by Alison Philips
Years ago, if you drank red wine with meat and white wine with fish and chicken, you were considered highly evolved. Now we’ve moved on. What is fascinating me these days is considering spirits with food, in particular, tequila.
For many of us, shooting tequila was a rite of passage during our misspent youth. Remember being 18 or 20 years old, on a hot summer night out with friends or partying in an over-crowded, noisy bar on that first spring break trip to Cancun? We’d lick the salt, down the Cuervo, and suck the lime, until things got rather blurry. Seemed like fun at the time. The next day was a different matter, as we languished in a dark room with a big, fat head, writhing and repeating over and over; ‘Never again will I drink tequila.’
“Tequila treats you the same way you treat it,” says Steve Calabro, bartender at Rick Bayless’ Red O restaurant in Los Angeles.
“If you aggressively slam it back, it will get mad and return the favour.”
The Truth About Tequila
Like many things we did in our youth, we didn’t always know the facts. In the case of tequila, you may be missing out on one of the greatest beverages you can enjoy.
Fact: The tequilas we were shooting (still shooting?) were not 100 per cent blue agave, the agave tequilana plant from which premium tequilas are made. The cheaper tequilas of our youth were likely mixtos, which are a mixture of agave liquor and distilled grain alcohol, with sugar and caramel colouring added.
Fact: Licking salt and chasing the shot with a squeeze of lime is completely unnecessary with good, 100 per cent blue agave tequila.
Fact: There is no worm in tequila. Not even all mezcal (tequila’s sister spirit produced in Oaxaca) has a preserved picudo larvae or maguey worm in the bottle.
Really good tequila, made from 100 per cent blue agave plants grown and distilled in Jalisco state, is one of the most pure and natural spirits one can drink. It has the ability to stimulate the appetite before a meal and settle your stomach after one. It’s even reputed to lower cholesterol when enjoyed in moderation.
On the Tequila Trail
Recently, on a trip to Mexico, I decided to delve into the whole tequila thing more deeply rather than simply wasting away in Margaritaville at the swim-up bar in our resort. We rented a car in Puerto Vallarta and headed off on the switch-back mountain roads into the Los Altos Mountains and the origin of tequila, the city of Tequila itself.
Driving around the town of Tequila feels like a visit to an old-world winery town somewhere in Europe. Settled in the 1600s, the red volcanic soils surrounding Tequila are perfect for growing the blue agave plants. We visited the Herradura distillery, a gracious hacienda dating from the mid-1800s which played a role in 1920’s rebellion, hiding faithful Christians who were being pursued by Mexican soldiers.
Following a comprehensive private tour of the Hacienda property, we were treated to a delightful luncheon under a canopy of shady trees. My respect for tequila increased as the afternoon wore on.
Like good wines, tequilas are produced with much care and attention. Every agave plant is harvested by hand. The highland plantations of the area produce sweeter flavours and those sourced from lowland farms have a distinctly earthier flavour. The jimador (a farmer who is expert in blue agave cultivation) is one of the most important people in the whole process. With knowledge passed down from generation to generation, the jimador identifies when the agave is ripe, which happens when the plant is between 8 and 12 years old. (The ripeness is key to high-quality tequila, similar in the way that ripe fruit is key to making high-quality wine.) The primary tool of the jimador is the coa, a flat-bladed knife at the end of a long pole that resembles a hoe. The coa is used first to remove the flower from the agave, which causes the central piña (looks like a pineapple) to swell. Later, the piña is harvested and taken to large ovens to bake slowly, breaking down complex starches into simple sugars. The baked piñas are either shredded or mashed under a large stone wheel called a tahona (the process is automated at most distilleries). The bagazo, pulp fibre, left behind is collected and reused as compost or animal feed, but can be burnt as fuel or processed into paper. In the 1800s, it was used as mattress and pillow stuffing. Some producers add a small amount of bagazo back into the fermentation for a stronger agave flavour.
The extracted agave juice is poured into stainless steel vats for several days to ferment, resulting in the mosto, or wort, which has a low alcohol content. Yeasts unique to Herradura aid the fermentation process. The wort is distilled once to produce what is called ordinario, and a second distillation produces clear blanco, or silver, tequila. Some producers distill a third time, but connoisseurs consider this third distillation a mistake as it removes too much flavour from the tequila. The tequila is either bottled as blanco or is aged in wooden barrels, where it develops a mellower flavour and amber colour.
When aged in barrels for up to a minimum of two months, tequila takes on a light amber colour from the wood, and is called reposado. Longer than a year in barrels results in a mellow aged spirit called anejo. Extra anejos are produced by some distillers and these are aged a minimum of three years in oak barrels.
Silver or blanco tequilas are clean and crisp, somewhat citrusy with the flavour of the agave. With age, they become smoother, with more complex flavours enhanced by wood. The length of aging and degree of charring on the barrel determines the final taste profile. Some aged tequilas have distinctly caramel, subtle chocolate, and smoky notes, comparable to fine Cognacs.
Tequila with Food
So, how does one pair it with food, you ask?
Tequilas are not limited to pairing only with Mexican foods. Blanco pairs very well with a first course that includes salads and fresh fish. Ceviche—raw fish and seafood cured in citrus juices and spice — is particularly good, but shrimp or crab with a lemony lime dressing or a mango pineapple salsa would work very well. Don’t be afraid to add a few chilies and some garlic too!
Reposados are a versatile spirit. Enjoy them with pork, chicken, seafood or beef recipes. I enjoyed a reposado with a mixed seafood plate — grilled salmon, cooked mussels, and a slightly charred grouper. I also like it with spicy pork stew or smoky barbequed ribs.
Anejo tequila requires no food to be enjoyed. However, they are amazing sipped with a crème brule or crème caramel, cheesecake or even nutty dessert with chocolate.
I dare you. At your next dinner party, why not serve a selection of three different styles of tequila with your meal? Start with corn chips, guacamole and salsa and serve margaritas or palomas. Graduate to neat tequila paired with some of the foods suggested. It will definitely get the conversation going and create a taste adventure at your dinner party.
Build over ice in a highball glass; 1.5 oz silver or reposado tequila, sparkling grapefruit juice and a generous squeeze of lime.