One afternoon in the late 1990s a number of my friends and I dropped into a tequila bar in Tempe called “Palapa’s” for a shot of tequila. We were sipping a shot of Patron añejo, which at the time for us was the “real deal.” We said to the bartender, “This is pretty good, huh?” He replied, “It’s okay.” We were a bit surprised, and asked, “So, what do YOU like?” He walked back with a bottle of Jose Cuervo Reserva de la Familia. We said, “Cuervo? Really?” He poured us all a shot at $16 a copy. It was dark, looking more like a fine whiskey or Cognac. We said, “Did he say this is Tequila?” We studied it. We smelled it. And then we took a sip. Again we said, “DID HE SAY THIS IS TEQUILA?” We’d never had anything quite like it before. It was smooth, with a sweet caramel undertone and near cognac flavor. That’s when it all started.
One of my co-workers at Rockford grew up in Tequila, Mexico. He told me his father had been the GM of Sauza Tequila, and he gave me quite an education in the different types of tequilas, and how they’re made. He actually came back from a visit to Tequila town with a tiny 1 gallon wooden barrel for me that had my initials burned into the end. (I still need to age some good blue agave juice in that little barrel.)
Tequila is made only from the Blue Agave plant, a large succulent that only grows in and around the Jalisco region of Mexico. The plant takes many years to mature, and there are thousands of acres of them in Jalisco. They say the higher up in the hills that the Blue Agaves grow actually improves the taste of the juice, and dry spells cause the plants to create more sugar.
When the Blue Agave is mature, the long, blue-green leaves are cut off, leaving the heart of the plant called the piña (pineapple.) These large hearts are cooked in huge ovens for hours, and then mashed to get the juice. The juice is then distilled, and either put right into bottles (these are the “blanco” Tequilas) or put into wooden barrels or steel tanks for aging. When a tequila has been aged for six months to 364 days it is called “reposado” (rested). If it is aged for over one year it is called “Añejo” (aged). If it is aged for more than three years it is called “extra añejo” and these can be VERY expensive, sometimes costing into the thousands of dollars per bottle, or hundreds of dollars per shot.
Really fine tequilas should be sipped and enjoyed. Some taste of caramel, some of vanilla, and are very complex with a sugar-like sweetness. There is even a YouTube video on how to drink fine tequila. Even the type of glass one drinks from will affect the flavor. Above and beyond their wonderful flavors, many tequilas come in hand-painted bottles, or bottles with interesting shapes and stories. And…no two taste the same. The juice, the history, the art are all reasons I–and so many others–are so fascinated with this amazing natural treat. The quest continues…