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The worm has turned

Once happily occupying the shooter stool at the bar, tequila and mezcal are now destined – via single-field and special barrel – to garner cult status and reach out to the armchair connoisseur. Ian Wisniewski samples these flamboyant spirits

We’re all familiar with the traditional way of drinking tequila: fast and in excess; when the appeal was the effect rather than the flavour. Then came the consequence and the inevitable conclusion: ‘it’s lethal’. In fact, everyone likes to blame their worst hang-overs on tequila, as though the drink, rather than the drinker, is at fault. There is now a different set of criteria, with distillers applying a more creative and specialised approach to every step of production. The result is international cult status, as numerous brands provide characteristics that enthral connoisseurs as readily as enticing novices.

Our deep commitment to superlatives means the tequila hierarchy is led by 100% agave styles, in which all the fermentable sugars are derived from the plant. The alternative is ‘blended’ (or standard) tequila, containing up to 49% other sugars like molasses, muscovado (unrefined brown sugar), piloncillo (crystallised sugar cane juice) or corn syrup, added during fermentation. If it doesn’t say 100% agave, it isn’t. Blended tequilas do not state the level of sugar added. While there are plenty of rewarding blended tequilas, adding sugar is often condemned for ‘compromising’ the flavour. But it depends on whether you prefer agave characters to be subtle or uninhibited. Maximum-aged tequila is usually cited as the ultimate, although each category offers varying merits. Being unaged, blanco (or ‘silver’) provides the freshest, most direct agave experience. Prime examples combine earthy, vegetal notes, with cinnamon, pepper and nutmeg. And ageing can yield unremarkable results, with the agave choked by vanilla and caramel tones. Beyond these barrel victims, many brands use oak to showcase a refined agave character. Like a burst of aromatherapy, reposado (rested) and the more intense añejo (aged) tequilas integrate vanilla and caramel with nutmeg, set honey and agave’s earthy spice. Luscious caramel and vanilla hints meld with dark chocolate and cooked fruit flavours, earthy, spicy streaks of cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger and pepper, a smokiness and chargrilled vegetal notes.

If reposado and añejo can achieve all that, why not continue ageing even longer? They do! A blend of three- and five-year old tequila is behind the sophisticated Don Julio Real, while José Cuervo’s Reserva de la Familia is a five-year old gem. Launched in 1995 to mark Cuervo’s 200th anniversary, it has elegant agave aromas, while the light, luscious palate also releases a secondary, deeper wave of agave and a chic vanilla/caramel finish. Five years age really is the limit. Any longer and it’s a case of unpalatable bitterness and an uncertain spirit.The practice of ageing tequila dates from the 1950s, with bourbon barrels the classic choice. As these are only used once and Mexico is only down the road from Bourbon country, it’s partly a case of practicality. A more technical advantage is that charred oak releases beneficial compounds more readily and so accelerates the ageing process. Experimentation has seen distillers rolling out various other barrels. Charred American non-ex-bourbon oak, for example, is one reason Porfidio’s reposado develops a spicy edge. Meanwhile, its Barrique de Ponciano is aged in uncharred new Limousin oak, resulting in subtle oak flavours and a cognac-esque intensity. Similarly, El Tesoro de Don Felipe Paradiso excels in ex-cognac barrels, with a two-year stint after the same time in ex-bourbon barrels and a final year in large oak vats.

Inspired by Jerez, Tequila del Señor picked up on the Solera method, and ex-sherry barrels, to produce Diligencias. This is based on reposado tequila aged for a year in 500-litre sherry barrels, from which 75l is drawn once a year, and replaced with another 75l of reposado.

The appeal of single-barrel tequila, is that no two are ever the same. Porfidio’s añejo, Cactus, matures in new medium-charred American oak for one to three years, whenever each barrel reaches its apotheosis.

