Some places or countries are forever associated with a certain alcoholic beverage. Guinness in Ireland; saki in Japan; the wines of California, USA; single, malt whisky in the Scottish highlands; champagne in France; the list goes on. One drink will be forever Mexico and that is tequila!
The further away you go from Mexico, the more likely that you haven't tried real tequila. It's exported just fine, but it nestles on supermarket shelves right next to cheap imitations that probably aren't 100% agave plant. Therefore it tastes coarse and can only be consumed without gagging by talking extraordinary measures. First you line the glass rim with salt, then you dip your index finger into a pile of salt and lick it. Immediately gulp the burning, bitter liquid back. Alcohol burn gorges a route through your throat. Then, while your taste buds are desperately trying to divorce themselves from your mouth, you suck on a lemon or lime to nullify the flavour. Alternatively, there are some methods substituting the salt for cinnamon and the lemon with orange. If you have had to resort to any of these things, then you have never drunk true tequila.
True tequila is to that stuff what Cognac is to brandy; what Laphroaig is to whisky; what Grey Goose is to vodka; what Gordons is to gin... you get the idea. It is sipped from a clean tequila glass with nothing else added. It's a very smooth flavour. It doesn't hurt your mouth to drink it and you will not have to flail around looking for something to take the taste away. Unless, of course, you're reaching for the bottle to refill your glass after you've savoured the last drop.
Tequila was first produced in the 16th century, in a Mexican town called, ahem, Tequila. It was (and is) distilled from the blue agave plant. It wasn't until around 1600 CE that a man named Don Pedro Sánchez de Tagle worked out a way to mass-produce it. The Spanish conquistadors started sending it home to Europe as another Mexican export and the world found out about it. It's been exporting it ever since.
However, that hasn't been without controversy. The blue agave plant, from which tequila is distilled, is only found in limited places in the world. All of these places are in Mexico, but even there it's only in a tiny region. The blue agave can be found in the state of Jalisco and limited regions in the states of Guanajuato, Michoacán, Nayarit and Tamaulipas. Mexican law states that if the alcohol hasn't been distilled in these places, then it's not tequila.
This, of course, hasn't stopped other areas and countries creating their own brand, but they don't taste the same. As the drink began to be globally associated with the coarse, bitter, non-authentic stuff, the Mexican government took action. It has claimed exclusive right to the name 'tequila' for a start and does take action against others using it. One such casualty was JB Wagoner, in the USA, who ultimately changed the name of their drink to JB Wagoner's Ultra Premium after a legal challenge. But even within Mexican, the name is protected for those regions with the proper plant. The Tequila Regulatory Council of Mexico ensures that it is so.
In a bid to raise the reputation of the drink, so damaged by cheap imitations, tequila ambassadors were sent out around the world. From the early 1990s, armed with examples of real tequila, their remit was to re-educate international connoisseurs of fine spirits. This tequila had been prepared by traditional means and was proofed to the correct standard.
The blue agave had grown for 8 - 10 years in the fields, in the approved regions, before being cut with old-fashioned machetes. The 'jimadores', agave farmers, have a very specific way of harvesting the plant. It has to be at precisely the right time, or else the taste is affected. These secrets have been passed down from generation to generation, because, frankly, they are way too valuable to be shared with just anyone! Their produce had been distilled, at least twice, and then left to mature in oak kegs for at least four years. The yeast used in this differs from distillery to distillery and is another closely guarded secret.
The tequila ambassadors aboard were triumphant! Suddenly, amongst those in the know, tequila rose through the ranks to claim its rightful place alongside the greatest spirits in the world. Sales of authentic tequila went up steeply, as connoisseurs rushed to stock it.
Unfortuately, the demand soon outstripped the supply. We're back to the fact that the blue agave plant only grows in limited places; plus it has to mature in the ground for up to a decade. The jimadores simply didn't have enough of it to harvest in order to fill all of these orders. The price of proper tequila soon rose, until only the rich or uncompromising chose it. The cheap imitations flooded back into the market to fill the breach for everyone else. That hard-won reputation started to sink again. But the news was out there. In fact, the Guinness Book of Records tells us that the most expensive alcoholic drink ever bought was a tequila from this time. Tequila Ley .925, based in Tequila, Jalisco, sold a two-liter bottle for $225,000, in July, 2006. Apparently to someone who knew what tequila was supposed to taste like.
The good news though is that the crisis happened ten years ago. All those jimadores, at the time, planted millions of extra acres with blue agave. They are just now coming to maturity. In short, we are living in a decade where authentic, beautiful, smooth-tasting, proper tequila is more plentiful and much cheaper. And buying it actually in Mexico makes it even cheaper still.
So how should you drink it, now that you can dispense with all that nasty salt, cinnamon, lemon, lime and orange malarkey? There is a trick to get the best flavour from tequila. Just get yourself a good tequila and follow these steps:
1, Choose your glass well. Most spirits have the correct glass to use and tequila is no exception. Riedel or Caballito glasses are the things to own.
2, Pour in your shot. In the Riedel glass, that's to the point where the sides straighten (pictured). While the Caballito will usually have a line engraved on the glass to show you where to fill it to.
3, Let it settle while you prepare your taste-buds. You don't want to influence the taste with whatever you last drank or ate. Some experts recommend a glass of water, just to wash your mouth out. However, the true Mexican experience involves a glass of sangrita at this point.
4, With a fresh, clean palate, you are ready to enjoy your tequila. Pick up your glass and give it a little swirl. This will release the bouquet; close your eyes and raise the glass to the level of your chin. Inhale the scent of agave and oak. (Don't shove your nose in it, you'll just smell alcohol, which isn't so pretty.)
5, Take the tiniest sip, a mere taste of it. This prepares your tongue for the full flavour coming up. You may feel a slight jolt here, but no more than your first sip of whisky does. Contemplate the flavour. Savour it. Let your mouth adjust and want more.
6, Tequila time is now. Go for a proper sip and enjoy!