Everything you ever wanted to know about tequila.
By Matt McGinnis
Tequila Hecho en Mexico
The drink world is all about authenticity and sense of place. Champagne can only be from Champagne, France. Cognac can only be from Cognac, France. Wines all list their appellation and speak of the importance of terrior, that special something that only comes from the area, the soil and the climate where the wine was born. The same is true for tequila.
If it’s called tequila, it has to be from Mexico. In 1978, Mexico established the Appellation of Origin Tequila, which delineates the location of production and sets the standards for how tequila is made. The law, which is recognized worldwide, states that tequila can only be made in the Mexican states of Jalisco, Michoacan, Guanajuato, Nayarit and Tamaulipas, and must be made with blue agave to be sold with the name tequila.
Like Scotch, tequila’s sense of place is further defined by being from highland or lowland. Agave grown in the higher elevations and red clay soil of the highlands of Jalisco matures slower, producing sweeter tequila with bright floral and citrus notes. Representative highland tequilas are Don Julio, El Tesoro and Milagro. The rich volcanic soil of the lowlands agave makes tequila that is rounder and less sweet with more earthy, herbaceous and woody flavors.
Examples of lowland tequilas include El Jimador, Herradura and Sauza. Mexico is serious about the quality of its tequila. Weber blue agave is controlled by the Mexican Consejo Regulador del Tequila (CRT), a governing body established in 1993 to monitor the industry. The CRT authenticates each brand and tracks every blue agave plant in Mexico with GPS chips to examine output.
That allows the CRT to determine whether producers are augmenting tequila with cheap sugar alcohol rather than 100 percent agave by tracking the yield of the plants on their map. It is clear that many in Mexico consider tequila a national treasure worthy of protection. That quality control during the past few decades has brought tequila a long way from being a shot of fire that peels paint and leaves you crying in the morning.
We have established that tequila is from Mexico. So how is it that there are several tequilas from Texas? It’s all about the origins of the tequila and not how it is marketed. Consumer demand for high-quality tequila has resulted in dozens of new premium tequila brands hitting the market in recent years. There are now more than 1,300 registered brands, made by only 154 registered Mexican tequila distilleries.
Many of those tequila brands are owned and marketed by U.S. companies, including some boutique companies in Texas. Because the raw material, agave, is only from a small five-state area in Mexico and the production is done by a small number of Mexican distilleries, the difference in each tequila sold by Texas companies all comes down to the specific recipe of how it’s made. Tequila starts its life from the juice of the sugar-rich heart of the blue agave plant, called the piña, which is harvested when the plant is about 8 to 10 years old. The piña is prepared for fermentation by cooking it either in stone ovens or in autoclaves, which are pressure cookers.
The difference between the two methods is like the difference between baking a potato in a convection oven versus a microwave. The liquid from the cooked piña is fermented in big steel tanks. Once fermentation is finished, the tequila is distilled twice. The resulting liquid is called silver, blanco or plata tequila. Silver tequila is then aged between two and 12 months in oak barrels to make reposado, between one and three years to make añejo, or aged for more than three years to make extra añejo.
It’s the differences in where and how the agave is grown and the subtle differences in each step of this production process that create varying flavors in the Texas tequilas on the market, including Ambhar, Dulce Vida, Man in Black, Pura Vida Tequila, SOAH Tequila, Republic Tequila, Tequila 512 and Z Tequila.
Kinky Friedman has always been a fan of tequila. Brian Kanof, who supported Friedman’s run for Texas governor in 2006 and is currently supporting his run for the Texas agriculture commissioner job, started Man in Black tequila in February 2012. Kanof brought on beverage-industry veteran Dianna Offutt and Friedman to help get the new tequila brand off the ground. Kanof and Offutt went to Mexico to work with master distillers to select a recipe. Man in Black Tequila is made with 100 percent blue agave grown in the highlands outside Arandas, Jalisco. The distillery and the production method for this tequila were selected for its true agave nature.