Using agave from a single field is the forté of 1800 Coleccion, a super-duper premium launched in 1997 by José Cuervo. Only two barrels – aged for two years in new French oak – are released annually. Want to try it? Cult London bar Che sells a 50ml shot for a cool £100. And it sells well – Che emptied seven bottles in 1999. Tequila has achieved a far more worldly profile than mezcal, which has retained a rustic chic. Various technical elements distinguish the two: espadin is the preferred variety of agave – roasted in a wood-fired oven rather than steamed, explaining its more pungent smokey, spicy character. Ironically, its accessory, the ‘worm’, has given it an identity. The gusano (worm) is actually the larvae of the Mexican night butterfly, which only takes off at night, laying eggs on the leaves of young agave plants. Larvae head straight for the heart – their staple diet.

Adding a worm is an historic practice in the state of Oaxaca, source of the finest mezcal. It may stem from Aztec priests, who added a worm to pulque (fermented agave sap) – a symbolic way of endowing the pulque with a ‘living spirit’. They believed that intoxication through pulque elevated the mind onto a spiritual plane and provided a direct line to the gods, particularly Mayahuel, goddess of agave. A more practical explanation dates from the 1800s, when innkeepers often adulterated spirits – a bottle containing a preserved worm was proof that the alcohol was of appropriate strength. The worm also has a reputation as an aphrodisiac, which may simply reflect its suggestive shape. Beyond its symbolic qualities, another issue is whether the worm contributes any flavour. ‘Of course it does!,’ says the pro-lobby. A vital statistic quoted to support this is the worm’s 80% protein content, which metamorphoses into sweetness on the palate and bouquet. ‘Really?,’ says the opposition, asserting its futility. But a growing band of premium mezcals, such as single-village rarities and styles distilled from wild agaves such, are dropping the gusano.Another variety of agave, the sotol, yields a spirit of the same name. Drier and earthier than tequila and mezcal, sotol is a speciality of Chihuahua, where it grows wild between the pine forests of the Sierra Madre and the desert’s high plains.

Tequilla: distilled knowledge

According to regulations established by Mexico’s government in 1976, tequila is only made from blue agave cultivated in the state of Jalisco, certain municipalities in the neighbouring states of Guanajuato, Michoacan and Nayarit and Tamaulipas (on the Gulf of Mexico). It gained denomination of origin status in the EC in 1997 (following the USA in 1976). So the multipyling, often non-agave, Euro pseudo-tequilas, trading off tequila’s flamboyant image, were outlawed. A ‘succulent’ plant, not a cactus, blue agave takes eight to 10 years to mature and can store water up to 95% of its total weight. Harvesting entails removing the plant’s incredibly tough, sword-like leaves (pencas) to reveal the heart, the piña, at 60–100kg. The piñas are chopped and steam cooked (converting the starch into sugar). The traditional oven is adobe (mud combined with agave fibres or straw), brick or stone. The cooking time ranges from 24 to 48 hours, followed by a cooling off period of up to 24 hours, with the heat off, the oven doors closed. Exponents claim slower, gentler cooking yields more sugar and less methanol. The modern alternative is an autoclave, a vast stainless steel vat that cooks under pressure in about 12 hours, followed by a cooling off for several more. Critics say this is not as thorough a process, while the autoclave brigade claim it is more efficient.

Cooked piñas are milled (shredded) and the sugars extracted by running jets of cold water through the pulp. This yields aguamiel (honey water), which is drawn off and fermented by adding yeast. Commercially prepared yeast is the norm, while some distillers use fermented agave must from a previous batch, similar to bourbon’s ‘sour mash’ method. Tequila is double distilled using pot stills, and either bottled or barrelled at 38–55% abv. Blanco is unaged, reposado is aged for two to 11 months, while añejo spends at least one year in oak. The spirit is increasingly enjoyed neat because there really are so many flavours to enjoy, while it also enjoys a superlative status through the Margarita – officially the world’s most popular cocktail!

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