Mexican Spirits: Say Sí to Authentic Agave Drinks
If we take Hollywood’s word on Tequila, there are two ways to enjoy it: Frozen Margaritas or shots (lick the salt first, suck the lime after). According to Tinseltown, Tequila is the fuel for craziness at loud college house parties and wild spring breaks or it can also be served neat to test a man’s toughness when he enters a dodgy bar that evokes the Wild West on either side of the border.
In fairness, we can’t say it’d be out of place in the aforementioned locations, but there’s a finer side of Tequila (and Mezcal), one where pleasure and enjoyment replace epic hangovers, and where appreciating tradition and craftsmanship matter more than showing off how well -or how poorly- you can take a shot.
The Key to Find Good Authentic Tequila
There are three main types of tequila: Silver, also known as Blanco or Plata, which is not aged or aged only for less than two months. Reposado, which is aged in a barrel between 2 to 11 months. And Anejo, which is barrel-aged for at least one year.
Mexicans take their Tequila very seriously and only those distilled spirits made in the designated region within the state of Jalisco can be labeled as that. According to Consejo Regulador del Tequila it “is prepared from the heads of the Agave Tequila Weber Blue Variety, previously of subsequently hydrolyzed or cooked, and subjected to alcoholic fermentation with yeast, cultivated or not”.
However, according to USA regulations, the name Tequila can used for spirits made from at least 51% blue agave, which leaves 49% free for cheaper alcohol bases. This mix of alcohols is usually the one to “thank” for the apparently proneness of Tequila to give hangovers faster than other spirits and it’s the reason why you should always check for bottles that say “100% Agave”, “100% Agave Azul” or “100% Blue Agave” if you want the real deal. It doesn’t matter if it says “blue” or “Azul” or not, as long as it specifies that’s pure agave, it’s the proper one.
If that’s not on the label, you’re likely to be holding a Tequila Mixto, which is never labeled as such. Perhaps the most famous example of this comes from Jose Cuervo, the world’s best selling brand. While its top-tier Tequilas are 100% Agave, their Especial Gold and Especial Silver are actually mixtos.
Also, the ready mixed Margarita and Tequila based cocktails are virtually always from Mixto. Unless you want to skip the queue to hangover town, stay away from bottled premixed cocktails and make your Tequila cocktails from scratch, using a 100% Agave.
Caroline Daly, Brand Development Manager who looks after El Jimador, explains that “consumers are moving away from shot serves and enjoying tequila in long drinks and cocktails.” She points out that Dublin’s bars are starting to serve more classic Mexican favourites such as the Paloma (Tequila Blanco, Lime and Soda, grapefruit soda or cranberry). “Bartenders are equally experimenting with tequila thanks to the availability of quality 100% blue agave tequilas such as El Jimador and Herradura.”
Regarding which is the best Tequila to use for different occasions, Daly explains that “Silver Tequilas are the purest expression of tequila where the taste of the agave plant can really come through” and she suggests to use these unaged expressions in light, refreshing drinks such as Margaritas or Palomas. “The Reposado expressions have taken on a little flavour and colour from the barrel and softened the taste of the agave plant, this makes them perfect for more complicated cocktails where the complex flavours in the tequila can hold up to more robust flavours.” Finally, Anejo Tequilas, which have taken on the colour and flavour of the barrel “have been given it a rich, full bodied flavour perfect to sip neat or over ice.”
Mezcal: Is the Worm Really Necessary? (No, it’s not)
Nowadays Mezcal -sometimes spelled Mescal- is seen as Tequila’s trendy sister. While Mezcalerias open in London and New York and the formerly obscure spirit jumps into the mainstream, it’s a good time to get a few things straight about this powerful Mexican.
Mezcal shares some similarities with Tequila, which is in fact a type of Mezcal. While Tequila calls for one specific type of agave, there are 28 varieties allowed in the making of Mezcal -Espadín being the most common but blends are not unheard of-. Mezcal is made in Oaxaca and the states of Guerrero, Durango, San Luis Potosi and Zacatecas.
Flavour-wise, Mezcal tends to be smokier since the plants are roasted slowly in underground pits while Tequila’s agave is baked -sometimes pressure cooked- which gives it a clearer, crispier result.
