All alcohol has a complex history and a ton of preconceived notions. From the myth that all bourbon has to be made in Bourbon County, Ky. (not true; it just has to be made in America) to the idea that absinthe will make you hallucinate (also untrue, but most absinthe is really high proof and will therefore get you goofy faster), there often is more disinformation than truth out there about spirits. It can be tough to differentiate between fact and fiction when choosing the best tipple to imbibe.
When it comes to tequila, people have a lot of feelings. Generally, you either love it, or you hate it. Most people hate it because of the deep trauma experienced from garbage tequila, while most people learn to love it once they have tasted real quality tequila. This month, I wanted to clear up some of the myths and misunderstandings around one of my favorite spirits on the planet.
Tequila is roasted, crushed, fermented and distilled blue agave, usually made in Jalisco, Mexico. Tequila has four age classifications: blanco (or unaged, sometimes called silver); reposado, aged for a minimum of two months and a maximum one year; anejo, aged for one to three years; and extra anejo, aged for longer than three years. There is also joven or gold, which is unaged tequila with color added, and curados, tequila that is up to 75% flavored non-agave distillate.
Well-made tequila is romantic and driven by tradition as well as agriculture. Agave grows to at least 5 years old; it’s then harvested, roasted in a stone oven, and crushed with a large stone wheel called a tahona. That sap is fermented naturally for three to five days. After the agave ferments, that product is distilled, and water is added to bring it to proof.
That is the traditional way to make tequila; unfortunately, only some tequilas are made this way.
The industrial methods of making tequila vary, but the goal remains the same: to make tequila faster. Agave is often harvested young, and a machine called a diffuser strips the agave and extracts the sap. Artificial yeasts aid in fermentation, and column stills distill the product to the highest possible proof for a larger yield. Then artificial flavors and fillers are added to help the tequila taste as it should. Around 70% of all tequilas have the allowed 1% of additives; however, the best tequilas embrace the traditional methods, which is apparent in the flavor.
So, how do you find the best tequila? Every tequila has a four-digit NOM, or Norma Oficial Mexicana, associated with it. A NOM is like a tequila address and is required by Mexican law so we can know which distilleries make which tequilas. Luckily for us, resources like Tequilamatchmaker.com exist for us to find some transparency in knowing which tequila distilleries use diffuser tech, and which choose traditional methods; simply search the NOM, and find out.
When the information on the internet becomes too overwhelming, it’s best to talk to learned local bartenders and retail geniuses. Craft Wine and Beer in Midtown Reno has a massive selection of carefully selected tequilas for your every need, and Estella at the Jesse on Fourth Street has some of the brightest minds in the industry to help guide you to the perfect sip. The best way to help them find the right bottle for you is to tell them how you like it. Bright and light? Rich and velvety? Maybe even peppery and weird?
There is a ton to know about tequila, and here, we are just the scratching surface. Take a little time to look into your favorite agave spirit; there is much more there than meets the eye.