How To Drink Tequila, And Actually Enjoy It

How To Drink Tequila, And Actually Enjoy It

Forget everything you know about tequila. Forget sugary 2-for-1 margaritas. Forget late night tequila shots and wrecked mornings, and forget the body shots you slurped off those nubile coeds while spring breaking in Cozumel…Hey! I said forget about it.

Because what we have here is Tequila’s redemption song, everything you need to know to enjoy what has quietly become America’s favorite liquor. So join us, dear reader, as we discuss how to find quality tequila, what style is right for you, and how to make the perfect margarita.

Tequila: How It’s Made And Why It Matters

To enjoy tequila, you first must find the right bottle. But to find the right bottle, you first must understand what’s inside.

What Is Tequila?

Tequila is a spirit made from the fermented sap of the blue agave. It’s produced primarily in the Mexican state of Jalisco.

What Is Blue Agave?

A large spiky plant that flourishes in the volcanic soils of southern Mexico. While it looks like a cactus, the agave is actually a succulent, a plant known for retaining water in its leaves in dry climates.

blue agave

How Does Blue Agave Become Tequila?

The blue agave takes 8-12 years to mature. When it’s ready, harvesters known as jimadors use a coa, a sharp blade attached to a long wooden handle, to remove the plant’s spiky leaves and sever its roots.

el jimador

What’s left after harvest is the pina. The core or heart of the plant can weigh up to 200 pounds and is packed with sap. The pinas are then roasted and steamed before having their juices extracted for fermentation. Each pina provides enough sap for 3-4 liters of tequila.

pina

Along with sap from the pina, yeast, bacteria, and spring water are added to the fermentation tank. After fermentation, the spirit must be distilled twice, per Mexican regulations.

The first distillation separates the alcohol. The beginning (head) and ending (tail) are discarded, removing ethanol and other toxins. The center stream (heart) is kept and distilled a second time to further purify the alcohol.

Finally, after one last filtering process, the tequila is crystal clear at 80-110 proof and ready to leave the still for either bottling or aging in barrels.

Why Does Any Of This Matter?: The Tale Of Two Tequilas

Tequila is produced in two primary styles. The first and one you’re likely familiar with is mixto tequila, which literally means ‘mixed’ tequila. This is your well tequila. Your Jose Cuervo. The stuff poured into bar shots and hidden beneath overpowering margarita mixes at TGI Fridays. Mixto tequila has one big problem: it’s only half tequila.

By law, tequila needs to be made from only 51% blue agave sugar. The remaining 49% can come from other sources, usually cane or corn sugar — cheap substitutes that not only dilute quality but, because you’re essentially mixing alcohols, also make for the notorious tequila hangover.

Now, the good stuff, the stuff many of us have never tried or even heard of is 100% agave and it makes all the difference in enjoying tequila.

100% Agave: What You Need To Know

There are no surprises with 100% agave tequila. Strict regulations ensure the alcohol is fermented only from the sugars of the blue agave and bottled within its production region. The heavy agave profile also makes for superior body, flavor, and aroma.

How Do I Know If A Bottle Is 100% Agave?

Tequila made from 100% agave will always be labeled as “100% de agave” or “100% puro de agave.”

Mixto tequila, however, is not required to be labelled “mixto,” and will just read “tequila.” So read the label closely. If you don’t see some iteration of “100% agave” somewhere on the front of the bottle, then you’re drinking mixto.

100 agave

Silver And Gold: What’s The Difference?

After distillation, all tequila is clear (silver) in color. It can be bottled right away and sold as ‘blanco’ tequila. Often, though, tequila is aged in charred oak barrels. Over time, the wood imparts a gold hue on the spirit as well as mellowing flavors of oak and vanilla, much like whiskey.

Generally, the darker the spirit, the longer it has been aged and the more the barrel impacts the flavor. (Note that mixto ‘gold’ tequila often isn’t aged at all, but just mixed with caramel coloring to give the impression of aging).

100% agave tequila is almost always classified as either blanco, reposado or anejo — labels determined by how long the spirit has aged. Here’s a breakdown:

Tequila Blanco

tequila blanco

Aged: 0-2 months
Color: clear
Flavor: sweet, floral and citrusy
Who might like it: Fans of gin, vodka, and other clear spirits

Tequila Reposado

tequila reposado

Aged: 2-12 months
Color: gold
Flavor: balanced; oak and vanilla mellow the sweetness of the agave
Who might like it: fans of clear spirits as well as fans of barrel aged spirits like bourbon and brandy

Tequila Anejo

tequila anejo

Aged: 1-3 years
Color: dark amber
Flavor: smooth and complex; smoked oak, vanilla, and caramel
Who might like it: fans of long aged spirits like bourbon and scotch

How Do I Drink Tequila?

