WORDS KEN GARGETT
Tepid as rain off a rusty roof. One of my more favoured descriptions of tequila. Fair to say that I am perhaps not the most avid fan of this Mexican spirit. And yes, a bad experience, about which nothing should be put in print. The Eagles’ ‘Tequila Sunrise’ is not my favourite song.
The Mexican Tequila industry dates back to 1795 when Don Jose Antonio de Cuervo first made a form of the spirit in Tequila, Jalisco, Mexico. Before that, the Spanish had been cooking the blue agave plant and calling it Mezcal. Even earlier, the local tribes had made alcohol from the plant and given it the rather prosaic name of ‘pulque’. Worth remembering that all tequilas are mezcals but not all mezcals are tequilas.
These days, the choices to indulge in the spirit are via some of a great many cocktails, margaritas being especially popular, or possibly the students’ favourite of ‘lip, sip, suck’ (a shot with salt and lime), a worthy fallback.
Aficionados, and trust me, they are as passionate about this spirit as any malt maverick, gin jockey or rum raver, will insist that there are tequilas which are the equal of any quality spirits, and are designated for sipping. I’d heard this before, and been bitten badly, but I was shown two recently, which more than fit the bill.
There are five specific regions, all in Mexico, which are the only places in the world from which tequila can be made – Guanajuato, Michoacán, Nayarit, Tamaulipas, and Jalisco, with the latter by far the largest producing region – a large part of this region has been deemed as a World Heritage site by UNESCO. The blue agave, necessary for tequila production, prefers high altitudes and sandy, volcanic soils. The leaves can exceed seven feet and the stalks more than sixteen feet, though if intended for commercial use, the stalk is lopped off, so the plant pours its efforts into its ‘heart’.
Any tequila must contain at least 51% blue agave – it cannot be any other sort of agave. Those mentioning the blue agave on the label must be 100% from the plant.
In 2006, a class of tequila called extra añejo or “ultra-aged” was introduced. These, obviously with an eye on the ever-expanding quality spirits market, must be aged for a minimum of three years.
There are four types of tequila – Blanco/plata, meaning white and silver, which is basically unaged white spirit, bottled immediately after distillation, or aged less than two months in stainless steel or neutral oak barrels (Joven/gold is also very young and gets its colour from additions or possibly an extremely short time in barrel or even by being blended with older material); Reposado (as in rested), which will have been aged in barrels (size is irrelevant) for between two months and a year; Añejo (meaning aged or possibly vintage), which will have been aged between one and three years in small oak barrels; and finally, the Extra Añejo, which will have seen at least three years in oak barrels.
The Two Tequilas
First up, the Fortaleza ‘Still Strength 46’ Blanco ($150). It is gin-clear with lifted aromatics – crisp pears, green olives, spices, garden herbs, anise, possibly the merest whiff of honey and more. In wine terms, one might think sauvignon blanc notes. This is far from the slightly bland but fiery spirit one expects from the old ‘lip, sip and sick’ days. Finely balanced and with weight and good texture. Twice distilled, from 100% blue agave, wooden fermentation vats. The clean finish, full of life and flavour, lingers with great persistence. This could easily be used as a sipping spirit.
The Calle 23 Criollo Blanco Tequila ($150) is from 100% blue agave but with a slight difference. Calle 23 is one of the newer producers, established by Sophie Decobecq, a French-born biochemist who moved to Mexico almost two decades ago while studying the science of fermentation. The ‘Criollo’ is Sophie’s pride of the range, conceived at the time of the birth of her first child, when she wanted to make something very special and used only the criollo blue agave, which is normally blended with all the blue agave. Basically, the criollo is a blue agave plant which is smaller than the usual, but it gives an intense concentration of the natural sugars. It is a lovely coincidence that ‘Criollo’ means “someone born in Spanish America but from European origin”. In English, Creole. At 49.3% ABV, it is higher than most.
The flavours here are riper, darker fruits, more sweetness, black cherry notes, a hint of dark chocolate. Richer and sweeter, a little more rustic and perhaps a hint more spirity, as one would suspect. Real depth of flavour. It has very good length, though perhaps not quite that of the Fortaleza. There is complexity to be found here.
Two cracking spirits and compelling evidence that tequila can sit with the finer offerings. It would come down to personal preference to make a choice between these two. If you prefer a more refined, elegant and sophisticated style, the Fortaleza, whereas if bold flavours, richness and a little more sweetness is your thing, the Calle 23 Criollo. Neither will disappoint.