Tequila's story, from its origin to modern production methods, is more interesting than most other spirits, and is certainly widely misunderstood. Tequila is made from a single species of agave, which, even though it looks like a cactus with long, spiky leaves, it is not. Agave is a member of the lily family — like the tiger and day lilies in your garden — and comes in more than 100 different species. Mexican law dictates that tequila can be made only from the Weber Blue agave, and only from those plants grown in specific delineated areas (sounds a little like French wines, doesn't it?). Tequila is a direct descendent of pulque, an ancient beverage made from maguey, another agave species. After the conquering Spaniards brought stills to Mexico, the maguey "wine" was distilled into a spirit called mezcal. Eventually people began to notice that the mezcal made from agave grown around the small town of Tequila, in the state of Jalisco, was particularly tasty. The beverage was officially named tequila in 1873, and a number of subsequent production laws forever separated it from mezcal.
Weber blue agave does not have a yearly growth cycle like grapes or sugar cane. It takes an average of six to eight years before it is ready for harvest. At maturity, the average piña (the heart of the plant and the part used to make tequila) weighs around 100 pounds, and will ultimately yield just five or six liters of 100 percent blue agave tequila. Harvesting is done entirely by hand by jimadors, men whose skills are passed down through generations.
Although all tequila is made with the Weber blue agave, not all is 100 percent blue agave. Tequila is divided into two types: mixto and 100 percent agave. Mixto tequila means that the producer used a second sugar source (up to 49 percent and usually cane or corn sugar) during fermentation. Tequila made from 100 percent agave will say so on the label. Tequilas are further classified by how they are aged (if at all), and all categories include mixto and 100-percent-agave versions:
Silver, Blanco, White or Plata — These tequilas remain colorless and are not aged in wood. Silver mixtos are great for mixed drinks, while those incorporating 100 percent agave are better for sipping because they display the pure, fresh flavors of blue agave. Great examples of silver tequila include El Mayor Blanco ($29.99) and Casa Noble organic Blanco ($39.99).
Gold, Joven or Oro — This is silver tequila (usually mixto) with a small amount of caramel coloring. Caramel coloring gives tequila a golden hue and softens it a bit, but does not add much flavor. Jose Cuervo Especial ($19.99) is the iconic gold brand, and is the classic choice for shots and pitchers of margaritas.
Reposado (rested or aged) — This type of tequila is aged in oak vessels for at least two months, up to a year. Tequilas in this category get a golden hue and hints of vanilla or butterscotch from the time spent in wood. Reposados give mixed drinks an extra depth of flavor, and are smoother than gold versions. Try Espolon Reposado ($25.99) or Sauza Hornitos Reposado ($24.99).
Añejo (extra-aged) — These tequilas are aged in wooden barrels for a minimum of 12 months. Because of the extended barrel time, the tequila's color deepens to amber, and wood flavors move into the fore as the tequila becomes rich, complex and smoother still. Though most tequila fans enjoy this tier of tequila served straight, añejos will turn any basic cocktail into an ultra-premium pleasure. Try Patrón Añejo ($52.99).
Extra Añejo (ultra-aged) — This category, created in 2006, applies to añejo tequilas aged for three or more years. These tequilas develop a mahogany color, and take on characteristics similar to aged Scotch (without the peatiness). Few examples in this category have been released as of yet.
Tequila is a must-have for any well-stocked bar, and few can deny the appeal of margaritas on warm summer evenings. However, tequila truly is a spirit worth exploring seriously, whether you mix it into a cocktail or savor it solo. Agave's unique character shows best when tequila is served at room temperature, and premium silver and aged tequilas will offer more aromas and flavor when sipped from a small wine glass.
By Kirra Barnes, product education coordinator for PA Wine & Spirits Stores. Article originally appeared in Talk Magazine, Summer 2012.