Cheers: Ancient juice gets a makeover

By Don Kavanagh

The favourite tipple of the Aztecs is heading upmarket, writes Don Kavanagh.

The green mountain valleys surrounding Tequila are spotted with fields of blue agave, the plant  fermented to make the drink.  Photo / AP
The green mountain valleys surrounding Tequila are spotted with fields of blue agave, the plant fermented to make the drink. Photo / AP

Tequila is on a roll.

Determined to shake off the old "white lightning" image, producers have been putting real effort into getting quality products on to the shelves and in front of consumers.

Sure, everyone has a tequila story. "Remember that time we had a few shots and ..." You can fill in your own details after that, but let's be honest, any story that starts with shots of tequila rarely ends well.

It's good to see, too. For far too long people have been unaware of just how good tequila can be. There is something about that spicy, vegetal character of the agave that makes a very rewarding drink, especially in cocktails.

Tequila has a long history. The Aztecs were making spirits from agave before the Spanish arrived in Mexico and the conquistadores distilled the agave juice when their brandy ran out, making tequila (or at least one of its ancestors) the first distilled spirit in the Americas.

It's a tough drink to make, too. Each agave pina, or heart, is harvested by hand with a knife. The Jimadores, or harvesters, have to decide when the plant is ripe enough to harvest. Too soon and there won't be enough sugar to ferment; too late and the plant will have used up its sugar growing a tall stem that is used to distribute seeds.

Once harvested, they are shredded and juiced and the juice is fermented and then distilled.

Tequila - like all spirits - comes out as a clear liquid and this is either bottled and sold as a silver spirit or it is aged briefly and sold as a reposado (rested) version. Reposados tend to be smoother and darker as a result of ageing for between two months and a year in oak.

Any longer than that in oak and they are known as anejo, or aged. These are left for at least a year in smaller barrels, often formerly used for other spirits, such as rum or bourbon.

Tequila's flavour is typically described as vegetal, but there are other elements to be found in tequila. Vanilla, butterscotch and caramel are often present in older versions, often as a result of oak-ageing, and the reasonably broad range of flavours to be found in the spirit makes it an ideal cocktail base.

And with the demise of the lick-sip-suck training wheels brigade, tequila is stepping out into the limelight on its own.

Great drinks such as the margarita will never go out of fashion and new bartenders are adding new flavours to this venerable old spirit. People are becoming more sophisticated in their tastes and are demanding good liquor instead of simply demanding liquor.

- Herald on Sunday

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