Forget what you thought you learned about tequila back in college. Gone are the days of salt-rimmed shots and sloppy margaritas. This venerable liquor is enjoying renewed interest from those who care more about taste than tipsiness — and Austin is becoming a hotspot for premium brands.
Tequila is made from agave, which must grow between eight and 10 years before it can be used. In 1978, “Tequila” became an official international appellation, meaning that a product labeled "Tequila" must be produced in the Mexican state of Jalisco or designated parts of the states of Nayarit, Guanajuato, Michoacan and Tamaulipas (much like Champagne must come from France's Champagne region). Producers must follow an official standard for Tequila that outlines all the processes and activities related to the supply of agave as well as the production, bottling, marketing, information and business practices of making the spirit.
"One hundred and fifty years ago, everyone made organic tequila because there was no other way” says Real Gusto Tequila's Jaime Gonzalez
Tequilas can either be 100 percent Blue Agave or Tequila Mixto (mixed), which contains 51 percent Blue Agave and 49 percent other sugars, caramel color, oak extract flavoring, glycerin and sugar-based syrup and can be bottled outside of Tequila territory. Tequila made from 100 percent agave will be marked as "Tequila 100% de agave" or "Tequila 100% puro de agave" on the bottle while Mixto labels will simply say "Tequila."
“Tequila has complex flavors, actually twice as many as wine,” says John McCollough, president and CEO of Austin-based Republic Tequila, which produces and bottles a 100 percent agave spirit in the Mexican town of Tequila, about 40 miles west of Guadalajara. “It’s actually much more fascinating than wine. That comes through if you taste a bunch of tequilas, as they all taste different.”
Tom Nall founded Republic in Austin in 2008. He seems to have started a trend; there are now two tequila producers headquartered in Austin, not to mention many more companies that are targeting the city as a premier market for their products.
Like Nall, Austinite Richard Sorenson founded Dulce Vita Organic Tequila here in 2009. Its 100 percent blue agave tequila is produce in the highlands of Jalisco. “There are tons of tequilas on the market,” says Chris Cain, the company’s vice president of sales and marketing. “If you want to stand apart from the Mixtos, you have to go 100 percent. Dulce Vita also wanted to give more than a nod to the traditional way spirits were enjoyed, straight out of the barrel.” As for being organic, Cain says that is also a nod to tradition. “That’s what all tequila used to be. You don’t mess with Mother Nature, just let her do what she does. It gives a much fuller flavor. “
According to CEO Jaime Gonzalez, Real Gusto Tequila chose Austin for its first foray into the United States because of the city's strong affinity for things organic. His 100 percent blue agave product is certified organic in both Mexico and the U.S.
“My father’s — and great-grandfather’s — dream was to make the best tequila in the world and being organic forces us to make it the best way we can,” says Gonzalez. “If you add herbicide or pesticide to the plants, some of that will get in the distillation process and affect the taste. One hundred and fifty years ago, everyone made organic tequila because there was no other way.”
Republic is not certified organic, but McCollough says only low levels of insecticides are used and only in the first two years, when immature agave plants are most susceptible to pests. “Organic is not as meaningful in tequila, a distilled product, as with, say, blueberries,” he says. “Also, our process is 50 percent more efficient in terms of extracting juice from the agave. We’re treating the plant with more respect and using less water. The steam produced by the process runs our operation, we sell the ash back to farmers as fertilizer, and we recycle our water. So our product not only tastes good but is green as well.”
Organic or not, the best tequilas come from companies with their own factory, Gonzalez says, because that gives the company quality control. Cain agrees. “We oversee every step of the process,” he says. “It’s not just a contract bottling proposition. We have a relationship with the growers, we go to the fields and inspect the plants. We have our own master distiller and oversee the facility during distillation.”
In addition to knowing whether the brand has its own factory, Gonzalez advises Tequila shoppers to pay attention to the choice of barrels used for aging. “We use brand-new white oak barrels, the kind used for brandy and cognac,” he says. “Many producers use barrels that have already been used for whiskey, which affects the taste. Water is very important, too. We use water from a natural spring by our factory.”
Another important factor, according to McCollough, is the amount of the distillation used in the product. “The first and last runs of alcohol to come out of the distillate aren’t drinkable. The really great tasting part is in the middle. Less-expensive products include more of the beginning and end of the distillation.” Using only the middle of the distillate makes a Tequila more expensive—and better tasting.
Good tequila has a nice after glow. It’s civilized.
Ultimately, though, the best tequila is the one you like the most. “Some people like one type and others another,” Gonzalez says. “Taste one to see if it’s good.”
There are three types of 100 percent agave tequilas: Blanco, Reposado and Anejo. Blanco is clear and typically un-aged, bottled directly after distillation or stored in stainless steel tanks to settle for up to four weeks. Some are aged for up to two months for smoother flavor.
Reposado, or rested Tequila, is aged in wood barrels or storage tanks from two to 11 months, which gives them a golden hue. Different types of wood barrels can be used for aging, the most common being American or French oak. Aging in used bourbon, cognac or wine barrels imparts some unique flavors to the Tequila.
Anejo Tequila is aged for at least one year in barrels that do not exceed 600 liters. This darkens the Tequila to a rich amber color and makes the flavor smoother, richer and more complex. Extra Anejo Tequila is aged more than three years.
Cain advises choosing a Tequila based on what you typically drink. “My first love was bourbon, so I love an Anejo.” He even makes some bourbon-style cocktails such as a Manhattan with the aged Tequila. The best choice also depends on the occasion and time of year.
Blanco Tequilas are generally best for mixing. Sip a quality tequila in a snifter like cognac to get all of its flavors and scent. And forget those shots with salt and lime. The best tequila is savored like a great wine or bourbon, McCollough stresses.
“Swirl it in the glass, look at the color and the legs, which are indicators of how smooth and flavorful it will be. Then put your nose in the glass. Most of the flavor components in your brain come through your nose and not your palate. Take a sip and swirl that around in your mouth for the first flavor notes, swallow slowly for the aftertastes. Good tequila has a nice after glow. It’s civilized. Take your time with it. That’s the way to enjoy it the most.”