The Upside of Agave
Tequila tasting: There's more to this liquor than meets the margarita
Tequila often carries the baggage of many an ill-conceived spring break or college parties featuring shots and ever-churning margarita machines. It's your perpetually adolescent cousin — a lot of fun, but likely to say and do inappropriate things, leaving behind a real mess. I personally spent my first summer in Austin on a quest with my roommates to find the best margarita in town, but unfortunately, it became nothing but a blur before long. (A CultureMap contributor recently did this somewhat more successfully.)
However, one tequila distiller is out to change the liquor’s reputation and recently brought that effort to Austin with a blind tasting at CTC Gardens, a non-profit, sustainable venue on the East Side. Olmeca Altos 100 percent agave tequila comes from the highlands of Jalisco, whose 6,900-foot altitude and rich volcanic soil produce excellent blue agave.
The Olmeca way
Olmeca slow-cooks its agave the old-fashioned way in stone ovens, then extracts the juice by crushing it under a two-ton wheel of volcanic stone, called a Tahona. It's then twice-distilled in copper pots, which help retain flavor. Olmeca Altos Plata, or Silver, is bottled within 59 days, keeping a bit of sweetness with a hint of citrus. (One taster said, “It may just be that my mind associates tequila and lime, but this one smells like lime to me.”)
The Reposado version spends six months aging in oak barrels — two to three months longer than most brands — and emerges with a robust flavor of agave, citrus, vanilla and wood.
Olmeca’s master distiller Jesus Hernandez himself led the tasting. Born in Jalisco but reared in California and trained as an architect, Hernandez returned to Mexico in 1994 to help build the distillery and stayed on. He says, “When I tell people I make tequila for a living, I always get a smile.”
The Austin tasting revealed a surprising depth to tequila, from individual notes in its scent, much like wine, to subtle distinctions in flavor and mouth feel. There are aisles and aisles of this stuff in liquor stores, but sniff and sip a few different brands side-by-side, and you can’t miss the differences.
Orchestrate your own tasting
To have your own tasting, gather a few friends as well as three Platos and three Reposados. To give your gathering local flavor, choose brands with an Austin tie. Organic Republic Tequila, for example, also made in Jalisco from 100 percent blue agave, is an Austin-based company and has been featured in a flavor at Amy's Ice Creams. Founded in Austin in 2008, Z Tequila — the Z for founder Pepe Zevada — won double gold at a world spirit competition in San Francisco last year.
Before anyone arrives (no cheating!), set up a station for each person and pour a bit of each tequila in glasses, the Platos in one row and Reposados in another. For example, on the Platos row, from left to right, pour Brand #1, Brand #2 and Brand #3, then do the same on the Reposado row. Keep track of the order, and hide the bottles. Provide a glass of water for clearing palates in between sips and an empty glass for spitting. (Yes, it seems criminal to waste tequila, but if you drink it all, everything will taste the same.)
Once everyone has settled at a station, have them drink a bit of water to clear out anything that might be lingering, such as those onions on lunch’s burger. Start with the Platos, the glass on the left. Have everyone take a whiff, then a deeper sniff, and make notes about what they detect. Then take a small sip, swirl it around in your mouth, and spit. Take a larger sip (and, yes, spit!). Make notes and talk about the flavors, the mouth feel, whether it seems bitter or sweet.
More water, then do the same with the middle glass, then the glass on the right. You can choose to reveal the brands used now, or wait until after you taste the Reposados. It’s fun to first see if anyone can identify any of the tequilas.
Classic tequila cocktails
2 parts Olmeca Altos Tequila
3 parts fresh grapefruit juice
¼ part agave nectar
Splash of soda
Add the first three ingredients over ice and stir. Top with a splash of soda and garnish with a lime wedge.
2 parts Olmeca Altos Tequila
1 part fresh lime juice (best squeezed from a lime and not a bottle)
½ part agave nectar
Shake with ice and pour over fresh ice. Garnish with lime.