave takes seven to ten years to reach an economically harvestable size. The plant is then killed and the spiky leaves cut off, leaving the heart, known as the piña for its resemblance to an oversized pineapple. On distillery tours you can see the hearts as they’re unloaded from trucks and shoved into ovens, where they’re baked for a day or so. On emerging from the ovens, the warm and slightly caramelized piñas are crushed and the sweet juice fermented, then distilled.
Tequila isn’t a drink that takes well to extended ageing, but some time in a barrel definitely benefits the flavour and smoothness. The simplest style of tequila, known as blanco or plata (white or silver), is clear, and sits just fifteen days in stainless steel tanks. The reposado (rested) spends at least two months in toasted, new white-oak barrels. The degree to which the barrels are toasted greatly affects the resulting flavours; a light toast gives spicy notes; a medium toast brings out vanilla and honey flavours; and a deep charring gives chocolate, smoke and roast almond overtones. If left for over a year the tequila becomes añejo (old), and typically takes on a darker colour. A fourth style, joven (young), is a mix of blanco with either reposado or añejo. While the nuances of tequila are slowly being explored by a select few, the benefits of oak ageing aren’t appreciated by all – many still prefer the supple vegetative freshness of a good blanco.