Craft tequilas are stirring up a lot of excitement Stateside.
Tequila is a true chameleon in the spirit world. So versatile, it can blend together with a multitude of flavors to give you a pucker punch in the palate. The taste combinations are virtually endless; from the tangy sweet and sour of a classic top shelf margarita to the bright citrus of a grapefruit, passion fruit or guava refresher to the spicy kick of a three-alarm habanero chili hangover cure. Beyond the shady environs of the cocktail glass, fine tequila sheds its camouflage and steps out into the sunlight to be admired and enjoyed for all of its complexity and rich, layered flavor.
Now, when you think of tequila as a category, consider it in the same way you would champagne. It is the name given to a distilled spirit specifically produced in the western Mexican state of Jalisco, in the area surrounding the city of Tequila, Mexico. Today, 380 million agave plants are harvested in that region each year and the plants take about 5 to 9 years to mature. As a spirit, tequila is also differentiated by the fact that it only uses the blue agave plant for production.
In general, a craft or “small batch” 100% agave tequila is defined by the industry standard of producing 50,000 cases or less. At the moment, popular brands like Patron and Don Julio own the lion’s share of the craft tequila market. Others produce less than 20,000 cases a year. And some, considered to be super tequilas, produce between 5,000 and 10,000 cases a year. But, regardless of the production numbers, the true test for any craft tequila is taste.
“The real difference between craft and mass-market tequilas is linking the raw material to capturing quality flavor in the bottle,” opines Jake Lustig, head of Mexican brand Las Joyas del Agave. “More agave pungency. More complexity. More minerality. Distilling the agave mash at a slower rate. All of this extra labor-intensive effort retains more of the purity and flavor of the spirit in the final product.”
“The best tequilas out there at the moment are the ones that are made from one brand, one distiller, and represent one distinct taste,” affirms Ryan Fitzgerald, Director of Spirits and Cocktails for Beretta Pizzeria and Bar, a craft cocktail hotspot in San Francisco’s Mission District. “They’re focused on flavor profile, heritage and family to create real authenticity in their tequila.”
“Generally speaking, craft spirits like tequila are growing in popularity due to the whole farm-to-table movement,” says Chandra Lucariello, Director of Mixology for Southern Wine & Spirits in Honolulu. “Consumers want to support local, and just like the local farmers, the local distilleries produce limited quantities of product while putting their heart and soul into it. Most of these distilleries aren’t in business to get rich. They are in it because they love what they do, and the public can see and taste that in the glass.”
Since tequila’s distillery process is as complex and varied as modern winemaking, tasting is paramount to finding that one perfect tequila you’ll love and enjoy sharing with friends and family. In general, premium 100% agave tequilas fall into four basic categories: Blanco (or silver), reposado, anejo and extra anejo. Blanco is un-aged and bottled or stored immediately after distillation, or aged less than two months by law in stainless steel or neutral oak barrels. Reposado (meaning rested) is aged in oak barrels for a minimum of two months, but less than a year. In addition to the sweetness of the agave, the tequila takes on the more complex flavors of the oak. Some distilleries even use recycled bourbon barrels, some new and many reuse their barrels. All these factors contribute to a wide spectrum of wonderful flavors. Within Mexico, reposado is the most popular category of tequila. Anejo, (aged or vintage) is aged for minimum of one year, but no more than three. These golden tequilas, as they’re called, represent a variety of complex flavors and textures. And, since 2006, extra anejo has been added as the newest category and is aged for three years or more. As you’d expect, these are the most rare and expensive tequilas on the market. Like wine, aging tequila transforms the taste in the mouth, mellowing the heat, adding complexity and highlighting desirable signature notes like oak, caramel, butterscotch and vanilla.
Unlike tequila that can only be produced in Jalisco, mescal is currently being produced in seven of Mexico’s 31 states. Yet, the most respected ones come from the southwestern state of Oaxaca due to its longstanding tradition, perfect climate and mineral rich soil. Since there are over 28 varietals of agave plants, mescal also has the distinct luxury of experimenting with other types of agave beyond the renowned blue agave that’s used only in tequila. In terms of overall market share, mescal is still in its infancy as the 1% to tequila’s controlling 99%. Beyond the business, mescal is exciting because it offers some interesting and unexpected mouth flavors. From brand to brand and batch to batch, mescal can be wildly different.
Richard Betts, co-founder of Sombra Mescal, has been making his own mescal since 2006 and is a big believer in this spirit’s promising future: “Mescal is the mother of all tequila. It’s the most authentic taste of old Mexico. When you want to go and drink the essence of this spirit, you should go and drink mescal. It’s the truth.”
Las Joyas’ Lustig agrees: “It’s a very exciting time because there are a lot of possibilities for different tastes. Currently, there are no rules in mescal. We’re doing it all by intuition. What you get is amazing variations between batches from one producer and between various producers throughout the Oaxaca region. There are lots of nuances between the bottles and there’s plenty of amazing, incredible variation in styles. It’s truly the Wild West at the moment.”
As our agave aficionados point out, the first thing to consider when selecting fine tequila (or mescal, for that matter) is simply, are you planning to mix it up in a classic cocktail? Or, are you destined to sip it on the lanai while contemplating life like a fine single malt scotch?
Expert Jake Lustig recommends: “Look for a value 100% agave tequila for mixed drinks. You can make real authentic margaritas with the right amount of heat that will penetrate the sweet and sour of the mix.
Similar to wine, when you’re sipping tequila, try some from different regions and find one that you like. There will definitely be others from that same region of Mexico that you’re sure to enjoy.”
“Tequila has so many distinct flavors that it tailors itself to making great cocktails,” says Beretta’s Ryan Fitzgerald. “You can do so many great things in the glass with it. I like to introduce a bit of mescal into my tequila cocktails to add some smoke to it. Remember, just because a drink has tequila in it, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a margarita.”
In the end, you don’t always have to drink tequila. But when you do, make it quality, craft tequila. Stay thirsty my friends.