Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Spirit of Mexico

The only country that drinks as much (and in some years, even more) tequila as Mexico is the United States. And yet the spirit that plays such a big role in Mexican culture gets a bad rap - I know plenty of adventurous eaters and drinkers who will not come near tequila, sheepishly confessing to underage binge drinking and hazy memories of Spring Break. If you count yourself amongst that bunch it is time to break free from the Girls Gone Wild associations and give it a second try - and I am not talking an overpriced margarita at Lauriol Plaza or ill-advised shots at Eighteen Street Lounge. The Mexican Professionals Network of Washington DC recently sponsored a tequila sip, and we all learned new things from the National Chamber of Tequila Makers that might make you come around.

Tequila is a highly controlled spirit, and at 35 to 40% alcohol by volume it shouldn't intoxicate you any more than vodka or whisky. It is produced in two categories, Tequila 100% Agave and Tequila (which contains other sugars, such as molasses, which are added before fermentation begins) in authorized regions in Mexico. Tequila does not come from a cactus - it is made from Agave Tequilana Weber blue variety, which is in the lily family and takes about 8 years to come to maturity and harvest. While mixing it with mezcal is a nascent trend, they are different spirits. There are more than 1,100 tequila trademarks bottled in Mexico. There are 5 kinds of tequila in each category: Silver (Blanco), Gold (Joven), Aged (Reposado), Extra Aged (Añejo) and Ultra Aged (Extra Añejo). Silver is bottled after distillation, the aged kinds are aged in oak barrels for 1, 3 or more than 3 years, and gold is a mix of Blanco and tequila that has been matured. The aged tequilas are far more aromatic, as they incorporate the notes from the wood into their profiles. The tequila region varies geographically, with the the more flowery tequilas being the product of agave grown next to orchards and the valley grown agave having a distinct mineral taste.

Which brings us to an important point - the best way to enjoy tequila is to sip it, not shoot it. The salt and lime chaser are the historical relics of the old process of producing tequila, and are now mostly optional. Lime will severely impair your ability to taste an aged tequila. As far as temperature goes, tequila freezes extremely well, but tastings will normally serve it at room temperature. A few years ago Austrian Glassware Maker Riedel created a tequila glass at the request of the National Chamber of Tequila Makers that looks very much like a champagne flute - holding the glass with the stem keeps the temperature of the tequila by keeping your hands away, and the flute shape puts some distance between your nose and the spirit, allowing you to smell it.

While I love a good margarita, a fine tequila should be enjoyed straight. Reposado is normally an aperitif and añejos are often digestives - because of their aromatics, blanco pairs well with cold cuts, salads, ceviche and guacamole, while reposado complements heavier entrées, tacos, and mole. The wooden notes in añejos make them ideal for dry fruits and yams - perfect for the holidays.

As Mexicans, we are proud of our national spirit, a mestizo blend of pre-Columbian herbology and European distillation techniques. So pay heed to our best ambassador and sip!

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