Like many young adults, the entirety of my previous experience with tequila has occurred in one of the following situations:
Scenario One: I’m some age between 21 and 25 and I have been talked into an evening of bar hopping with friends. At some point I am in a crowded room lit only by muted televisions and backlit signs, and there is Atlanta-based hip hop (circa 2007) pulsating every fiber of my being. Over the eyeball-shaking bass I catch the word “SHOTS!?” from one of my cronies and turn to see my entire crew looking at me for the go-ahead. I begrudgingly scream “FIVE PATRON SILVERS” to the bartender - who is equally as unimpressed as me. She pours the shots and pulls five lime wedges out of thin air with hands that haven’t been washed all night. I fork over cash roughly totaling my monthly water bill, slam the shot, and roll the dice with the lime wedge. I feel only the beat of the music.
Scenario Two: I’m at a house party, likely with the same friends from scenario one. The keg has turned to foam, the nipper of brandy in my pocket is empty, and several hours remain before sunrise. There is an unopened bottle of Cuervo Gold on the counter that was brought by someone who has already left. Everyone looks at each other like we’re about to draw straws for something awful, and then we pass the bottle around. If we’re lucky, there’s a green squirt-bottle of lime juice in the fridge of equally mysterious origin and age. At some point someone says something like, “I don’t know why I don’t drink tequila more often,” with a stilted smile. That person is never me.
Scenario Three: I’m at my sister’s apartment, present day. The drink options are red wine, Tito’s vodka, and the dregs of a mid-range tequila blanco that I have never heard of. Her boyfriend offers me some of said tequila to polish off the bottle. I accept out of duty, and it’s not atrocious. I briefly consider trying more tequilas, but ultimately resume drinking red wine and don’t give it another thought until the next time I visit my sister.
I’ll be frank - these experiences have not left me with the best impression of tequila, and as a result it’s something that I rarely buy. Maybe it’s the agave itself, but every tequila I’ve dabbled in has a distinct aftertaste that’s even harder to describe than it is to enjoy. To me it always tastes more like it’s coming back up than going down, and that’s not a flavor profile that I typically look for in a beverage. That said, I personally love single-malt scotch and I’m sure there are plenty of people who don’t seek notes of tarred rope or burnt popcorn in their own cups. To each his own.
Tequila has grown in popularity over the past several years, and recent trips to liquor retailers have presented me with more tequila options than I ever knew existed. With more and more of my friends singing its praises, the prospect of giving tequila a fair shake has been creeping into my mind as of late. Turning the corner into true adulthood at age 30, I find myself reevaluating my tastes in general. As a child I hated vegetables unanimously, but over the years I’ve learned to like a few and tolerate a handful more. You go through life, you retry things here and there, and sometimes you get surprised. This is how it’s supposed to work. I must consider the possibility that tequila could be my next asparagus or Caesar salad - something I looked down my nose at for decades only to find that I was just being stubborn. All good experiments start with research, and although I know you were dying to read it in its entirety, I’ll give you the summation of the Wikipedia article on Tequila that I recently devoured:
Tequila is a type of mezcal, which simply refers to any liquor made from the agave plant. What differentiates tequila from other mezcals is that by law it must be derived exclusively from blue agave. Not all mezcals are tequila, but all tequilas are mezcals. For a liquor to be called “tequila” it must have been made in certain regions of Mexico, so every drop you’ve ever consumed in the U.S. crossed the border at some point.
There are three main types of tequila: blanco, reposado, and añejo. These words translate to white, rested, and aged, respectively. For the record, I only had to look up that last one. Blanco refers to tequila that has undergone little to no aging in barrels, hence its clarity and “pure” flavor. Reposado has been aged for at least two months, whereas añejo has been aged for at least one year. Aging is typically done in wooden barrels (like almost all aged liquors), and allegedly it’s quite common for tequila producers to reuse old whiskey barrels from American producers. The aging process imparts the darker color and woody/smoky flavors that normally accompany the aged forms. Interestingly, the label oro (gold) usually indicates a tequila blanco that has been “enhanced” with either grain alcohol, caramel color, or both. My takeaway from all of this is that I’ve only ever tried tequila blanco, although occasionally it was masquerading as something that looked older.
As I mentioned, I’m normally a brown liquor guy. I tend to prefer woody, burnt tones in my spirits. The existence of reposado and añejo tequilas is the best possible news for me, as the barrel-aging process may well turn this liquor from something repulsive into something tolerable - or perhaps even enjoyable. For all I know fresh whiskey is disgusting, so I’m hopeful that some time spent in wood may render tequila just as palatable as its grain-based cousin.
