Craft tequilas are stirring up a lot of excitement

TEQUILA IS A TRUE CHAMELEON in the spirit world. So versatile, it can blend together with a multitude of flavors to give you a pucker punch in the palate. The taste combinations are virtually endless; from the tangy sweet and sour of a classic top shelf Margarita to the bright citrus of a grapefruit, passion fruit or guava refresher to the spicy kick of a three-alarm habanero chili hangover cure. Beyond the shady environs of the cocktail glass, fine tequila sheds its camouflage and steps out into the sunlight to be admired and enjoyed for all of its complexity and rich, layered flavor.

When you consider tequila as a category, think of it in the same way you would champagne: It is the name given to a distilled spirit specifically produced in the western Mexican state of Jalisco, in the area surrounding the city of Tequila, Mexico. Today, 380 million agave plants are harvested in that region each year, from plants that take five to nine years to mature. As a spirit, tequila also is differentiated by the fact that it only uses the blue agave plant for production.

In general, a craft or “small batch” 100 percent agave tequila is defined by a fluctuating industry standard. Currently, brands like Patron and Don Julio are still considered craft tequila makers, while others may produce less than 20,000 cases a year. “Super” tequilas are producers who churn out between 5,000 and 10,000 cases a year. Regardless of the numbers, the true test for any craft tequila is taste.

“The real difference between craft and mass-market tequilas is linking the raw material to capturing quality flavor in the bottle,” opines Jake Lustig, head of Mexican brand Las Joyas del Agave. “More agave pungency. More complexity. More minerality. Distilling the agave mash at a slower rate. All of this extra labor-intensive effort retains more of the purity and flavor of the spirit in the final product.”

“The best tequilas out there at the moment are the ones that are made from one brand, one distiller, and represent one distinct taste,” affirms Ryan Fitzgerald, director of spirits and cocktails for Beretta Pizzeria and Bar, a craft cocktail hotspot in San Francisco’s Mission District. “They’re focused on flavor profile, heritage and family to create real authenticity in their tequila.”

“Generally speaking, craft spirits like tequila are growing in popularity due to the whole farm-to-table movement,” says Chandra Lucariello, director of mixology for Southern Wine & Spirits in Honolulu. “Consumers want to support local, and just like the local farmers, the local distilleries produce limited quantities of product while putting their heart and soul into it. The public can see and taste that in the glass.”

Since tequila’s distillery process is as complex and varied as modern winemaking, tasting is paramount to finding that one perfect tequila you’ll enjoy. In general, premium 100-percent agave tequilas fall into four basic categories: Blanco (or silver), reposado, anejo and extra anejo. Blanco is un-aged and bottled or stored immediately after distillation, or aged less than two months by law in stainless steel or neutral oak barrels. Reposado (meaning “rested”) is aged in oak barrels for a minimum of two months, but less than a year. In addition to the sweetness of the agave, the tequila takes on the more complex flavors of the oak. Some distilleries even use recycled bourbon barrels.

Within Mexico, reposado is the most popular category of tequila. Anejo (aged or vintage) is aged for minimum of one year, but no more than three. These golden tequilas, as they’re called, represent a variety of complex flavors and textures. And, since 2006, extra anejo has been added as the newest category and is aged for three years or more. As you’d expect, these are the most rare and expensive tequilas on the market. Like wine, aging tequila transforms the taste in the mouth, mellowing the heat, adding complexity and highlighting desirable signature notes like oak, caramel, butterscotch and vanilla.

Unlike tequila that can only be produced in Jalisco, mescal is currently being produced in seven of Mexico’s 31 states. Yet, the most respected ones come from the southwestern state of Oaxaca because of its longstanding tradition, perfect climate and mineral rich soil. Since there are more than 28 varietals of agave plants, mescal also has the distinct luxury of experimenting with other types of agave beyond the renowned blue agave that’s used only in tequila. In terms of market share, mescal is still in its infancy as the 1 percent to tequila’s controlling 99 pecent. Beyond the business, mescal is exciting because it offers some interesting and unexpected mouth flavors. From brand to brand and batch to batch, mescal can be wildly different.

Richard Betts, co-founder of Sombra Mescal, has been making his own mescal since 2006 and is a big believer in this spirit’s promising future: “Mescal is the mother of all tequila. It’s the most authentic taste of old Mexico. When you want to go and drink the essence of this spirit, you should go and drink mescal. It’s the truth.”

Las Joyas’ Lustig agrees: “It’s a very exciting time because there are a lot of possibilities for different tastes. Currently, there are no rules in mescal. We’re doing it all by intuition. What you get is amazing variations between batches from one producer and between various producers throughout the Oaxaca region. There are lots of nuances between the bottles and there’s plenty of amazing, incredible variation in styles. It’s truly the Wild West at the moment.”

Lustig recommends: “Look for a value 100-percent agave tequila for mixed drinks. You can make real authentic Margaritas with the right amount of heat that will penetrate the sweet and sour of the mix. Similar to wine, when you’re sipping tequila, try some from different regions.”

“You can do so many great things in the glass with tequila,” says Fitzgerald. “I like to introduce a bit of mescal into my tequila cocktails to add some smoke to it. Remember, just because a drink has tequila in it, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a Margarita.”

In the end, you don’t always have to drink tequila. But when you do, make it quality, craft tequila. Stay thirsty, my friends.

Cocktail Recipes:

SERRANO CHILI AND FRESH GINGER MARGARITA
(as created by Joey Gottesman, Honolulu mixologist)

Muddle in the bottom of a mixer glass:
2 – quarter-sized slices fresh skinned ginger
Then add:
1 1/2 oz. (your favorite handcrafted) Tequila Reposado
1/2 oz. Cointreau or Bols Triple Sec
1 oz. fresh pressed lime juice
1 oz. agave nectar or simple syrup
3 – dime-sized slices of fresh serrano chili

Method: Glass: 14 oz. Salt Rimmed

Build in a 16 oz. mixer glass filled to the top with ice and secure a Boston Shaker Tin to the top of the glass. Shake the contents vigorously for 10 seconds. Pour the contents into a 14 oz. salt rimmed glass and garnish with a fresh wedge of lime.

PALOMA
(By Chandra Lucariello, mixologist, Southern Wine & Spirits)

1.5 oz. Don Julio Blanco
0.5 oz. fresh lime juice
Pinch of sea salt
Jarritos Toronja (Grapefruit) Soda

Add lime, salt and tequila to glass. Fill with ice and top with soda. Stir to blend.

MAN IN THE DESERT
(by Tim Rita, Bartender at Aulani, A Disney Resort)

1 oz. Mezcal
1 oz. Campari
1 oz. Carpano Antica
2 dashes of bitter truth xocatl chocolate bitters

Stir and strain over ice.
Garnish: Flamed orange peel

Craft Tequila Tasting

Let’s face it. You can’t talk about tequila without tasting some. Here are some current brands we’ve recently sipped and enjoyed.

1. Maestro Dobel
Style: Blanco
Tasting notes: Smooth with a silky finish

2. Casa Noble
Style: Blanco
Tasting notes: Smoky mesquite flavor, earthy/woodsy

3. Corralalejo Blanco
Style: Blanco
Tasting notes: Rather light, ideal for mixing.

4. Clase Azul
Style: Blanco
Tasting notes: Sweet and a little spice, rich, strong finish

5. Sombra Mescal
Style: Blanco
Tasting notes: Spicy, smoky nose with hint of citrus