One infamous feature of Mezcal is the worm that can be found inside some bottles. Some say this unusual addition originated as an attempt to show how strong the spirit was (as the worm would be perfectly preserved instead of decomposing) although the most likely explanation is that the worm was a marketing stunt to make Mezcal appear more edgy in exporting markets, in fact there’s a company that swapped the innocuous worm for a scorpion.
Unless you’re aiming for the shock factor, avoid bottles with dead bugs floating inside (no, the worm is neither an aphrodisiac nor hallucinogenic and if these are your reasons for eating it you will be highly disappointed).
Have You Heard of Pulque?
It’s been five years since the New York Times claimed “Move Over, Tequila, It’s Mescal’s Turn to Shine” and now that the spirit is on the catalog of large off licences, those thirsty for the next trend might get Pulque on the radar.
Pulque is an ancient Mexican alcoholic beverage that might be seen as the great great (…insert a lot of “greats” as it’s nearly two thousand years old) father of Tequila and Mezcal. It’s not a spirit but a fermented drink made from the sap of agave or maguey with an ABV between 2% to 8%. It has a viscous texture and an off white colour, it’s sour, doughy taste is the love-it-or-hate-it type.
Pulque was enjoyed by high-born Aztecs and it’s having a comeback as Pulquerias are booming in Mexico and the product is exported to the United States and Canada. This side of the Atlantic it’s trickier to get a taste of Pulque as it has to be drank soon which makes exporting very challenging.
After combing the area and confirming that Irish off-licenses or bars haven’t got their hands on Pulque yet, we asked a few members of the Mexican community in Ireland. Aline Der Mond, member of the Facebook group Mexicanos @ Dublin, explained that “Pulque doesn’t last more than three days and due to its characteristics, it’s not something you’d be allowed to bring.” She, as well as other members of the group wished me good luck trying to find it abroad, and put me in contact with Llorch Ugalde, owner of Pulquería La Guayaba in the centre of Cuernavaca, Morelos, Mexico.
“Technically, you don’t make Pulque. You extract it”, he explained. Regarding exports, he said he’d love one day (he’s currently bottling small batches of it and aguamiel) and mentions that a company called Pulmex exports it to the United States. There’s also a canned version available in the US which he describes as “proto-pulque” and that those who know the real thing consider way inferior. About its flavour Marmite-like reactions, he explains that “for some people it tastes like the saliva of the person they love, but for others it taste like the spit of someone they hate. Those last ones will never like Pulque.”
As to why is Pulque having a moment now, Ugalde says that “thanks to a better access to knowledge of agave and maguey, a lot of people, especially people from younger generations have let go of the myths surrounding this sacred drink.” As to what are these “myths” he explains that most were introduced when the beer industry arrived in Mexico and the discrediting begun, some even said it is fermented with manure, which he assures is “completely not true” (and he’s right, as further research pointed out).
Logistic challenges make it impossible for Pulque to arrive to Ireland, so if you’re ever in Mexico and presented with the opportunity, dare to try it. You might hate it, but you might love it, only one way to find out.
But while you’re this side of the Atlantic, why not enjoy some fine Tequila of Mezcal. Check these tres to try…
€35 – Available at O’Briens
Clear and fresh, this Tequila is made with 100% blue agave bottled in-state. It’s double distilled and very pure, smooth and versatile.
It has a dry, citrusy and lightly toasted flavour, and it’s a great Tequila for cocktails as it blends very well with mixers.
€76.99 – Available at drinkstore.ie
This luxurious Tequila, 100% Blue Agave, is made in small batches and aged for 18 months in American oak barrels. It’s meant for sipping as it offers a complexity and depth of flavour that you don’t want to cover up with mixers. Citrus and spicy, peppery notes combine with vanilla and toasted fireplace-like wooden aromas in this rich, elegant aged Tequila.
€76.99 – Available at the Celtic Whiskey Shop
A rich and complex spirit distilled from the agave espadín, genetic ancestor of the blue agave, base of real tequila. This Mezcal is made at a small family distillery in Oaxaca and it’s remarkably smokey, which is pleasantly contrasted by a sweet note. Whiskey drinkers that like this characteristic will do well in discovering this mezcal.
Gabriela’s passion for writing is only matched by her love for food and wine. Journalist, confectioner and sommelier, she fell in love with Ireland years ago and moved from Venezuela to Dublin in 2014.
Since then, she has written about and worked in the local food scene, and she’s determined to discover and share the different traditions, flavours and places that have led Irish food and drink to fascinate her.