With Cinco de Mayo just around the corner and summer close behind, our thoughts naturally turn to … tequila.
Hailing from the hot sunshine of Mexico, tequila seems synonymous with summer fun, so it’s no wonder that we belly up to the bar in search of margaritas as the mercury climbs. Faced with shelves filled with what seems like every tequila under the sun at places like Oyamel in Penn Quarter or Agua 301 in Navy Yard, it can be intimidating to know which kind of tequila should get splashed into a cocktail shaker and which needs to be sipped lovingly on its own. And what the heck is mezcal anyway?
Made from the blue agave plant, all tequila comes from Mexico, period. Protected by law as a designation of origin product — much like French champagne — true tequila can only be manufactured in and produced from agave grown in specific regions of Mexico, centered particularly around the city of Tequila.
“The agaves from each region produce very different tequilas,” says Jasmine Chae, beverage management director for José Andrés’ ThinkFoodGroup. “While each tequila is distinct and unique, highland tequilas tend to be brighter and fruitier, Tequila Valley tequilas tend to be earthier and more herbaceous.”
When perusing tequilas, look first for 100 percent agave; “mixto” tequila — the kind that you drank in college that gave you The Worst Hangover Ever — is only required to be 51 percent agave with sugars like glucose and fructose making up the balance. If you want to avoid the hangover, stick to 100 percent agave tequila and sip, don’t shoot.
Types of tequila and how to drink them
Blanco or “silver” tequila is an unaged or barely aged spirit whose bright flavor lends itself well to citrus or other fruit-based cocktails; some blancos can be very smooth and fruity, while others can have a vegetal bite. You’ll want to stock blanco in your home bar for everything from classic margaritas to bloody marys to tequila sunrises.
Reposado (“rested”) tequila has been aged in oak barrels for two months up to just under a year. With a pale golden color, reposado is the perfect marriage between blanco and añejo tequila, sporting a smooth mellow quality with bright accents. ThinkFoodGroup’s Jasmine Chae notes that she likes to use reposado tequilas with bold spicy ingredients like chiles or peppers.
Añejo is aged tequila that has rested in oak barrels, often old bourbon barrels, from one to three years. In the same way that different grains can create subtleties in aged whiskey, the base blanco tequila placed into the barrel can do the same for the resulting añejo. This is generally a sipping tequila, but can also be a great substitute for whiskey or bourbon in traditional cocktails like a Vieux Carré or a Mint Julep.
Extra añejo is a relatively new category of tequila established less than 10 years ago, signifying a tequila that has been aged at least three years in oak barrels and sometimes blended with very old vintage tequilas. A really fine extra añejo is like a good brandy, the kind of tequila meant to be enjoyed as a digestif after a heavy meal or with dessert. These tequilas can often have rich undertones of chocolate, vanilla and tree fruits.
And what about the mezcal?
Like tequila, mezcal is made from a specific type of agave native to Mexico, known as maguey, which is roasted underground to give it a distinctive smoky flavor. Referring to its “smoky, fiery, spicy allure,” ThinkFoodGroup’s Chae says that one way she helps introduce mezcal to the uninitiated is by serving it as a sidecar to a traditional margarita, adding a smokiness that “completely transforms the margarita.”
Stocking up for summer
Expensive does not always translate to better in terms of tequila. A lot of excellent tequila is priced pretty reasonably between $25-40 a bottle; the best way to figure out what you like is to taste different varieties at a bar or local liquor store and see which ones suit your palate. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can also look for “blue agave spirits,” the American version of tequila produced in small batches by a few distillers around the country with agave nectar imported directly from Mexico.
Simple Summer Margarita
2 ounces silver tequila
1 ounce Cointreau or triple sec
1 ounce fresh lime juice
1 teaspoon light agave syrup (or to taste)
1 piece of fresh orange peel, about 2 inches long (optional)
Shake first four ingredients well with ice and strain into a chilled glass, then twist the orange peel over the top and drop into the drink. Serve immediately.
Kristen Hartke is managing editor of Edible DC and writes about food and cocktails for a variety of regional and national publications, as well on her blog, goodbooze.wordpress.com.