You can sip all 3 styles of 100% agave tequila like you would a good bourbon. You can enjoy it neat in a white wine glass or on the rocks in a rocks glass. Of course, tequila also makes for some fantastic cocktails, most notably the margarita.

The Margarita

The margarita was born on the patio. It is sweet, citrusy, and pairs perfectly with grilled meats, Adirondack Chairs, and passing out in your daughter’s kiddie pool at 2 in the afternoon.

But let’s keep this general. The margarita is America’s favorite cocktail, and for good reason. Not only does it radiate summer vibes, but it’s customizable. Like yours extra sweet? Extra boozy? You can tailor the recipe to your personal preferences.

Here is everything you need to make a perfect margarita, including my go-to recipe.

Essential Ingredients

Margaritas are complex in flavor, yet deceptively simple. The whirlwind of salty, sweet, bitter and sour flavors comes from only 3 ingredients:

  • Tequila
  • Cointreau
  • Lime juice

However, because these ingredients make up the entire cocktail, it’s important to use quality stuff. Here’s what you need.

100% Agave Reposado Or Blanco Tequila

el jimador

There is more tequila in this cocktail than anything else, so make sure to use 100% agave. While anejo tequila is generally reserved for standalone sipping, both reposado and blanco are fantastic in margaritas. Use whichever you prefer.

Note: If you’re looking to upgrade to 100% agave without breaking the bank, El Jimador is a great value. It’s just a few bucks more than Cuervo and tasty enough to satisfy most casual margarita drinkers.

Cointreau

cointreau

Cointreau is a premium orange liqueur. While technically classified as a triple sec, it’s of much higher quality than other brands in the category. It’s made from sweet and bitter orange peels, which brings a vibrant and complex flavor that is worth the additional cost.

Lime Juice

If you’re drinking margs, you’re juicing limes. That’s part of the territory. But a lime squeezer, like this one, will make life as a home bartender much easier.

Optional Ingredients

  • Kosher salt
  • Agave nectar

Kosher Salt

While not a necessary ingredient, you may want to consider salting the rim of your glass. Salt enhances flavor. It subdues the bitterness and brings out the sweet and sour flavors of the drink.

How to salt your rim:

  1. Pour kosher salt onto a plate.
  2. Use a lime wedge to line the rim of your glass with juice.
  3. Dip the glass into the salt and rotate. Then, with any sort of effort or skill, you will have a salted rim that looks much better than this one.

How To Salt A Rim

Agave Nectar

There are 2 perfectly acceptable reasons why you’d add agave nectar to your margarita:

  1. You prefer a sweeter drink. Adding agave nectar is a great way to naturally sweeten any cocktail.
  2. You prefer an easy-drinker. The margarita is strong. And if you add additional lime juice in an attempt to decrease alcohol content, you’ll end up with a bitter mess. But if you also add agave nectar to offset the increased bitterness, you’ll end up with a balanced, quaffable cocktail.

Proportions

Balance is the key to any good cocktail. For the drink to work, the ingredients need to be in proper proportion. After making hundreds of margaritas, I’ve settled on 2 recipes, a light and heavy version. Typically, I’ll make the heavys for me and my buddies, whereas my wife and her friends prefer the light version.

The Heavy

  • 2 oz reposado tequila
  • 1 oz Cointreau
  • 1 oz lime juice

The Light

  • 1.5 oz blanco tequila
  • .5 oz Cointreau
  • 1.5 oz lime juice
  • .5 oz agave nectar

Always Shake, Never Stir

When making margs, always shake your ingredients. This will fill the liquid with air bubbles and give you a cocktail that’s fizzy and fluffy.

A few years ago, I bought this $10 shaker from Amazon and it has served me well. But if you don’t have a shaker, a protein shaker or leak-proof travel mug make great substitutes.

Serving

A few years ago, my wife got some margarita glasses for her birthday, so I figure since we have them, might as well use them. But you can just as easily serve over ice in a rocks or highball glass.

Putting It All Together

Ingredients:

  • 2 oz reposado tequila
  • 1 oz Cointreau
  • 1 oz lime juice
  • Kosher salt (for rim)

or

  • 1.5 oz blanco tequila
  • .5 oz Cointreau
  • 1.5 oz lime juice
  • .5 oz agave nectar

Directions:

  1. Salt the rim of a margarita glass
  2. Add ingredients to a cocktail shaker and fill with ice
  3. Shake for 15 seconds
  4. Strain into the glass and serve
  5. Repeat steps 1-4

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