As luck would have it, ABC Fine Wine and Spirits have gifted me a “test bottle” of all three types of tequila made by Los Rijos, one of their Sourced and Certified brands. Talk about philanthropy. With National Tequila Day right around the corner, the time is nigh to answer the question that has been troubling not just me, but many young adults nationwide for decades: Is tequila palatable?
Okay, perhaps that query is not exactly keeping people up at night, but not all answers need questions.
My goal with any mezcal has always been to get it from bottle to bloodstream as fast as possible with minimal tongue contact. There is a strong chance that such an approach is flawed. The prospect of slowly sipping tequila is full-on disturbing to me, but the internet and ABC team members have assured me that many people do actually partake in that activity voluntarily. Being that I have essentially neglected tequila since attaining legal drinking age, I have also neglected tequila-based cocktails. To be honest, the only one that comes to mind is the margarita, which seeks to mask tequila’s gastric tones with both sweet and sour ones. I want sweet and sour together exclusively when eating movie theater candy or Asian cuisine, so I’ll need to find some other options. I see no reason not to just dive right into these bottles and see what happens.
It's here, it's clear, get used to it. Smells and tastes like any other top-shelf tequila I've tasted. Poured myself two room-temperature fingers in a pint mason jar and gave it one sip before declaring the jar a shot glass and gulping the remainder. Warming, vaguely offensive to my personal palate, but not entirely intolerable. If nothing else, it’s nostalgic.
Muddled three cold lime wedges with a pinch of cane sugar in the same jar and doused them with tequila to make a gringo caipirinha. Utterly drinkable despite the sting of hypocrisy for trash-talking sweet and sour mixed drinks. I put the bottle in the freezer for my sister’s next visit.
Notably darker than the silver, yet lacking the fool's gold pigment of the average Tequila Oro. Mellower nose than I expected, with subtle hints of charcoal or possibly even unburnt wood - I'm no sommelier.
A few ounces in a glass went down one sip at a time without issue. Strong urge to watch Desperado, but settled for briefly Googling Salma Hayek. I could see people seeking this out even though it wouldn't be my personal first choice.
Decided to try a reposado Old Fashioned primarily out of a desire to continue muddling things. I skipped the orange peel and it came out okay. Next tried about an ounce in a short glass with just a dash of fresh lime juice. Tolerable, but I’d hesitate to call it an improvement. Save your limes for street tacos with this one.
¡Santa Maria! It's agave whiskey. Well, it’s not, but it smells like one. Brown, slightly burnt, and smooth - it's impressive what more than a year in a wooden barrel can do to a liquid. I'm not quite ready to give up Laphroaig for fine añejo tequilas, but this is a compelling beverage nonetheless.
This stuff was right at home in a small glass with no ice, same as any corn or barley liquor I dabble in. Gave it just a splash of cold water like you might do with a good scotch, but it didn’t actually need it.
There was no need to attempt any cocktail creations with this bottle. Best paired with Buena Vista Social Club and indirect sunlight. If you took Spanish in high school, expect it all to come rushing back to you. Me gusta esto.
It seems my repugnance toward agave-based spirits may have been rooted more heavily in the way they are (or, more accurately, aren’t) aged than the agave itself. The time that the alcohol spent in barrels was directly related to their palatability for me, though I’ll be the first to admit that my opinion on the matter is not gospel.
If you like tequila blanco, or even the ubiquitous gold tequila that you have now learned is more mirrors than smoke, that’s fine. Prior to this foray I knew very little about mezcal in general, let alone tequila, and I’m not one to judge the drink choices of others. Unless someone is publicly mixing single-malt scotch with soda, which will always culminate in me challenging them to a duel.
Tequila, I’ve learned, is an umbrella term - like many others in the world of adult libations. The type of spirit alone tells you next to nothing about the actual contents of the bottle aside from the base materials used to make it. All of the finer points come down to innumerable factors, and therefore I was wrong to previously dismiss tequila as a whole based solely on my experience with very young and “raw” versions of a diverse category of spirits.
National Tequila Day is nearly upon us, and there’s no better time to reevaluate your own opinions on the subject. Not that you should ever need a specific reason to broaden your ethanol horizons.
Writer Tyler Vale is a contributing blogger for ABC Fine Wine & Spirits.