“We wanted to make one [in which you can]smell the agave, taste the agave. The agave plants used in Man in Black have a unique thumbprint that is registered with the CRT,” Offutt says. “The piñas are well ripened and picked during the hottest part of the day to ensure their sweetness. The plata is distilled twice, filtered only once, rested and then bottled. That gives it a nice spiciness, like black pepper, and a smooth finish.”
Man in Black also makes reposado, aged eight months in new American oak, giving it a sweet, smoky flavor. The añejo is aged for 14 months, and the extra añejo is aged for seven years in French oak, and an additional year in a port cask. If you can find one of these special aged tequilas, be prepared to shell out as much as $200 for a bottle. Friedman is a born pitchman for Texas tequila. It combines his love of the state and his love of tequila.
“Tequila is something I’ve liked for a long time, particularly when I’m onstage,” Friedman says. “I call it the Barry Manilow drink because it makes you feel good for a very short period of time.”
True to his character, Friedman doesn’t pull any punches in describing its rustic style.
“We say this is not your father’s tequila. This is your grandfather’s gardener’s tequila. It’s not homogenized crap,” he says. “It’s distinctive and really, really good. Everyone that tries it loves it. The rest of the other stuff is promotional crap. People pump millions of dollars in to marketing to sell crap. One of the problems with our culture is that things are homogenized, sanitized and trivialized.”
Friedman drinks Man in Black with panache too.
“I drink it cowboy-style,” he says. “You snort the line of salt, take the lime and squeeze it into your eye and then you kill the shot. That’s how we do it in Bandera, Texas.”
Man in Black is sold exclusively in Texas, starting at $26, and can be found in stores such as Twin Liquors and Spec’s. A portion of the profit supports Friedman’s Utopia Animal Rescue Ranch.
Tequila 512 launched in November 2012 after a six-year journey from idea to product. It took President Scott Willis that long to find the right distillery in Mexico and to do the necessary legal work to get licensed.
“I have invested a lot of energy and emotion in to Tequila 512 to get it started,” Willis says. “I traveled to Mexico to find a distiller that would make tequila to my specifications. I chose Tequila La Cofradía in Jalisco, a family-owned business for 50 years. I then tasted multiple distillation varieties and eventually chose one with the right smooth, round agave flavor that is appealing to the American palate. My process uses a 24-hour filtration to mellow it out and an oxygenation process for silky mouthfeel to make it enjoyable to sip.”
Tequila 512 currently makes one product, blanco tequila, using 100 percent estate-grown Weber blue agave from the Central lowlands. It is USDA-certified organic. It is made using traditional stone ovens to roast the piña, distilled three times in pot stills and given a final filtration. Tequila 512 will introduce a reposado this summer.
Willis is almost a one-man operation, handling distribution on his own, driving his Tequila 512 pick-up throughout Texas. He is focused on growing locally until he identifies the right distributor. He’s inspired by the bootstrap beginnings of Tito’s Handmade Vodka, and aims to emulate the consistency of Tito Beveridge. He also calls on Clayton Christopher, cofounder of Deep Eddy, as a mentor. Their inspiration and his work is paying off.
“My dream was to see it on the shelf of a bar and a liquor store,” Willis says. “A year ago, if you told me I’d be on the menu at all Maudie’s, at the ball park in Arlington and in more than 200 locations, I’d be happy. Now I want to be in more than 1,000 locations. I want people to try it and enjoy it. Until they do, my work is not done.”
Some of Willis’ success can be attributed to making an award-winning quality at a reasonable price. It’s hard to find a bottle of tequila that wins gold at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition and sells for $24. Tequila 512 is readily available at liquor stores, bars and restaurants throughout Austin, including Little Woodrow’s, Uncle Billy’s, Shady Grove, Jack Allen’s Kitchen, Red’s Porch, Ranch 616, 508 Tequila Bar, The Parish and many others.
