15 seconds of fame…

by Michael Alderete on 5/5/2007 · 2 comments

I accidentally got into the San Francisco Chronicle this week. The Sipping News includes a couple of photos, including one of the lovely Rebecca Chappa demonstrating perfect tequila drinking technique:

And there I am, directly beneath the wristwatch on the pouring arm.

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Tequila 101

by Michael Alderete on 11/25/2003

About a year ago, I was sitting in a bar waiting for a friend to arrive, eavesdropping on the conversation at a nearby table. Mostly I listened to one fellow trying to impress his table companions by making a sophisticated tequila order. He was having more than a little trouble, because he couldn’t remember the brand of any quality tequila except Patrón. The waiter was trying to help, but he was using tequila terms correctly, and the customer just had no clue. I thought about stepping in, flashing my Ph.D. card, and trying to help, but decided the guy was beyond saving. He eventually managed to order “Patron Gold” (there is no such thing; presumably the waiter brought him Patrón Reposado or Añejo), and as the server walked away, he said to his companions “that guy doesn’t know shit about tequila.”

Sadly, his level of knowledge is pretty common, even in states like California where a lot of tequila is imported and consumed. It’s not hard to learn enough to always get a quality drink, but it requires a bit more effort to impress your companions, or the waitstaff.

Before posting more about our trip to the tequila region of Mexico, I thought I would describe a few of the basics of tequila. This is by no means an exhaustive list of what you might want to know about tequila; if you want to learn more, you need to start visiting Tommy’s Mexican Restaurant on a regular basis. Sit in the bar, and talk with Julio Bermejo, one of the world’s “tequila ambassadors.” But this will get you started.

First of all, tequila is a denomination of origin spirit, one of two in North America (the other is mescal). This means that to be legally labeled as tequila, the spirit must be produced in a particular geographic region, primarily the state of Jalisco in Mexico, but also including a few smaller areas nearby. Other denomination of origin spirits you might be familiar with are Scotch (the denomination of origin version of whiskey) and Cognac (known as brandy if not made in the right part of France).

Agave plantTequila is made from a particular plant, agave tequilana weber, blue variety. While many people mistakenly think the agave is a form of cactus, it’s actually closely related to the lily. It looks something like a large aloe vera plant.

Quality tequila is made from 100% agave, and will say so on the label (it’s a mark of pride and quality), but the law allows products labeled tequila to be made from as little as 51% agave, with the rest coming from unspecified sugars (usually sugar cane).

Tequila production, like other well-known denomination of origin spirits, is heavily regulated, with government oversight to ensure adherence to the rules. This is A Good Thing. A few years ago there was a severe agave shortage, and many less reputable distilleries were not using 100% agave to make their tequila. The CRT inspectors, who make daily visits to the distillerias, actually measure the volume of agave delivered to the plant, and when production significantly exceeds the expected amount for that volume they know something’s fishy.

The process of making tequila goes something like this:

