What do you mean you’ve only ever licked, sipped and sucked tequila? There are so many other ways to enjoy Mexico’s national spirit. Matter of fact, doing shooters is the least likely way locals will drink tequila.
This is mainly because the stuff you’re doing shots with probably isn’t tequila at all. Instead, you’re knocking back a ‘mixto’, or mix of blue agave (the desert succulent agave tequilana, which is a relative of the aloe plant) and cane sugar juice. True tequila is made from 100% blue agave and will proudly state this on the label.
That said, tequila with at least 51% blue agave is legally allowed to call itself tequila, hence the proliferation of mixto tequilas on the market. In Australia, paying less than $50 for a bottle of tequila will get you a good mixto and the perfect tequila to throw back with your mates.
Mezcal mix up
If you want to experience true tequila, here’s another top tip: there won’t be a worm involved. Worms are generally added to bottles of mezcal, not tequila. Mezcal can come from anywhere in Mexico – usually the Oaxaca region – and can be made from many types of agave, though most mezcals are made from agave espading.
To make mezcal, the agave is cooked in underground pits using hot rocks, caramelising the plant and giving mezcal a unique rich, smoky flavour. The worm (or gusano – it’s actually a caterpillar) is added to the bottle in the belief that it enhances the flavour of the spirit. So if you find a worm in your ‘tequila’, you’re drinking mezcal.
True tequila is savoured in Mexico like an Irishman lingers over whiskey or a Russian good vodka. There are strict guidelines governing its production and it’s protected by a Designation of Origin. This means it needs to originate in certain limited municipalities in the states of Tamaulipas, Nayarit, Michoacán, and Guanajuato in order to be sold as tequila. It’s also made using the heart (or piña) of only the agave tequilana and it’s fair to say that you get what you pay for in terms of quality.
A word of warning: if you’re buying a mixto tequila, you’ll most likely be buying a killer hangover to go with your shot. Alongside the agave and the cane sugar juice, mixtos often contain all kinds of additives to try to replicate the look and feel of true tequila. No wonder we’re encouraged to shoot that lot down as quickly as possible.
To find out what tequila is really all about, step it up and buy a bottle that clearly states that it’s made with 100% blue agave, then sip. Good brands include Don Julio Blanco, which has subtle vanilla and orange notes and is a very smooth sipper; Patrón Silver, which has a lovely creaminess that makes a margarita sing; and La Gritona Resposado, which only needs a frosted glass to enjoy.
Top-shelf tequilas like Gran Patron Burdeos Anejo can retail for more than a grand a bottle. Unlike most tequilas, which are young (frequently aged for less than a year), a tequila like this will be aged for longer than 12 months, potentially up to three years, in French oak barrels. It will also come in the obligatory crystal bottle for extra fancy-pants supping. Artisan tequilas like Patron Gran Patron Piedra have a similarly enticing story – generally involving the tahona process, which uses hand chiselled volcanic stone wheels to crush the agave. Sometimes pulled by burros.
It’s not the tequila you should be downing in a shot, but the traditional chaser. Mexicans often drink sangrita with their tequila. It’s a balanced sweet and spicy mix of citrus, spices and tomato juice that cleanses the palate and highlights Tequila’s unique pepper and citrus notes. Sure beats sucking on a lemon.
While there’s no ‘true’ recipe for sangrita – versions are as individual as the cantinas that serve them – here’s a recipe to get you started. Be sure to play around with it to land on your own perfect tequila chaser. Start by changing the juice from orange to lemon or lime or even grapefruit. Try adding a little honey or sugar, or mixing up the spices. You get the idea.
150 ml fresh tomato juice
150 ml fresh orange juice
Juice of one lime
2 dashes tabasco sauce
Shake of cayenne pepper
Pinch of salt
Pinch of pepper
Mix all the ingredients together in a shaker with a few cubes of ice and swirl until combined. Keep cool until ready to serve in a shot glass alongside a snifter or copita of tequila.