Ken McKenzie, tequila importer and co-founder of Republic Tequila, was introduced to Texas businessman Tom Nall and to an idea for creating premium tequila in a distinctive Texas-shaped bottle. The two set out to start Republic Tequila with only that iconic bottle as a simple idea and they quickly built a business around it. McKenzie put 16 years of experience in the tequila business to work to find a distillery that could produce Republic Tequila to its exact specifications.
Throughout the years, it has changed distilleries and is now produced at the Leyros Distillery using 100 percent blue agave grown in the black volcanic soil of the Central lowlands. Despite the recent surge in agave prices, Republic has a steady supply of agave because it invested in the futures market that allows the distillery to ensure consistency of sugar levels from the plants. Republic is made with a few modern methods, including the use of a diffuser to extract more juice from the piña and natural aerobic fermentation.
It is distilled twice and rests in open-air steel tanks to get a taste as pure and smooth as a Texas drawl. While Texas is the second-largest market for tequila in the United States, and the U.S. buys 76 percent of all tequila made, it’s a bit of a stretch to package an authentically Mexican product in a Texas-shaped bottle. McKenzie acknowledges that the Texas tie gave him pause in 2008.
“For me, that didn’t scream traditional tequila. But what I’ve learned over time as I’ve taken the Republic bottle to tequila distillers in Guadalajara is that any vessel that gets attention in a bar or store gets you one step ahead,” he says. “This bottle will never get lost. Our job is to make sure the tequila is exceptional. People will buy it as a novelty first, but they will buy it again if it’s really good.”
While the plata is the bread and butter of Republic sales because of its versatility in margaritas and palomas, the company also sells quite a bit of reposado and añejo, which are aged in Jack Daniels barrels.
“People are sipping tequila a lot more in the past 10 years,” McKenzie says. “Americans understand its complexity. Because blue Weber agave is in the ground for eight to 10 years, it has time to pick up a lot of complexity. Cognac has 300 taste components. Tequila has more than 620 flavor characteristics.”
Republic Tequila has outgrown the state’s borders and is now sold in 15 states. One of those states, Oklahoma, isn’t a huge fan of all things Texas.
“In Oklahoma, bartenders will let the person who bought the last shot of Republic Tequila go outside and shoot the Texas bottle,” McKenzie says with a laugh.
It’s not marketed as Texas tequila, but Real Gusto just started selling its tequila in the United States six months ago, starting in Austin. The company chose Austin for its first U.S. beachhead because of the ambiance, the environmental consciousness and appreciation for organic products.
Real Gusto was started in 1966 by the grandfather of the current CEO, Jaime Gonzalez. In its second generation, Gonzalez’s father endeavored to make the best tequila in the world, and moved the distillery from its original location in Guadalajara to a ranch in the highlands of Jalisco. The current location allows for all operations, from planting through production, to occur on the same property.
“We plant the agave and take care of it for 10 to 12 years before harvesting,” Gonzalez says. “They don’t get very big because we don’t use fertilizer or herbicide. Ours reach only 80 pounds rather than the 200 of typical plants. It’s like an organic tomato in that it’s smaller, but with better flavor.”
Real Gusto steams its piña in stone ovens for 48 hours. The juice is then fermented using natural yeast for five to eight days depending on the weather.
“When it’s warmer, fermentation goes faster,” Gonzalez explains.
Real Gusto goes through a double distillation in the same copper stills from the original distillery. The blanco that comes out of the stills at 110 proof is blended with natural spring water from the mountains on the ranch to reduce it to 80 proof before bottling.
“We take really good care during distillation to remove the heads and tails of the tequila,” Gonzalez says. “We take special care to keep only the heart of the distillation. We get rid of the part that can give you a bad hangover. It’s like the venom of the plant. Our process is the same as the way good tequilas were made 100 years ago. We have recovered that craftsmanship of very fine tequila that gives you the original flavor of the product.”
Real Gusto makes reposado aged for six months in new white oak barrels from Tennessee. The barrels give it a mellow vanilla flavor without imparting a whiskey flavor that comes with using a bourbon barrel. The añejo is aged for 14 months. The quality of Real Gusto has been recognized with a double gold medal for the blanco, and gold medals for both the reposado and añejo single gold at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition.
