If you're anything like me, early memories of tequila drinking bring back foggy images of high school house "ragers" a la Tom Cruise in "Risky Business." Some of you might remember staring at the lifeless worm floating sadly on the bottom of a bottle, and wondered, who would drink that? Many of you still wince and cry, "It burns!"
Enough of that.
Tequila — and all the agave-based distilled spirits from Mexico, for that matter — offer so much more than a shot, a nasty worm and a burn. Poured over ice on a hot day, few spirits are actually more aromatic and flavorful — it's a veritable cocktail in a glass. Cucumber, pepper, florals, honey and vanilla are just a few of the notes that you'll find in a well-crafted tequila.
"It will transport you," said Alex Valencia, owner of La Contenta in New York City and spirits expert. "Once you start tasting tequila, it gets into your soul — it's piece of Mexico, my home. It will become a part of you too."
Dozens of passionate fans sit at the La Contenta bar nightly to sample tequila and mescal. "Bankers, CEOs, Wall Street types, techsters, artists — they're here every night," says Valencia. "It's good to see so many people fall in love with authentic Mexican drinks. It makes me happy."
Indeed, America's tequila love has skyrocketed in the past 15 years: Imports of tequila have grown 92 percent since 2002 — with an average growth rate of 5.6 percent per year — according to the U.S. Distilled Spirits Council.
In the super premium tequila market, volume has increased a whopping 568 percent since 2002. Last year, 2.4 million of the nearly 14 million cases sold were super premium. That's thanks, in no small part, to celebrities like Sean Combs, Justin Timberlake, and George Clooney getting in on the high-end tequila game, coming out with their own brands.
"It's sexy," says Valencia. "They see the future and that more and more people will drink tequila and mezcal — I see it too."
So, in honor of National Tequila Day, here are 10 things you need to know about tequila:
1. What does tequila mean? The word tequila probably comes from the Nahuatl (Aztec) language and translates to "the place where plants are harvested," or possibly "the place where a lot of work is done," according to Jose Maria Muria in his book, "A Drink Named Tequila." And that pretty much sums up the sentiment behind tequila: A plant, a place and the people who make it.
2. Where does tequila come from? Tequila is only produced inside the Mexican state of Jalisco and in some municipalities in Guanajuato, Michoacan, Nayarit, and Tamaulipas. Any agave-based distilled spirit outside those regions are called "mezcal." Other subtypes of mezcal you might see are Bacanora, Sotol and Raicilla. In other words, all tequilas are mezcals, but not all mezcals are tequila. (Just like all bourbons are whiskeys but not all whiskeys are bourbons. )
3.How is tequila made? The fructose-rich pina — or heart — of the agave succulent, which resembles a pineapple, is roasted or steamed to release sugars for fermentation. Mezcals and tequilas are both agave-based distilled spirits.
4. How is it harvested? A pina can weigh up to 200 pounds and take 12 years to reach maturity. The harvesters, called jimadores or campesinos, will procure a pina with a tool called the coa de jima, a circular blade and wooden handle. A well-coordinated and skilled crew of jimadores can move through a plantation and harvest between three and four thousand kilograms of agave over six hours of hard labor.
5. How do I know it's tequila? Look for 100 percent agave tequila printed on your bottle label. This designation is allowed only to those bottles containing tequila with no added sugars. When sugar or corn syrup is added to a fermentation tank along with the agave, the tequila style is called a mixto.
6.What does "anejo" mean? It means old, so when you see anejo or extra anejo listed on the bottle, expect deeper, woodier, tannic notes like black tea and chocolate layered over the agave flavors. These tequilas have spent more time in casks.
7. What does "reposado" mean? That means rest. A bottle of reposado tequila is spirit that has matured in a cask between two and eleven months, gathering some slight vanilla, caramels, and other wood-associated flavors.
8. What does "blanco" mean? Blanco or silver tequila is arguably the most popular with aficionados "back home," according to Valencia. Blanco tequila is unaged tequila — it never hits wood, and thus delivers the purest notes of agave.
9. Yes, but what about the worm? Tequila does not have a worm in its bottle. The worm, or gusano, is associated with mezcal. In the 1940s, a few brands started a marketing ploy attributing aphrodisiac and magical qualities to the worm and the person shooting it. As you can probably guess, ingesting the worm has no effect on desire, nor are fine bottles of either tequila or mezcal sold with a worm in it.
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10. How do you drink tequila? Contrary to popular American belief, tequila is not a "shooter" drink in Mexico. In Valencia's hometown of Guadalajara, it is often sipped neat alongside a "sangrita," a tomato-and-citrus beverage. "My mother, my grandmother, that's how they even drink it," Valencia says. "Lime and salt? That's not for us." Lime and salt, for the record, is thought to have started in the late 19th century to hide the fiery sensation of those rough-around-the-edges tequilas.
On the night I visited La Contenta, Valencia poured samples of a high-end Deleon Tequila, purchased in 2014 by a joint venture between Sean Combs and Diageo, the world's largest spirit company. A few people snickered, expecting to taste notes of cynicism and lamenting the celebrification of bottles. But the $200 bottle of tequila landed gently across our palates, cooling us with light vanillas and spice; bringing us gently away from a busy day and instead into a sultry and steamy lower east side evening.
If $200 seems excessive — no need to worry. Deleon has a range of tequilas and price points as low as $60. Milagro silver tequila, which is easy to find and reasonably priced at $30, makes an excellent margarita for those who prefer cocktails. But — pay attention, here — use fresh ingredients. It tastes better. It smells better. It looks better.
For good sipping tequilas that are highly rated among tequila aficionados, check out Siete Leguas blanco (siete means 7 in Spanish), which sells for about $40 a bottle, and Corralejo reposado which sells for around $35.
And, if you're not ready to go neat, here's a great margarita recipe:
Simple and Fresh Margarita
2 parts Milagro Tequila (or other 100 percent blue agave blanco tequila)
1 part fresh lime juice
¾ part agave nectar*
Combine ingredients with ice and shake. Strain over fresh ice in a rocks glass or strain and serve up. Garnish with a lime wheel. (recipe courtesy of Milagro Tequila)
If you want to add a little zip, give it a chili-salt rim. (pictured above)
Commentary by Heather Greene, a whiskey sommelier and the author of "Whisk(e)y Distilled: A Populist Guide to the Water of Life." She is also a speaker and consultant who travels around the world teaching people about whiskey. She was the director of whiskey education and sommelier at The Flatiron Room in Manhattan from 2012 to 2014. She is also an accomplished musician. Her latest record, released in 2012, is Argon 40. Follow her on Twitter @HeatherMGreene.