If your tequila needs a salt-and-lime chaser or you wake up smashingly hungover, it’s time to learn how to enjoy this ‘elixir of the gods’ instead.
You’ve likely been drinking tequila improperly all these years, or even given up on it. Many of us have spent unfortunate nights with bad tequila, waking up with only a headache and regrets. But tequila doesn’t deserve the bad rap it gets – we’re pointing the blame in the wrong direction.
It’s because of the number one mistake: Tequila is not meant to be drunk like a shot, but sipped like a fine whisky or cognac. The second typical mistake is choosing a cheap tequila or mixing it with the wrong drinks.
Tequila is known to be one of the purest liquors in the world – and so, relatively hangover-free. This is especially true of the ‘blanco’ variety–young, colorless tequila–which encapsulates the health benefits and unique flavors of the Mexican agave plants.
The world of Tequila is rich, varied and largely unexplored, with some of the best tequilas still to claim fame outside of Mexico’s border. But, as the Tequila trend takes off and the industry matures, today you can find many top-shelf tequilas worthy of your time.
Despite the ‘new’ trends abroad, tequila is an old soul. The first distilled agave spirits started in the 16th century, blending indigenous agave processes with Spanish distillation techniques, making it one of North America’s first indigenous distilled spirits. Today you can visit tequila’s epicenter in the Mexican state of Jalisco, right where a town called ‘Tequila’ stands today.
The world was slow to react, but tequila is finally a big player on the international stage, up there with fine wines and top-shelf whiskies, even to the tune of a $1,000 a bottle. It’s Mexico’s best kept secret, where the fun rhyme in Spanish explains it all:
Si no hay remedio, un litro y medio
‘If there’s no remedy, a litre and a half’ – tequila is the solution to everything. And, if you drink tequila right, you’ll hardly notice the hangover.
What Is Tequila Made From?
Tequila is made from the agave plant, which it actually a succulent and not a cactus as commonly thought.
By law, Tequila can only be made from the Blue Agave type, known as agave azul or agave tequilana, specifically the Weber Blue variety. Blue agave is reportedly the go-to ingredient for tequila because of its higher sugar concentration compared to other agaves, plus for its shorter reproduction cycle and higher resilience.
Tequila must be made of at least 51 percent of Blue agave sugar to receive the ‘authentic’ stamp. Premium brands, however, use 100 percent agave and that’s why they are worth the higher price tag–and will also give you a smoother day-after.
So, knowing what you’re buying is important. If a bottle just says ‘Tequila’, it will likely be mixed sugars. Premium tequilas will always be marked by a big ‘100 percent Blue Agave’ or ‘tequila 100 percent de agave’ or ‘puro de agave’–because that kind of quality is worth shouting from the roof-tops.
What Goes With Tequila
At the most basic level, Blue Weber agave has herbal spice and citrus notes. If the ‘tahona’ stone-wheel crushing method is used, such as in brands like Patron and Olmeca, additional flavors can be drawn out, particularly sweet notes, like earthy sweet potatos.
The tequila also picks up a variety of flavors if aged in barrels, such as caramel and vanilla notes from American oak, dry fruit flavors from French oak, or citrus and fresh wood hints from Hungarian oak.
Tequila and tacos are the perfect match in Mexico, while aged tequilas can complement meaty flavors such as slow-cooked beef, chipotle and chorizo.
What Is Considered ‘Real’ Tequila?
Tequila has been awarded DO status (denomination of origin)–alongside the likes of Champagne and Comte cheese–which means that where the agave comes from dictates what is considered ‘real tequila’.
Only five states in Mexico can claim their distilled agave as ‘tequila’, which are:
- Jalisco – the centre of Tequila products, and the location of a town of the same (yes, you can visit a town called Tequila)
The rest must label their products as ‘distilled agave’, although other well-known agave alcohols have received DO status, too, such as Sotol tequila from the northern state of Chihuahua, and Mezcal.
Real tequila is also banned from being bottled with a worm or scorpion – so that should be the first clue if you’re buying something fake. Unless it is Mezcal, which is less restricted than tequila, and can be bottled with a worm (but even then, premium mezcal brands don’t do it).
In fact, putting worms in tequila is not known as a traditional Mexican practice, but more so as a marketing gimmick. The worm–or gusano–is the larval form of a moth or butterfly that eats the agave. Its presence can indicate an infestation, and consequently a lower-quality tequila, although some myths say gusano are good luck.
The complete process of tequila, from growing to bottling, is strictly controlled by Norma Oficial Mexicana (NOM). All authentic and regulated tequilas will bear the NOM identifier on the bottle, with a number that refers to the parent production company. Some Tequilas are bottled outside of the tequila territories, even outside Mexico, which some argue reduces quality.
The Consejo Regulador del Tequila (Tequila Regulatory Council) reports some 1,000 registered tequila brands, produced from a few hundred companies.
Is Tequila Hangover Free?
Agave – or maguey – is thought to have medical properties, and relatively smooth on hangovers and stomach. But only if it isn’t mixed with other alcohol, sugar or poor-quality mixes. It’s also gluten free, so a possible good time for celiac sufferers or gluten avoiders, but only if it’s 100 percent pure agave.
If there’s no 100 percent label, it will be a mixed tequila (tequila mixto), where the remaining 49 percent can come from other sugar types, such as cane or grain sugars. Some flavorings are also allowed, such as oak extract, caramel coloring, glycerin and sugar syrup. These additives are what can exuberate a hangover.
If it’s 100 percent agave and bottled straight away–known as young or white tequila–it’s much cleaner. Without wood aging, additives or bad sugar syrups, there’s less chance of chemical impurities entering the alcohol – the kind that hurt your hangover.
So, drink it neat, drink it pure, and drink it young – and yes, your hangover will be hardly noticeable.
Tequila Vs Mezcal
Agave drinks have been used in Mexico for hundreds of years, playing a spiritual role in ceremonies and used to mark events such as marriages, births and funerals.
Tequila has enjoyed longer fame in the international scene, although the commonly exported brands are much less consumed in Mexico (like Jose Cuervo), so try to avoid the big brands and try something new. Tequila is only made from blue agave, and can be distilled up to two or three times for a super smooth flavour. You’ll find it in three forms, crystalline (white), reposed (brown) and anejado (aged).
Mezcal is a newer player on the international market as the quality reaches world-class standards, and appreciation for this hand-crafted artesenal alcohol is growing. Mezcal can be prepared using a number of different agaves – there are more than 200 varieties – which offers a lot more variety of flavors than tequilas, especially when you start to try rarer agaves, such as Tobala or Jabali, which take some 30 years before it can be harvested. The main other difference is the smoky flavour of mezcal, derived from smoking the agave trunks in a fire-pit of coals for a day or longer.
History Of Tequila
Fermented agave drinks existed in Mexico long before European contact – and are still drunk in Mexico today. The pre-cursor to tequila–named pulque–is a vitamin-filled brew created by pre-Hispanic natives.
When Spanish conquerors ran out of their brandy, they began to distill agave near where the town of Tequila stands today, taking notes from the natives. Around early 1600, some 80 years after the first production, Don Pedro Sanchez de Tagle began mass production and later, the Cuervo family received the first license to commercially produce tequila.
Today, some tequila brands are still family-owned, although most well-known tequilas belong to multinationals. However, you can still tour agave landscapes and distilleries, similar to the wineries of Napa or Bordeaux. The distillery of Herradura, set in a gracious hacienda from 1870, even played a role in a 1920s rebellion as a hideout for Christians who were being chased by Mexican soldiers.