It is available in Austin at retailers like Spec’s, and restaurants such as Benji’s.
With more than 35 years experience in the booze industry, Pepe Zevada, founder of Z Tequila, brings extensive knowledge to his young brand. He had previously introduced Jack Daniels whiskey to the Latin American markets, served as the vice president in the Southern Europe region for Hiram Walker, and as the worldwide vice president of Sauza Tequila before settling in to a life of leisure in Austin. Born in Spain, Zevada has lived in the Italian Alps, spent more than 20 years in Mexico City and has traveled to 106 countries.
“The Dos Equis most interesting man in the world guy is an actor. I’m a real guy,” the worldly Zevada says. “I truly am the most interesting man in the world. I speak four languages and have led a very interesting life.”
Faced with interminable boredom after retiring at a young age in 2000, Zevada re-entered the liquor business to launch Espolón Tequila. It was during his frequent commutes between Guadalajara and Austin that he decided to start Z Tequila. It took three years to develop the tequila, which finally hit the market in 2008. Z Tequila is serious about its agave. There are no insecticides or fertilizers used in the field and agave leaves are used as mulch.
“We never use a young agave plant,” Zevada says. “It takes seven to nine years before we harvest. Using young plants to cut corners is like eating a green orange. They give very little juice and it’s bitter. The mature plants might look rotten, but no, that’s when the plant is ready to go.”
The process to make Z Tequila takes up to three weeks to ferment and distill. It is distilled in a short column still with a continuous distillation process that lowers the methanol to a minimum. Zevada has been friends with his distiller in Arandas, Jalisco, for 30 years.
“He is the best master distiller in the industry. He is extremely careful making our tequila. Our tequila has one of the lowest in methanol content in the industry,” Zevada says. “You will never have a hangover drinking Z Tequila. Never.”
The reposado is aged in American oak for nine months while the añejo is aged for two years. Z Tequila has won accolades for its quality, including a double gold medal in 2013 from thefiftybest.com for the blanco, and a double gold medal at the 2012 San Francisco World Spirits Competition for the blanco. Zevada attributes the success to the close-knit team.
“It’s like a band of brothers,” he says. “Work together for the brand. Having my name on the bottle gives the brand a personality.”
Z Tequila is sold at more than 400 retailers, bars, restaurants and hotels in Austin, Dallas, Houston and San Antonio. It is a sponsor for the Round Rock Express and Houston Astros, with a tequila bar in Minute Made Park.
Famed barman, founder of Employee’s Only in New York and cocktail author Jason Kosmas co-founded the spirits company The 86 Co. with three partners in 2009. The inspiration for the company was to take their knowledge as bartenders and make the kind of spirits they would like to serve. The result is four brands of spirits: Aylesbury Duck Vodka, Caña Brava Rum, Fords Gin and Tequila Cabeza.
“We started The 86 Co. to 86 the bullshit that surrounds the spirits industry,” Kosmas says. “We listen to bartenders to what they want and what they need and that influences the vodka, rum, gin and tequila we make. It even influences the design of our bottles.”
Kosmas moved to Austin last summer after his daughter was born, in order to be close to Grandma. From this home base, he introduced the first bottle of Tequila Cabeza to Texas on Jan. 1, 2013. To create Cabeza, they visited 18 distilleries before deciding to work with the Vivanco family at the El Ranchito Distillery in Arandas, Jalisco. The family has been growing highland agave for more than 80 years and oversees everything from sprout to bottle. Because the agave grown on the property is handpicked, the tequila represents the terroir of the land, letting influences of the iron-rich soil shine through.
“The land around the distillery looks like Mars,” Kosmas says. “It is stark red. It’s located in the mountains, where the plants are challenged more by cool nights and hot days. That produces more flavor.”
