Monday, May 4, 2015

Know Your Poisons: Tequila

The Drunken Taco in Ft. Lauderdale features over 250 tequilas.

Sixty five kilometers northwest of Guadalajara in the Mexican state of Jalisco is the town that lends its name to the liquor that was born there. To some, the very mention of the word tequila brings to mind revels and parties. To others, it’s a blank, black hole where memories used to be. For me, it just makes me shudder. When your Wingman was a younger pup like some of you, he imbibed of too much cheap tequila in the Army during reveries and debaucheries, and now the mere smell of the stuff causes me very soul to twitch. That said, don’t let my past experiences dissuade you from enjoying tequila if that’s your poison of choice.

Tequila is often confused and misunderstood. Many people think tequila is made from a cactus. This is a myth. Rather than being distilled from grain, tequila is the distilled product of the Weber Blue Agave, a plant related to the lily and amaryllis. While it grows in a cactus-like environment, it is not a cactus. The blue agave has a life-span of 7-15 years, stands over 6 feet tall, and has a diameter of 6 to 12 feet.

Long before the arrival of Conquistadors with their lust for gold, Christian God, and syphilis, the natives were making a fermented beverage called "pulque". This vitamin-rich drink was made from fermented sap extracted from the heart of the Maguey plant (one of numerous varieties of agave). In addition to making pulque, the natives made clothing, rope, mats and paper from the long fibers of the maguey leaves. The sharp tips of the leaves were used as tacks or needles for sewing clothing. The maguey, one of Mexico's most sacred plants, had a prominent place in religious ceremonies and rituals. Kinda sounds like hemp and cannabis. The transformation of pulque to something stronger occurred in the 1500s when the Spaniards introduced the distillation process to the region. Killing natives to take their gold is thirsty work,as is subjegating entire cultures and forcing them to discard their culture to adopt your religion. So, when the Spanish ran out of their own brandy, they began to distill this agave drink to produce North America's first indigenous distilled spirit. Pulque was distilled to make mezcal wine, also known as agave wine. This product continued to evolve into what we now call tequila.

Another source of confusion is the difference between Mezcal and Tequila. Mezcal is generally any distilled beverage made from the maguey (agave) family of plants. As such, tequila is technically a type of mezcal, but mezcal is not a type of tequila. They are considered two distinct products. Mezcal is made from over two dozen agave species including Tobala and Espadin. Mezcal can be produced from the Weber Blue Agave, although this variety is primarily used for making tequila. The traditional production process is also different. For mezcal, the agave hearts are baked in rock-lined underground pits, covered with fiber mats and earth. This technique gives mezcal a smokier flavor. Mezcal generally has about the same 38-40% alcohol content as tequila but has a stronger bite than tequila, and as a result is less popular.

The agave plant matures for up to twelve years under very careful cultivation before being harvested for production. More on that later. The harvester, called a Jimador, removes the agave leaves with a sharp curved tool called a Coa. He trims the over 200 leaves that protect the heart of the agave, called the piña (as in pineapple), until the whole heart is extracted from the ground. Only the heart, or “piña,” of the agave plant is used to make tequila.

Mature piñas weigh in between eighty and three hundred pounds; however, the size of the agave heart is not nearly as important as its sugar content. The older the agave, the longer the piña will have to accumulate the starches that will convert into fermentable sugars. Approximately 15 pounds of agave piñas are required to produce a bottle of tequila.

After harvesting, the piñas then enter the cooking phase, where steam injection within traditional brick ovens (or stainless steel autoclaves in modern mega-distilleries) is used to activate a chemical process within the piña that converts complex carbohydrates into simple fermentable sugars. Cooking also softens the piña, making the process of sugar extraction easier. Once cooked, the agave heads are transported to a milling area for sugar extraction. The cooked piñas are crushed in order to release the juice, or “aguamiel,” that will be fermented and distilled. The traditional method is to crush the piñas with a “tahona,” a giant grinding wheel operated by mules, oxen or tractors within a circular pit. Modern distilleries now use a mechanical crusher to separate the fiber from the juices. Once the piñas are crushed they are rinsed with water and strained to remove the juices that will be fermented.