  1. Harvest agaveHarvest agave plants. Quality producers harvest individual plants at the height of their maturity, i.e., when they are 8-10 years old. Harvesting kills the plant. (Tequila is the only spirit where the raw materials do not renew easily and grow every year, year after year.)
  2. Cook in autoclaveCook the agave. Almost all of the highest quality tequila is cooked in traditional stone ovens called hornos; the more commerically-oriented technique is to use a giant steam pressure cooker called an autoclave. The cooking process converts the agave starches to sugars. This can be done in as little as 12 hours in autoclaves, but generally is a 36 hour or longer process in a traditional hornos.
  3. Extract juicesExtract the agave juice, called aguamiel. The traditional approach uses a giant stone milling wheel; it’s roughly 30% less efficient than more modern techniques that use motors, gears, steel rollers, etc. Quality tequila can be made using either technique, but the difference is a lot like “first press” olive oil or “first crush” wine. All other things being equal, the higher quality result will be achieved by being a little more gentle, and accepting some loss in efficiency.
  4. Ferment the sugars. Yeast is added to large vats or tanks of extracted agave juice, and it ferments, converting the sugars to alcohol. Eventually the increasing alcohol level kills the yeast, and fermentation ends. Fermentation produces an alcohol level of 5-7%, about the same as beer.
  5. DistillationDistillation. In the traditional batch-oriented process, pot stills are used to purify and raise the alcohol level of the product. The fermented juice is distilled once to become ordinario, which is around 20% alcohol (40 proof), and tastes pretty foul raw. It’s distilled a second time to become tequila, at 45% alcohol (90 proof) or greater. High-volume production is done with something called a column still, which isn’t a proper still at all. Tequila produced with a column still is always inferior to product coming from traditional stills; no quality tequila is made with column stills. Note that what comes out of the still is higher in alcohol content than what you’ll find in the bottle. Most products are dilluted with water to adjust the alcohol percentage as necessary, down to 40% (80 proof).
  6. Aging (optional). Some tequilas are aged in oak tanks or barrels, to add color and complexity to the flavor of the spirit. More on aging further down.

The next thing to know is that there are four major categories of tequila, which generally correspond to increasing levels of quality:

  • Joven abogado, which means “young and adulterated”. This is never good tequila. It’s not 100% agave (the “abogado” part), and it’s not aged (“joven”). This is stuff like Cuervo Gold/Especial/1800. This kind of tequila is often called mixto, meaning it’s a mixture of agave and other sugars (mixto says nothing about the aging, however). Just Say No.
  • Blanco, or unaged tequila. Blanco means white, and a true blanco is crystal clear, with no color at all. It is tequila straight out of the still (cut with water if necessary to bring the alcohol down to 80 proof). Many tequila connoisseurs drink only blanco tequilas, because they are closest to the “pure” flavors of the agave plant. A very few blancos, mostly Herradura Silver, actually see a little time in oak. This gives them a bit of color, adds some flavor and complexity, and can cut the harshness that is common with blancos. Blancos are sometimes called plata as well.
  • Large aging vatReposado, or “rested” tequila. Reposado tequilas have been aged in oak containers for a minimum of 60 days, up to nearly a year. There is no limit on the size of the oak container, and for some volume products like Sauza Hornitos, they are aged in giant oak vats. Better tequila is aged in smaller 55 gallon barrels, the same size used for aging wine, and for longer than the minimum, usually 6-9 months. The oak can be new, or more commonly, used bourbon barrels from the US or Canada. Aging mellows the tequila a bit, and adds color and complexity.
  • Añejo or aged tequila. Añejo tequilas must be aged for a minimum of 12 months (but 18 months or more for the better quality tequilas), and the oak containers may not be too giagantic (not over 600 gallons, but again, 55 gallon barrels are best). The extra time and contact with wood imparts a stronger oak flaver to the tequila, deepens its color, and smooths it out considerably. Añejo tequilas are almost always the most expensive, but this is a factor of the time and storage space it takes to make añejo as much as it is a factor of quality. Still, all of the super-premium tequilas, like Cuervo’s Reserva de Familia, Herradura’s Seleccion Suprema, or San Matias’ Rey Sol, are añejos. (I am extremely partial to Rey Sol in particular.) Even these products are aged only to 5-6 years (compared to many times longer for some other spirits).

The most important thing about this list is that, while these categories generally correlate with increasing quality as you move down the list, it’s not guaranteed. You must still look for the “100% Agave” on the label, even on añejo tequilas!

Another important thing about this list is that you don’t see any of the marketing terms that people confuse with descriptive terms. I.e., you don’t see “gold”, “silver”, or (these days) “platinum”. Those are marketing terms; they mean nothing about the quality of the tequila, and tell you only what the manufacturer wants you to think about their product. Non-100% agave tequilas can contain other sugars, so often caramel coloring is added to make the product look like it was aged for longer than it was; this is where the “Gold” almost always comes from.

