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A beginner’s guide to tequila

National Tequila Day is just around corner, and with a quick and dirty tutorial on the finest agave spirits around, you too can flex like the pros when talkin’ tequila. Not only are we gonna give you the 101 on this fine Jaliscan export, we’re also hearing from agave expert and total tequila nerd Jaime Salas on how you can up your Mexpertise. See, because tequila is from Mexico, and Mexpertise… Anyway, read up then drink up!

What makes tequila, um, tequila?

Tequila is a spirit distilled from blue agave, and produced in and around the city of Tequila in Mexico’s state of Jalisco. It’s a specifically defined variant of mezcal, which is a broader family of beverages made from any kind of agave plant, and is traditionally drank neat because of its fruity flavor and clean finish. Like bourbon vis-a-vis whiskey, this class of mezcal has to meet certain criteria to be labeled and imported as true tequila. In the US, for example, tequila must be at least 80 proof (40% alcohol) and be made from 100% blue agave.

Three main types of tequila

Blanco/Silver: Light in appearance and taste, this unaged and largely untouched version of tequila is beloved for its versatility in cocktails and (because of minimum production time) lower price point. It’s the moonshine of tequilas.

Reposado: Sometimes labeled as Gold because of its ambered hue, reposado (literally “rested”) tequila is blanco aged in oak barrels anywhere from two months to one year. A bit sweeter on the tongue and spicier on the nose, but still perfect for many cocktail applications.

Añejo: The old man of the tequila family, añejos are aged for at least a year in oak barrels, resulting a deeper, more complex spirit that can replace many brown spirits (like bourbon or aged rum) in cocktails. Honestly though, you’ll want to sip this juice straight up.

Expert Q&A with Jaime Salas

A true tequila connoisseur and advocate, Jaime Salas now brings his enthusiasm and experience to his role as National Ambassador for Milagro Tequila. Whether it’s creating cocktails like the Spiced Pear Flip and The All-star or encouraging people to explore the unique variants of Milagro, including the Core and Select Barrel Reserve lines, his passion and demeanor help demystify the world of tequila.

Mezcal is hot now. What’s the difference between it and tequila?

All tequilas are mezcals, but not all mezcals are tequilas. Tequila is a type of mezcal much like how scotch and bourbon are types of whiskey. What differentiates these spirits from one another is the type of agave species used to produce each along with processes that define each type of spirit.

For example, tequila’s denomination of origin requires the use of the Blue Weber varietal for the production of tequila, typically baked in steam ovens or autoclaves where as mezcal, which is renowned for its smoky character, can be produced from upwards of 40 species of agave native to Mexico and is typically baked in conical underground ovens using local wood. Each species of a agave lends the spirit a different flavor profile, compounded by the type of production method used.

This is a beginner’s guide. What are the best cocktails to introduce newbs to tequila?

Begin with cocktails that highlight the spirit and allow it to shine. I would suggest a Tommy’s Margarita. This particular style of margarita, created at Tommy’s restaurant in San Francisco, uses fresh lime, agave nectar (a sweetener also derived from the agave plant) and the tequila of your choice. This perfect trifecta allows for a bright and refreshing non-traditional margarita that really highlights the tequila and its inherent flavors whether vegetal, floral, herbaceous and the like. If you prefer your classic staples, an Old Fashioned made with tequila is the way to go. This cocktail format typically features whiskey, however, it is the perfect cocktail recipe to highlight the complexities of the tequila while enhancing the citrus and vegetal notes. It’s rounded, slightly sweet but undeniably agave based which makes for a great spin on this classic cocktail.

Speaking of margaritas, why do you see salt accompany so many tequila cocktails?

While there are thousands of tequila expressions out in the market there are some flavors that span the category that are typically associated with tequila. Due to the raw material used in the production of tequila, the Blue Weber Agave varietal, there will always be a notable hint of vegetal, floral and citrus aromas and flavors, particularly in Blancos/Silvers. The use of salt as a garnish is Palomas and Margaritas help to enhance the cocktail’s flavor as well as open up the palate that is about to enjoy the cocktail. Think of the use of salt in cooking or the addition of salt on watermelon on a hot summer day. The briny qualities of the salt liven up the citrus and fruitier flavors in the cocktail.

What’s the deal with the worm in the bottle? Is that a real thing, or conventional wisdom?

If I had a dollar every time I was asked this question…Back in the 40’s mezcal producers began adding agave “worms”, which are actually larva, to their bottles in order to differentiate themselves from tequila brands. Since then a lot of folklore as sprung around this idea. It’s been said the worm represented the quality of the mezcal. A worm that is intact implied a well-made mezcal. Some would drink the worm and claim special properties. Some mezcal companies used the worm as part of their marketing platform while most got rid of the worm in since. Today you will find only a couple of brands that still incorporate the maguey, or agave, worm in their bottles and marketing mix.

I want to look like a pro at the bar. How do I order tequila with the confidence of an insider?

Begin by doing the your homework. Get familiarized with the types of expressions you prefer. Are you a Blanco/Silver lover or do you prefer an aged expression like Anejo. Take note of the flavors you like most. Things like vegetal, floral or herbaceous profiles typically found in silver or the layered woody notes found in aged expressions. I recommend sticking to 100% agave tequilas for a greater appreciation of the terroir driven flavors coming from the blue agave plant. The next time you pull up to a bar share your preferences with the bartender and ask them to lead you to some of their favorite recommendations. You never know, you might discover something new. Salud!