During fermentation the sugars are transformed into alcohol within large wooden vats or stainless steel tanks, depending on the distillery; yeast may be added to accelerate and control the fermentation. Traditionally, the yeast that grows naturally on the agave leaves is used but today many distilleries use a cultivated form of wild yeast. The fermentation phase of production typically takes seven to twelve days, depending on the method used.

After the fermentation has occurred the actual distillation begins. Again, depending on the size and scale of the distillery, ferments are separated by heat and steam pressure within stainless steel pot stills or column distillation towers. While some tequilas are distilled three times, the majority are only distilled twice. The first distillation, also known as “deztrozamiento” or “smashing,” takes a couple hours and yields a liquid with an alcohol level of about 20% known as “ordinario.” The second distillation, known as “rectification,” takes three to four hours and yields a liquid with an alcohol level near 55%. After the second distillation the tequila is considered silver, or “blanco,” tequila. Now comes the aging…

Almost all containers used in tequila aging are French or American white oak barrels that have previously been used to age bourbon whiskey. “Reposados” (which means “rested”) are aged between two and twelve months, “Añejos” (which means “old”) are aged between one and three years, and “Extra Añejos” are aged for over three years. The longer the tequila ages, the more color and tannins the final product will have. The condition of the barrels (such as their age, previous use and if their interiors have been charred) will also affect the tequila’s taste. After the appropriate amount of time, the finished tequila is then bottled.

It is very important to note, however, that tequila isn’t really lengthily aged, per se, the way whiskies are aged to develop the flavors and take the harsh biting edge off. And with whiskies, the older the age in the cask before bottling the greater the prestige; not so with tequila. In fact, one could say tequila ages on the vine in the plant, and not the barrel. While some tequila is indeed aged in barrels to become reposados and añejos, the time to maturation is short; allowing tequila to age longer than four years could deteriorate the quality of the spirit. Barrel-aging tequila for more than four years would diminish the product; it loses some of its agave qualities and takes on more of the bourbon qualities from the cask in which it’s aged. So, technically, it doesn’t go bad, but you end up with something closer to whiskey than tequila.

So, in essence, once you open a bottle of tequila, you best be in the mood to drink it. As a general rule, experts say you have one to two months before oxidization and evaporation diminish the quality of the tequila and destroys the agave profile.

The blue agave plant takes 8 to 12 years to mature, at which time the piña is harvested. The harvested piña typically weighs a good 110 to 180 pounds on average and will produce one case (12 bottles) of tequila. As I said earlier, it can take a good 15 pounds of agave to make a single bottle. Timing is crucial when harvesting the blue agave, which is why it’s said that the aging is done in the plant. After waiting a decade or so for the plant to mature, you know you’re getting close when the leaves are between five and eight feet tall, the plant’s diameter is 6 to 12 feet and the quiote (stem) shoots up from the center of the plant. As soon as the quiote shoots up, it’s removed (and harvesting isn’t far behind) because it will reduce the amount of sugar in the piña, which would make it unusable for the tequila-making process.

Ever hear the term Appelation of Origin? An appellation is a geographical name (as of a region, village, or vineyard) under which a winegrower is authorized to identify and market wine; also :  the area designated by such a name appellation. This is how Burgundy wine is called Burgundy, from that region of France. And while sparkling wine is made in many different places, only those made in the Champagne region of France may call themselves Champagne. And only single-malt whisky (without the e) can be called Scotch. More on that when we get to whiskies.

Like champagne, tequila is assigned an Appelation of Origin status, which limits production to five Mexican states: Guanajuato, Jalisco, Michoacán, Nayarit, and Tamaulipas. The state of Jalisco is the center of Tequila production.  It is the only state that as a whole has the status of Appellation of Origin.  It is considered the place where tequila was first made and where the standards are defined.  The other states are only permitted to grow Blue Agave in small and defined regions. All 100% agave tequilas must be bottled in the designated Mexican regions and must bear on their labels “Hecho en Mexico / Made in Mexico.” Non-100% agave tequila, or “mixtos,” can be sold and bottled anywhere throughout the world. US regulations, on the other hand, allow it to be called tequila even if contains as much as 49 percent other liquids, commonly sugar-based alcohols. That means if you drink it, you’re mixing alcohols. Many experts say that’s what gives tequila its bad reputation and congeners that lead to nasty hangovers. So, if you’re gonna drink tequila, stick to 100% agave tequila.

