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Tequila's Rise

Once the Liquor of Machismo and Margaritas, Tequila has Gone Decidedly Upscale
Jean T. Barrett
From the Print Edition:
Jack Nicholson, Summer 95

(continued from page 1)

The piñas are taken to the distillery, halved or quartered and steamed or baked in large ovens or pressure cookers for up to two days, until they form a soft, pulpy, sweet slurry. This is milled to break up the fibers and extract the juice, which goes into vats for fermentation.

It is at this point that the production of 100 percent agave tequila differs from that of standard, mass-market tequila. With 100 percent agave tequila, the pure agave juice is allowed to ferment over a period of several days, then it is transferred to a still, where the first of two distillations begins.

However, in the production of tequila, Mexican regulations permit the addition of up to 49 percent sugar; the sugar is added before fermentation. Most producers of inexpensive tequila have taken full advantage of this regulation, yielding tequilas that are only 51 percent agave.

While the 100 percent agave designation on a tequila label is an important indicator of product integrity and style, it is not necessarily a guarantee of quality. "One hundred percent agave doesn't mean it's a better tequila," asserts Juan Domingo Beckmann, director of new products for Tequila Cuervo SA in Mexico City. Beckmann claims that some unscrupulous tequila producers skimp on production quality but still are able to conform to the 100 percent agave designation. "You can find excellent tequilas that aren't 100 percent agave," notes Beckmann, who advises against using 100 percent agave tequila in mixed drinks because it is too aromatic. "Some tequilas are made for mixing and some are made to be sipped alone, but that doesn't mean one is better," he concludes.

Like rum, tequila is marketed in its unaged as well as its aged state. The vast majority of tequila is bottled without aging shortly after distillation. Unaged tequilas are labeled white (blanco) or silver (plata), or they may have caramel color added and be labeled gold.

Reposado, literally "rested," tequilas must be aged for at least two months in wood, although some reposado tequilas are aged for up to a year. Most reposado and older tequilas are aged in American white oak barrels that previously were used for Bourbon.

For the term "añejo" to appear on the label, the tequila must be aged at least one year in wood, and most añejo tequilas are aged longer. But, according to many producers, prolonged aging beyond a certain point does not improve tequila. "The master distillers I have talked to say you cannot age tequila much more than three years," says Paul Campos, whose company, El Dorado Importers of Santa Rosa, New Mexico, imports Centinela tequila to the United States. "After that it becomes quite bitter. It's not like a Bourbon or some whiskeys that you can age 10, 15, 18 years."

The term "gold," which widely appears on tequila labels, actually has no legal significance. It is impossible to overemphasize that that deep gold color is not a sign of either age or quality in tequila. Most gold-toned tequilas obtain their tint not by wood aging, but by the addition of caramel color, which is permitted by Mexican regulations. The natural color of a three-year-old añejo tequila is pale straw; a rich golden hue in tequila may signal artificial coloring.

All tequila bottled in Mexico must show a NOM--the distillery (or sometimes bottler) identification number--on the label. Since this NOM can also appear on tequila bottled in the United States,it is not particularly meaningful unless you are trying to determine which distillery made a certain brand of tequila. Even then, there are exceptions; I have seen 100 percent agave tequilas for sale in the United States that were bottled in Mexico but do not carry a NOM.

White tequila is altogether different in character from reposado or añejo bottlings. High quality white tequilas should smell strongly of agave fruit, a hard-to-define scent that most tasters describe as vegetal, herbaceous and smoky. Reposado or añejo tequilas take on additional aromas and flavors, often including tropical fruit, citrus, vanilla and various herbs and spices. With any fine tequila, smoothness on the palate is a plus, particularly if you are sipping it straight. Although a brisk and peppery finish is a hallmark of many good tequilas, outright harshness is a sign of an inferior product.

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