- On May 5, 2016
With May 5th upon us, many people around the country will be cracking open bottles of tequila and making margaritas. But what do we know about tequila other than “that one night” from college? Would it shock you to know that the spirit most people think of when tequila comes to mind is not 100% agave? Or that tequila is not the be-all end-all of Mexican spirits? Welcome to the weird, wild world of agave!
In a big picture sense, all tequila is technically mezcal. All mezcal, however, is not tequila (we’ll touch more on that later). Any agave-based distilled spirit could legally be called mezcal, but the regionality of Mexico is so diverse that specific subtypes of mezcal started to pop up. By far, the most popular of those is tequila. The subtypes are mostly dominated by what type of agave plant is used as the base. In the state of Jalisco, where tequila is made, blue agave is the primary species that thrives. The plant flourishes in the volcanic soil, and has such a sense of terroir that even blue agave from Jalisco is not uniform in flavor. Highland-grown plants are much larger, with a bigger yield and sweeter flavors while Lowland agave tends to be more pungent and herbaceous. Some tequila producers will use a mix of both locales to get a flavor that is more well-rounded, while others embrace the specificity of flavor and bring that character through in their distillate. Earlier we had mentioned tequilas that are not 100% agave-based. These are called mixtos in their native country, but due to legal definitions in the US are lumped in with the rest of tequila here. Mixto, meaning mixed, is a combination of 51% or more blue agave spirit with the rest being made up of grain neutral spirits. You’ll notice them when a bottle says it is “made WITH blue agave” instead of some variation of 100% agave-based. To call these tequilas is technically accurate, but any purist would find it hard to do so.
(Sauza Hornitos Plata & Reposado $14.99 (reg. $17.99) Black Barrel $22.99)
Casa Sauza was the first producer not only to label their agave spirit as tequila, but to export it to the US. Their company dates back to 1873 when Don Cenobio Sauza opened La Preservencia distillery in the town of Tequila. They have gone through juuuust a bit of growth since then. We’ll discuss their Hornitos line today, as it represents one of the best modern middle-shelf tequilas in the market. While the name Hornitos refers, literally, to the “little ovens” that distillers used to back their agave, Sauza now uses diffuser equipment to process the plants. The long and short of that technique is that the liquid is extracted and fermented without the fibers, resulting in a cleaner, sweeter flavor. The unaged is, as with all agave spirits, perhaps the most pure expression of the characteristic distillery’s flavor. Here, the Plata is quite crisp and floral, with a pungency that is fairly mild in terms of tequilas. The Reposado builds on that flavor with minimal time barreled, resulting in a spirit that is still quite agave-forward and less sweet than its peers. It has vanilla and oak notes, but still a peppery holdover from the base. This is a pretty classic tequila progression. Perhaps it could be a bit woodier, but tastes differ from producer to producer. Both are great for mixing cocktails (blanco every time) but drink great on their own as well! Their new Black Barrel Añejo takes tradition and throws some bourbon influence into the mix. It is aged for 12 months in a pretty standard way, and then dumped into charred barrels for 4 months, then again into toasted oak for 2 more. Confused yet? Stay with me! It is an incredibly rich and woody expression of agave. It’s a much different experience than what you might expect when you buy a bottle of tequila, but it is delicious! Chili powder and nutty wood push through, with classic agave pungency and dry oak mixed in. It’s funky for sure, but tasty on the whole!
(Fidencio Clasico $37.99)
Let’s circle back to the topic of mezcal. Mezcal could be considered the original agave beverage that birthed Tequila, Sotol, Bacanora, Raicilla and the rest. Though produced mostly in the Oaxaca region, it is actually made in a number of states all over Mexico. One of the big differences we’ll see here is the type of agave used. While tequila requires blue agave, mezcal can be made from many different varieties (espadin being most common). Most mezcals are bottled unaged, though there absolutely are some barreled versions out there. The agave for most mezcal is still processed in the traditional way of underground ovens, versus steam or autoclave, crushed with a tahona and left to wild ferment. This gives it an inherent smokiness that the others do not. The savory/pungent notes of mezcal are striking and tend to be a bit of a love/hate relationship. Imagine a green, herbaceous tequila and crank it all the way up to 11. There are the imitators on the market, but real mezcal is a thing of beauty. The Fidencio lineup is, without exception, fantastic. The Clasico is 100% estate-grown espadin, doubled distilled, and bottled at batch proof. What does that mean? It means that there is no dilution, so it is as concentrated in flavor as possible, and ABV varies from batch to batch. It has a smoke flavor that is not overpowering, but serves instead to highlight the earthiness and minerality that comes through in the spirit. Crisp, refreshing and AMAZING in cocktail use, this stuff never fails to please.
(La Venenosa Raicilla Sierra Occidental de Jalisco $59.99)
This raicilla is weird. There’s no two ways about it. Considered the moonshine of Jalisco, or the mezcal that didn’t make it, most people have never heard of Raicilla outside of Mexico. It hails from the same state as tequila, so it definitely lives under a big shadow. The styles vary greatly even in Jalisco, with more rustic, muddy raicilla coming from the Sierra, while fruity and tropical spirits fly in from the coast. The Sierra Occidental from La Venenosa definitely falls into the latter of the flavor families. Distilled just ONE TIME in the village of Mascota, it is truly unique. It has a fattiness to the mouthfeel that is thoroughly pleasing. There is a rich avocado sense to it, a fruity/fatty interplay that couples with a bracing acidity to make a supremely cool spirit.