Tequila shots are not Mexican. If you see someone in Mexico kicking it back quickly in the form of a shot with a chaser of salt and lemon, it’s probably a tourist. And he white tequila that often shows up at bars in North America and other countries is only one of many varieties.
In Mexico, tequila is sipped and savored, like a fine cognac or whiskey. It’s often served in a snifter-shaped clay cup so you can give it a swirl and inhale its spicy bouquet of aromas before you taste it.
Types of Tequila
Tequila, which is made from the blue agave plant–a succulent with long spiky leaves that can grow to roughly 7 feet (2m) in length–is split into two categories: 100% blue agave and mixto. Mixto must contain at least 51% blue agave (the other 49-or-so-percent is alcohol made from types of sugars, and is generally cheaper to produce). If the bottle simply says tequila, then it’s mixto. Both types are then further divided into types, silver (sometimes labelled white), gold, reposado, anejo and extra anejo.
Silver is generally not aged at all, or it’s only aged by a few months and retains the sweet flavor of the agave. Gold is usually a mixto, may or may not be aged for a month or two and includes additives to give it more flavor. White and gold are most often used in mixed drinks.
The next few are where things get a little more expensive but far more interesting. Reposado has been aged for about 2 to 11 months in wood barrels until the liquid turns a dark gold or caramel color. At this point in the aging process, the flavors have started to evolve and contain woody or earthy undertones. Next up is Anejo, which can only boast this name if it has been aged for more than a year, and Extra Anejo needs to be aged a minimum of three years. Both are far smoother and darker than other varieties, and the flavors are rich, complex and balanced.
So what is Mezcal?
Where does mezcal fit in? All tequilas are technically mezcals, but all mezcals are not tequilas. Tequila must be made from blue agave, but mezcal can be made from several types of agave. Espadín is one of the most popular types of agave used to produce mezcal, but there are over 25 varieties (including blue agave) that can be used. In addition, mezcal can be produced many areas of Mexico, though most of it comes is made in Oaxaca. The distillation process for is also different. Tequila production involves steaming agave and distilled in copper pots, whereas for mezcal, the agave is cooked in the earth among wood, charcoal and lava stones before being distilled in clay pots. The flavor of mezcal is often smoky and a bit sweeter than tequila, and this easy-to-drink tipple has become trendy recently, with mezcal-focused bars popping up across Mexico. High-end mezcal has also started gracing the menus of upmarket bars across North America.
The price of aging
Price-wise, tequila is a bit like whiskey: the longer it ages, the more expensive it gets. Flavors are impacted by many factors including the elevation and location of the agave plant, each distiller’s technique and the type of barrel that is used. American and French Oak are most popular, but some tequilas are aged in former cognac or wine barrels. Strict regulations govern where and how Mexican tequila can be produced. Currently this is limited Jalisco and four other states.
Where to do some serious tequila or mezcal tasting
The UNESCO-designated Tequila Trail in the state of Jalisco, connects several tequila producing towns where you can both visit distilleries and pop into a large selection of tequila-focused bars. If you fancy sipping tequila while enjoying a train ride through the verdant countryside, hop on the Tequila Express in Guadalajara. Packages include a tastings and tours at a tequila distillery and time to explore the town of Tequila itself. The Jose Cuervo Express offers a similar itinerary and excursions that include tequila and nibbles on the ride, and stops at key towns and their own distillery in La Rojeña.
Mexico City’s legendary Salón Tenampa is has been a revered drinking cantina since 1925. There’s often live mariachi bands playing and the menu features a huge variety of top tequila producers as well as full meals. With several locations in Mexico City and one in Cancun, restaurant and bar La Destileria offers tequila tastings as well as standard Mexican fare.
Mezcal bars are rapidly becoming trendy across the country, especially in Mexico City. For a solid variety, tastes, and bartenders with an often encyclopaedic knowledge of mescal, head to low-key Milagrito or La Botica, a popular spot with several locations in the city.