Like I alluded to at the beginning, tequila has a bad reputation and it’s because we’ve all been there, lured by its ritualistic methods of consumption and its promise to take us to a higher level of (un)consciousness, but in the end we’re left with a vague recollection of the night’s proceedings, wondering who’s in the bed beside us and what disease we may have just inherited, paste-mouthed and crusty-eyed, sometimes with a crudely-inked tattoo. In my case, it was just the vague recollections, paste mouth, and crusty eyes thankfully, and nauseating acid reflux.

Another well-known tequila myth is that it has a worm in the bottle. There is no worm in tequila bottled in Mexico. There is sometimes a worm in bottles of mezcal, but not tequila. When a worm is included in a bottle of mezcal, it is known as "con gusano" (with worm). The "worm" is usually the larva of one of two kinds of insects, either a red worm ("gusano rojo") or a maguey worm ("chinicuil"), the caterpillar of the Hypopta agavis moth.

Mezcal, now with Protein!
The worm is a marketing ploy, as it has lost its nutrients inside the bottle. If you do find a worm in a bottle of mezcal, you can drink it without worry as the alcohol has thoroughly sanitized it. Although consuming the worm won't result in any special aphrodisiac powers or hallucinogenic effects, some find it somewhat spiritual and imaginative. I call shenanigans. Most people just do it because, like a dumbass, they think it looks cool. Or, if your penis is exceptionally small and you want to impress your frat buddies and strap-hanger bar bimbos, there’s always mezcal with a dead scorpion in it. Because eating a dead, alcohol-saturated arachnoid always brings the wimminz...
One of the most cliché images of tequila is that of the shooter. We’ve been brought up to believe that tequila is only worth drinking as a shot, with salt and lemon. Quality agave tequila can, and actually should, be sipped straight like a good bourbon or Scotch, in addition to being in cocktails, and by cocktails I mean something other than a margarita. Granted, the margarita is one of the most popular cocktails in the known universe, but dude, expand your horizons a bit. While the Wingman himself does not imbibe of the Pride of Jalisco, feel free to explore your agave options.

Tequilas from Jalisco are generally divided into lowlands tequilas and highlands tequilas. The village of Tequila itself sits in the lowlands, in the valleys formed by ancient volcanos. Though no longer active, the volcanic soil produces tequilas that are more herbaceous, spicy, and earthy. The highlands region (also called Los Altos) has iron-rich red clay soil that it gets more rain and has cooler nights; agave grown there yield tequilas that are richer in minerality and have more floral notes. Sipping a quality tequila can expand your palate a bit, don'tcha know...

The other cliché, popularized in rap songs and HBO shows, is that tequila is only good if it’s expensive. That’s utter bullshit. There are plenty of quality tequilas, 100% agave tequilas mind you, under $25 for the bottle.  Look for Cuervo (the biggest name in tequila worldwide), or explore El Jimador (hugely popular in Mexico) or Espolon.

You can trust a skeleton riding a chicken.

The Classic Margarita
kosher salt (optional)
.75 oz  freshly squeezed lime juice
1 oz  Cointreau, triple sec, or other orange liqueur
1.5 oz Blanco tequila

If using salt, spread it on a plate. Use a damp towel to moisten the rim of a chilled cocktail or rocks glass, then dip the glass in the salt.
Add the ingredients to a cocktail shaker and fill with ice. Shake well and strain into the glass filled with fresh ice. Garnish with a lime wheel. (For a slightly sweeter drink, add a dash of agave syrup—one part water, two parts agave nectar—before shaking.)

The Paloma
2 oz  tequila
.5 oz fresh lime juice
Pinch of salt (or to taste)
Grapefruit soda

Combine the tequila, lime juice, and salt in a tall glass. Add ice and top off with grapefruit soda. Stir gently and garnish a lime wheel.

The Yerba Buena
8 Mint leaves
.5 oz fresh lime juice
.5 oz agave nectar
2 oz tequila
Ginger beer

In a highball glass, muddle the mint, lime juice and agave nectar. Add the tequila and fill with ice. Top with ginger beer and stir. Garnish with a mint sprig and a lime wheel.

Go forth and imbibe responsibly. Who's got your back? I do.

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