I’ll stop here, and save some more information, recommendations, and margarita tips for another post. And then, maybe, I’ll write more about our trip to Mexico, and the psychopath tequila fiends we went with.

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Tequila Hostage Crisis 2003

by Michael Alderete on 10/28/2003

Rochelle and I just returned from 11 days in the state of Jalisco in Mexico, touring the tequila region. We went with a group of like-minded tequila enthusiasts, and were lead (I use the term loosely) by the manager of the bar at Tommy’s Mexican Restaurant, the best place to drink tequila in the United States.

The entire group of us referred to the trip as the Tequila Hostage Crisis 2003, because of the fluid nature of our schedule, and because it was a train that once you got on, you couldn’t get off. In the five official days of the tour we visited eight different tequila fabricas, were treated to the finest hospitality Rochelle and I have ever enjoyed, and drank an average of two bottles of tequila per person per day. (And yes, someone did end up in the hospital — but no one officially part of the tour.)

In addition to wonderful hospitality, all places we visited were amazingly generosity, in the form of gifts of tequila, or amazing prices on their products, or both. As a result, Rochelle and I ended up dragging home 35 bottles of tequila (and two bottles of Cuban “Puerto Rican” rum), packed into six different pieces of baggage (only two of which were checked), with zero breakage. Although we spent “only” US$500-600 on bottled tequila, the U.S. retail value of what we brought home is easily US$3000. Our five best bottles alone are worth more than a grand — if you can find them.

I’ll post more soon (in particular, I want to revisit my all you need to know post below), but for now I need a lot of sleep, and a lot of water and cranberry juice.

My liver hurts.

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Everything you need to know about ordering tequila

by Michael Alderete on 10/14/2003 · 1 comment

Rochelle and I have our Ph.D.s in tequila. Rochelle is even a Ninja Master. And by the end of the month, we’ll both be Demi-Gods. If I was going to distill down the things I’ve learned, I would pass along these three pieces of wisdom about selecting tequila to drink:

  1. If it isn’t 100% agave, it’s shit.

    By law, for a spirit to be called tequila, it must be at least 51% by volume made from fermented and distilled agave plants. The other 49% can be liquor made from any other sugar source, and is usually sugar cane. It’s that 49% that gives you the hella awful hangover — and it doesn’t make the tequila taste better, either.

    This adulterated “tequila” is called mixto. Any tequila that is 100% agave will say so on the bottle, prominently, because it’s a mark of quality. It tastes better, and it feels better the morning after. (Note: You need to see “100% agave” on the bottle, with your own eyes; many bartenders don’t know, or know wrong. We’ve actually been told “All tequilas are 100% agave. Trust me, I’m Mexican, I know.”)

    Those $2 tequila shooters the guys are doing at the next table over? The ones that are going to make them want to die the next morning? Mixto crap. And 999 times out of a thousand, it’s going to be Cuervo Gold, possibly the worst tequila that legally bears the name. Which brings us to…

  2. Avoid Jose Cuervo brand tequilas (unless you know what you’re doing).

    Jose Cuervo makes some very fine tequilas, in particular, their Reserva de Familia, and everything in the Gran Centenario line. But by sales volume, the vast majority of their tequila is mixto crap (see #1 above). It’s a rare bar that has the good stuff, and a very rare bar that doesn’t have the bad stuff.

    Worse, there’s standard and “premium” products under their brand. Cuervo Gold, you already know is mixto crap. Especial? Mixto crap. Cuervo 1800? Expensive mixto crap. You ask for a premium tequila, and a lot of bartenders are going to push 1800 at you. Your wallet’s lighter, but you’re still drinkin’ crap. Cuervo is ubiquitous and confusing, and therefore dangerous. Which brings us to…

  3. When in doubt, ask for Herradura.

    Herradura is the world’s largest brand of exclusively 100% agave tequilas. That is, Herradura is the largest brand of tequila that doesn’t have any mixto crap. While not as widely distributed as Cuervo, you can find Herradura in any bar with a decent tequila selection. If you order Herradura, you will always be drinking good tequila.