The agave is harvested with just a bit of the leaf along with the piña to give the tequila a peppery flavor. The piña is brick-oven roasted, shredded and fermented in open tanks using Champagne yeast for a slower fermentation to bring out more robust, deeper vegetal and fruity flavors. The tequila is distilled twice, filtered once and left to rest for 60 days to let flavors meld. Cabeza is bottled at 86 proof because it is the sweet spot of flavor in classic cocktails like margaritas and polomas. The result is agave-forward tequila that is aromatic with rich viscosity. It starts vegetal with good pepper, eases in to sweet fruit and ends with soft vanilla spiked with pepper.
“Our philosophy for our spirits is that they are made to be used in cocktails,” Kosmas says. “We want them to shine in drinks, want our tequila to be able to express that highland characteristic in a cocktail. The finished product isn’t the tequila. It’s what ends up in the glass.”
It is sold in 18 states and throughout Texas, including shops like Austin Wine Merchant and Spec’s, and bars and restaurants like Bar Congress, Benji’s, drink.well., Half Step, Firehouse, Midnight Cowboy and Whistler’s.
Tequila comes with a worm in the bottle. If you see a worm in any bottle of alcohol, run. That’s nasty. It is true that some crappy, low-grade kinds of mezcal have come with a gusano worm or a butterfly caterpillar as a marketing gimmick. This is not the case with tequila.
Tequila is made from cactus juice. Nope. Tequila is made from distilled juice of the heart, or piña, of the agave plant, in particular, the blue agave. Agave is a succulent and a relative of the yucca plant and Joshua tree, but not a cactus. It takes eight to 15 years for the long-leafed agave to mature, growing to heights of 5 to 8 feet and 7 to 12 feet around.
Tequila and mezcal are the same. Tequila is a type of mezcal, but mezcal is not tequila. The similarity is that both are made from the agave plant. While mezcal can be made from up to 30 different types of agave, most are made with agave espadin. Tequila is made from only blue agave. Mezcal gets its characteristic smoky flavor because the piña is roasted in earthen pits before extracting the juice to distill. Agave piña for tequila is baked or steamed in ovens.
Tequila is a hallucinogenic. Excessive consumption of tequila will certainly get you drunk, but that ain’t trippin’. This myth is sometimes attributed to that nasty worm. It likely came about through the confusion of mezcal with mezcaline, an actual hallucinogen, found in the peyote cactus.
Tequila is just for shots and margaritas. A shot is a sure road to drunkville, but if you want to enjoy the tequila, pour it into a snifter to release the aromas. Rather than the lime and salt tripe, try chasing it with a dose of sangrita, or “little blood,” a Mexican concoction of orange juice, tomato juice, chili pepper and lime. Margaritas are excellent, but you’re more likely to find a paloma in Mexico.
Ten Tequilas to Try
- Don Julio Anejo Tequila, $60
- El Tesoro Platinum Tequila, $50
- Herradura Seleccion Suprema Tequila, $390
- La Forta leza, $60
- Maracame Tequila Anejo, $75
- Milagro Select Barrel Reserve, $55
- Siembra Azul, $35
- Siete Leguas Reposado Tequila, $45
- Tequila Ocho, 2009 Rancho Los Pomez Reposado, $60
- Tequila Tapatio Reposado, $35
ATX Man’s Guide to Drinking Tequila in Austin
508 Tequila Bar and Pelons Tex-Mex 802 Red River St.
They pour more than 50 types of tequila and several tequila cocktails, including the Cuernos Largos, a hearty margarita made with Dulce Vida 100 proof tequila. It packs a punch, so they only allow customers to order two.
Benji’s Cantina 716 W. Sixth St.
Serving more than 80 labels of tequila, this Tex-Mex restaurant and bar is shooting to have more than 100 tequilas in the near future. Try a frozen Tequila Sunrise made with Z Silver Tequila while sitting on the rooftop patio on a hot summer day.
drink.well. 207 E. 53rd St.
Always on the list for excellent cocktails, drink.well.’s award-winning bar staff mixes classic drinks with more than 20 tequilas. Chat up the bartender while enjoying a Jalisco Foxtrot.
