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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Wednesday, June 20, 2001

Quality Tequila good enough to be sipped like fine wine

By Sean Nakamura

For me, the sun has already set on the Tequila Sunrise, and the last bus long departed for Margaritaville. Tequila is one drink I don't have too many fond memories of. Undoubtedly, the legends of nights of Tequila are numerous, but the few I can remember on my own, are ooohhh so painful.

In recent years, the image of Tequila as the drink of brazen youth is giving way to a more sophisticated idea of a refined product meant to be sipped like fine Cognac, rather than quaffed down shot after shot. A quick lesson in some Tequila basics might be helpful for the adventurous out there who would like to rediscover the Mexican spirit.

Tequila is the distilled spirit made from the thick fermented sap of the agave plant. Often incorrectly identified as a form of cactus, the agave is a member of the amaryllis family and more easily recognized as a century plant. The large useable head of the agave is covered with an armor of long slender but thickly set leaves, the plant somewhat resembling a cross between the pineapple and silversword.

Spanish colonists to Mexico found the native Aztecs drinking a mildly alcoholic fermented drink called pulque, made from the sap of the agave. The Spanish colonists later employed distillation to achieve a drink more to their taste, the forerunner of modern-day Tequila.

As the conquistadors made their way across Mexico, they discovered that the best distilled pulque was being made from a blue agave species in the state of Jalisco, in an area around the town of Tequila. So was born the name of the famed spirit.

The first commercial production and credit for the first cultivated blue agave belongs to Don Jose Antonio de Cuervo, whose family business still remains at the forefront of the Tequila industry.

While standards allow a product to be called Tequila if it is made from a minimum of 51 percent agave, the production of 100 percent agave Tequila is on the rise as manufacturers seek to create distinctive, premium liquors that can be marketed to the discriminating.

Several terms are helpful in deciphering the vast array of products on the market.

Silver or blanco Tequila is clear and unaged; this is the original form of Tequila.

Very similar in character to the blanco is the gold or joven abocado Tequila, to which caramel coloring has been added to create a golden hue. This Tequila remains essentially the same as the uncolored spirit. These two variations are typical of standard Tequila, with a little more than half of the fermentable material being agave.

Consumed as a shot, these are often harsh on the palate, giving rise to the need for salt and a lime chaser, which are thought to help quell the sharpness. These products are best used in mixed drinks such as the margarita and Tequila sunrise, or in just about any highball drink where vodka, gin or rum might otherwise be used.

In an attempt to create a more complex and appealing product, the aging of Tequila has been incorporated into the production process. Reposado or "rested" Tequila has been stored in oak barrels for less than one year. A longer, aged Tequila, labeled anejo or aged, is Tequila stored in oak barrels for more than one year.

These Tequilas, made from 100 percent agave and with oaky and complex notes added to the natural herbaceous character of the liquor, are the direction in which the industry is going.

Much as what has occurred in the production of whisky and brandy, the Tequila producers are experimenting with the use of new and used barrels of different types in an effort to create subtle differences. But unlike fine Cognacs, which may be aged for decades, the benefits of longer aging of Tequila seem to peak at about five years, at which the oakiness of barrel fermentation starts to become overwhelming.

Often confused with Tequila, mezcal offers drinkers another alternative Mexican spirit. The raunchy sibling to Tequila, mezcal, native to Oaxaca and made from a cousin to the blue agave, is the bearer of the worm in the bottle. Rumored to produce wild dreams and increase virility, the worm is often incorrectly associated with Tequila.

At your next Tequila tasting, hold the salt, hold the lime, definitely hold the worm and try sipping one of the new premium Tequilas on the market.

A touch of mango

Mango season is again upon us. The deliciously sweet exotic fruit makes an excellent addition to many of the standard cocktail mixes. Add them fresh or frozen, always at the peak of ripeness for a wonderful tropical twist on any blended cocktail. Here's an example:

Mango Margarita

  • 1 shot (1 1/4 ounce) Tequila

  • One-half shot (3/4 ounce) triple sec

  • 1 ounce lemon or lime juice

  • One-third ripe mango

  • Sugar to taste

  • 1 cup of ice

Place all ingredients in a blender and blend until smooth.