Tequila 101: An Introduction to the Spirit of Guadalajara
Beyond the late-night shot or margarita there is a taste, a destination, and a culture that is tequila. From farming and production to tasting and visiting, get better acquainted with the spirit of Guadalajara’s Jalisco state.
All About Agave
Tequila runs deep in Guadalajara. Tequila production dates back to the 16th century and today the region produces and distributes nearly all agave spirits in the world. Like champagne or bourbon, tequila is made exclusively in the region. This includes the small towns of Tequila, Arenal, and Amatitan near Guadalajara where rolling hills are covered with vibrant blue agave fields. These plants are so beautiful that the agave landscape between the foothills of the Tequila Volcano and the deep valley of the Rio Grande River was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2006.
Tequila is made from these blue agave plants or agave tequilana weber. Part of the succulents family, these plants need about 200 days of sunlight, making Jalisco the perfect location for them to thrive.
Tequila is a spirit years in the making. They are cultivated and pruned until they reach maturity, which can take up to 15 years. Harvest time calls for the help of the "jimador," a skilled farmer who uses specialized tools to cut the leaves from the plant, exposing a "piña", which resembles a large pineapple. The piña typically weighs 50-100 pounds and is the key ingredient in making tequila.
Next, the piñas are roasted and the resulting agave juice is fermented for several days as the natural starches turn to sugar. The sweet aromas of sugar cane fill the air and the agave juice reaches the alcohol content of beer or wine. Then it’s on to the distillation process. All tequilas are distilled at least twice, and can now reach an alcohol content of up to 57 percent. Tequila is then separated into two categories, either 100 percent pure agave or 51 percent agave mixed with sugars and other flavors.
Tip: Reach for bottles that are listed 100 percent agave for the smoothest taste when drinking straight and reserve tequila that is 51 percent agave for cocktails like a Tamarindo Margarita or Paloma, local favorites.
The Five Classes of Tequila
Not all tequilas are created equal. There are five classes of tequila, based on how long they are aged, "blanco," "reposado," "anejo," "extranejo," and "joven" or "oro". Tequila is often aged in American White Oak barrels and each class carries a distinct profile.
Blanco or silver tequilas are bottled immediately or shortly after the distillation process. These tequilas are clear in color and have an exciting herbal taste that is often served with seafood and citrus foods.
Aged for more than two months, reposado tequilas are bright gold and have a slight oak taste. Offering a smoother taste, pair these tequilas with hearty dishes and meats.
Drinking an amber-colored añejo tequila is an experience that is both refined and relaxed. This type of tequila is aged for a minimum of one year and the oils from the barrel give it a vanilla taste that compliments many desserts.
Extrañejo tequilas are aged the longest, remaining in the barrel for at least three years. During that time, the tequila soaks in the rich flavors of the oak and can resemble the taste of brandy or bourbon.
- Joven or Oro
A blanco tequila mixed with a reposado or añejo is called a joven or oro tequila. Varietals range from more affordable options for cocktails to rich mixtures maintaining 100% agave.
The Art of the Tasting
If you thought tequila was best enjoyed as a series of quick shots, think again. The complexity of tequila begs for it to be savored. The spirit can best be enjoyed by taking a one ounce sip of the spirit, then holding it in your mouth for 10 seconds, swishing it around, swallowing, and exhaling. This technique minimizes the burning sensation when the tequila is exposed to oxygen and makes contact with your body temperature, allowing you to focus on the flavors. The tradition of taking your tequila with salt and lime also minimizes this effect and is still used today.
Guadalajara’s rich culture has created a more heightened tequila tasting experience. Many distilleries serve tequila in small glasses or flutes opposed to the traditional shot glass. This is to keep the aroma from escaping or becoming to overwhelming as you take a sip. To cleanse the palate between tastings, many offer a tomato drink similar to that used in a Bloody Mary or small pieces of bread. Here are the four things to consider when tasting tequila:
What is the color of the tequila? This often ranges from clear to various shades of gold and tan.
What type of body does it have? This can be found by gently swirling your glass and noting how the residue trickles down. Bold droplets represent a full body, which is 100% agave tequila.
How does it smell? Take in the rich scent by smelling your glass top to bottom, bottom to top and on each side to uncover the different profiles.
Finally, how does it taste? Slowly sip the tequila and note the flavors that you experience throughout the process.
Now you’re on your way to becoming a "tequilero", a tequila expert. Experience a culture ingrained in tequila by visiting Guadalajara’s distilleries, cantinas, and the National Museum of Tequila in Tequila.
Raise a salt-rimmed glass to the spirit of Guadalajara. !Salud!