Guero’s Taco Bar 1412 S. Congress Ave.
With a respectable list of tequilas, 17 signature margaritas and several tequila specialty drinks, Guero’s fits the bill for a casual watering hole.
Half Step 75 1/2 Rainey St.
Half Step features 20 kinds of tequila and classic cocktails made by notable barman Chris Bostick. This Rainey Street bar is a step ahead with an impressive ice program that includes hand-cut ice cubes from huge blocks of ice made in their icehouse and Sonic-like ice, pellet ice crushed for cold tequila cocktails inside or out on the patio.
Iron Cactus 606 Trinity St.
This Sixth Street mainstay has more than 100 tequilas and fantastic happy-hour specials to get your night started. Try a Z Best margarita on the rooftop patio.
La Condesa 400 W. Second St.
Accomplished bartender Nate Wells oversees an award-winning cocktail program that draws from more than 80 tequilas for a base. Snuggle up with your date in the cozy bar or take your Roble Especiado to the street-side patio for a little people watching.
Tacos and Tequila 507 Pressler St.
Claiming the largest selection of tequila in town, TNT has more than 100 kinds of tequila, including five poured cold on tap. Try one of the monthly featured distilleries neat in a snifter.
Takoba 1411 E. Seventh St.
With two full bars and a large outdoor seating area, Takoba pours more than 20 kinds of tequila. Try a house-made sangrita to follow your tequila.
ATX Man’s Favorite Summer Tequila Cocktails
Ingredients: 2 ounces 512 Blanco Tequila
3 slices cucumber, peeled
1 ounce fresh lime juice
1 ounce St. Germain
Directions: In a glass, muddle the cucumber and jalapeño slices. Add tequila, lime juice and St. Germain. Shake with ice and strain into a martini glass.
3 1/4-inch cucumber slices
1.5 ounces Z Tequila
2 orange slices, juiced
1 tablespoon sugar-salt mixture
Sriracha hot sauce to rim glass
1 paper-thin cucumber slice to float on top
1/4 orange wheel
Directions: In a mixing glass, muddle cucumber, sugar and orange juice into thick liquid consistency. Add tequila and set aside to allow it to fuse together. Rim martini glass using Siracha hot sauce then dip it into the salt-sugar mixture. Add ice to the drink mixture and shake thoroughly. Strain into glass. This cocktail was created by Louis Sandoval of Mavericks Country and Rock.
2 ounces Man in Black Tequila
Juice from 1/2 a lime
Pinch of salt
Grapefruit soda (Jarritos works well)
Directions: Pour tequila into a highball glass and squeeze in lime juice. Add ice and salt, fill with grapefruit soda, stir and garnish with a lime wheel.
Real Gusto Margarita
2 ounces Real Gusto Tequila
2 ounces fresh lime juice
1/2 ounce light agave nectar
Directions: Shake well and serve over ice.
Cabeza Tequila Old Fashioned
2 ounces Tequila Cabeza
3/4 ounce honey syrup (1:1)
3 dashes Bitter Truth grapefruit bitters
1/4 ounce Tennyson absinthe
Directions: Stir, serve over a big piece of ice and garnish with a big twist of Rio Star grapefruit rind.
1 1/2 ounces Dulce Vida Tequila
1/2 ounce agave nectar
Cayenne pepper, seeded, cut into 1-inch strips
Directions: Muddle strawberries, pepper and agave in a shaker. Add tequila and a splash of soda. Shake gently and strain into a highball glass filled with ice. Top with more soda and garnish with a slice of strawberry.
The Republic Classic
1 1/2 ounces Republic Plata Tequila
1 ounce Cointreau
3/4 ounce fresh-squeezed lime juice
Salt for garnish
Directions: Combine tequila, Cointreau and lime juice in a cocktail shaker filled with ice. Moisten rim of a margarita or other cocktail glass with lime juice or water. Holding glass upside down, dip rim into salt. Shake and strain drink into glass and serve.