Thursday, 17 January 2013


Tequila has a bad rep.

And I’ll freely admit that until recently I was among its detractors. I’m betting most people’s impressions of tequila are associated with the cheap stuff reserved for shooting - the stuff that leaves a foul taste in your mouth, even if you omit the obligatory salt and lime. I, for one, not so fondly remember drinking far more tequila than any 15-year-old should, looking deeply into my then girlfriend’s eyes and promptly throwing up all over her lap. The experience put me off this Mexican spirit for the next decade; but now all that’s changed.
5 years ago if you’d scanned the back bars of the better-stocked establishments in town, I can guarantee there would have only been a limited selection of tequila. Fast-forward to the present day and more and more tequila is making its way across the ocean as consumers outside of Mexico and America are realizing how deliciously sophisticated this spirit can be. The aged tequilas easily rival single malts, cognacs and bourbons in their complexity and flavour profiles.
Tequila is made from the hearts of the cactus-like blue agave plant and produced in the state of Jalisco, Mexico. The agave hearts, which can weigh as much as 45kg, are steamed then mashed with water before being fermented. The resulting liquid is distilled and bottled or aged for various lengths of time as you will see below. When aging tequila, producers might use barrels that once contained bourbon, wine or scotch in order to impart different flavours to the base spirit. Combine these flavours with the distinctive agave taste of tequila and you’ve got a very diverse product, which sits comfortably between ‘white’ and ‘brown’ spirits.   
So what should you look out for when choosing tequila? Look out for 100% agave or agave azul on the label (although this isn’t necessarily a signifier of quality, take Jose Cuervo Tradicional for example). In the UK, you’ll usually only encounter three types of 100% agave tequila:

Blanco – usually bottle immediately after distillation or aged for less than 2 months and clear to straw-coloured in appearance.

Reposado – aged for at least 2 months but no longer than a year in primarily oak barrels giving a darker appearance and a smoother more developed flavour.

Anejo – Aged for over a year but no more than 3 in small oak barrels giving an amazingly complex dark brown spirit.

There also exist extra anejo tequilas which tend to be rare and prohibitively expensive. Blanco tequila has a distinctive flavour with light aromas of charcoal, flowers and vanilla. It takes on bolder characteristics as it matures and, depending on the types of barrel it’s aged in, can resemble a fine, unctuous white wine or a bold, fruity cognac.     

So if you want to break free from the salt, lime, and shots here are my recommendations:

3 Straight-sippers
If you glimpse these behind the bar, order one of these straight up if you can take it, or on the rocks if you want to soften the blow.
El Jimador Reposado
Tapatio Reposado
Don Juilo Anejo

3 Cocktails in the city
Beginner: for the tequila initiate, why not try Sandinista’s ‘Zapatista’. This is a tequila-based take on an espresso martini using Patron silver and Patron XO Cafe. The tequila is subtle enough that a newcomer won’t be put off but holds its own against the coffee background.

Intermediate: wanna go a bit further? Try Corridor’s take on a ‘Fool’s Gold’. I’m not sure if it’s still on the menu but I can testify that the bar staff will happily make you one...or three. This is not lengthened as much as the Zapatista so expect more tequila but balanced harmoniously with chocolate and orange (or at least that’s what I get!).

Advanced: if you can handle a real tequila hit then opt for The Gaslamp’s Margarita. The classic combination of tequila, cointreau (or other orange liqueur) and lime is lifted by using a very good reposado tequila and increasing the level of booziness. If you like this, you’ll be hooked!