Most people consider tequila at best an ingredient that goes into one of their favorite cocktails; at worst, a cheap spirit they used to get smashed on in wild parties during their youth. For certain none of them would accord tequila the same prestige as they would aged single malt Scotch whiskies and prized cognacs…
… maybe until they certain Tomas Estes.
Tomas Estes is probably one of the most influential people in Mexico’s tequila industry, and is only one of two tequila ambassadors appointed by Mexico’s government to spread the good word about the country’s iconic distilled spirit. He was recently in town by invitation of spirits distributor La Maison du Whisky to share about tequila to a rapt audience of bar owners and bartenders, as well as introduce a range of tequilas from Tequila Ocho.
So first, a little background about tequila. It’s a distilled spirit made from the blue agave, a native Mexican plant with huge fleshy but spiky leaves. The prize is located at the heart of the plant, which contains a large starchy core. The hearts – known as piñas as the resemble pineapples at this stage with their leaves chopped off – are gathered and thrown into huge kilns where it’s roasted to turn the starch to simple sugars, which is then mashed to extract its juice. The agave juice is allowed to ferment, and distilled two or three times into tequila.
The tequila can also be aged – tequila that’s bottled immediately or aged in stainless steel or neutral oak barrels for less than two months is called blanco, it’s reposado if aged in oak barrels of any size between two months to a year, añejo if aged in small oak barrels between one to three years, and extra añejo if aged at least three years in oak barrels (repurposed Jack Daniels barrels are commonly used). The making of tequila is widely regulated, with a government agency, the Tequila Regulatory Council, controlling all processes and activities related to the entire supply chain, from the growing of agave to the making of the spirit.
The reason why tequila has the reputation it has – the choice of those getting very drunk cheaply – is mainly because those cheap tequilas people get smashed on aren’t exactly made from 100% agave. Those are what is known as mixtos, which use no less than 51% agave, but with other sugars – usually from corn or rice – making up the remainder.
100% pure agave tequilas, on the other hand, are the creme de la creme of tequilas, equivalent to your single malt Scotches, In fact, Tomas shared that terroir – the set of characteristics in the geography, geology and climate of a certain location – affects agave as much as it does on wine grapes, so you can get wildly different flavour profiles in tequila made from agave grown in different locations. In fact, a Tequila Ocho blanco made from the agave grown from a certain ranch tasted wildly dissimilar to one made with agave grown in a different ranch just two kilometres away – one delicate, floral and sweet, the other rich, smoky, punchy and almost phenolic.
Phillip Bayly, the owner of Sydney’s Café Pacifico who accompanied Tomas for the session, pointed out that it’s crucial for bartenders to understand the qualities of the tequilas they use – at Café Pacifico they had to tweak cocktail recipes accordingly to suit the different flavour profiles of the tequilas they use.
And considering that the nine siblings of the Camerena family that makes Tequila Ocho owns around 50 different agave ranches, that’s a lot of different single ranch tequilas they can make. Tomas even collaborated with various distillers to make a special tequila for Tequila Ocho, the Curado, which he innovated (or committed sacrilege) by infusing tequila with the mashed roasted agave. When he presented the result to the Tequila Regulatory Council, they didn’t know what to make of it (but thankfully still allowed him to call it a tequila).
If you’ve tried single-ranch, artisanal tequilas such as those from Tequila Ocho, you may never look at tequila the same way ever again.