Now, this isn’t everything you might like to know about tequila, but it is enough to keep you from unknowingly ordering bad tequila ever again. If you want to learn more, come drink with us at Tommy’s Mexican Restaurant, the premier tequila bar on earth.

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by Michael Alderete on 8/14/2003

Rochelle is closing in on her Ninja degree in tequila, which is the optional degree that comes after the Ph.D. The Ninja degree is when you (a) have your Ph.D., and then (b) drink (yet another) 35 tequilas, neat — i.e., in a snifter, straight, not in a margarita or other cocktail. You don’t need a Ninja to become a Demigod, and indeed, fewer than a dozen people have achieved all four levels.

While we both got our Ph.D.s at the same time, Rochelle’s Ninja degree is coming about a year before mine will, as I just can’t drink more than one in a sitting. I have bad memories of bad tequila from my early 20s, that there’s just no doing away with.

At any rate, Rochelle will be graduating this Sunday. With our planned trip to Tequila, Mexico in late October, Rochelle is slated to become the latest person to achieve all four levels in the Tommy’s Blue Agave Club.

Woohoo! I’m proud of my baby!

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Ph.D. exams completed with flying colors

by Michael Alderete on 6/8/2003

As I described prior to our vacation, Rochelle and I have been working hard on our Ph.D. (in tequila), and had planned to take our final exam this past Sunday (June 1st). I’m pleased to report that we passed with flying colors.

The exam is a serious one — maybe not as tough as a real Ph.D. orals exam, but certainly equivalent of a college undergraduate final exam. 70 questions, multiple choice, true/false, and fill-in-the-blank; you must finish in 20 minutes, taking it at the bar, with the other patrons chanting at you.

Many of the questions are trick questions, and require you to know, for example, the difference between Herradura Silver and Herradura Blanco (at most distilleries, they are one and the same). No one has ever scored a 100% on the exam, and only one person has missed only one question. I missed two questions, and Rochelle missed three.

We studied hard for this exam. We bought two very good books on tequila, and read both (and you should see Rochelle’s color-coded page tabs!). Julio provides study material, and Rochelle and I each created a set of flash cards to study it. Although we didn’t do as much studying while we were on vacation as we had planned, it was basically all we did on Saturday and Sunday prior to taking the exam. We knew our flash cards cold, and the couple of the questions that were not in the study materials were either in the book, or had so annoyed our friend David (who took the text a couple months ago) that he kept repeating them, over and over, whenever he talked about his Ph.D. (quick, what was the original logo for Patrón tequila?).

We did end up taking the exam with a handicap. You only qualify to take the exam when you’ve completed your Ph.D. tasting card, which requires you to sample 35 100% blue agave tequilas while at Tommy’s (and you cannot sample more than three in a single visit). Before our vacation I was two visits away from finishing, and Rochelle was one. We had intended to go once before our trip, so that Rochelle could be done, and I would only have to have two tequilas before taking the test.

Well, we never made it there, and an hour before we headed to Tommy’s for the exam, we realized that Rochelle needed to drink two cocktails before taking her exam — and I had to drink five. That’s 10 ounces of tequila, folks.

Fortunately, we had three hours at the bar before we took the test, and Julio let me start the exam once my fifth cocktail was poured (so I had only drunk four), but even so, I was not even close to sober. So I suppose the fact that I didn’t remember the town where Chinaco tequila is made can be excused.

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Graduate education

by Michael Alderete on 5/17/2003

As many of you know, Rochelle and I have been involved in graduate studies for a couple years now, and we’re finally coming to the end of the program. We’ve been doing a lot of coursework, including extended exercises at home that are not required to graduate, but are required for complete mastery. Rochelle has just one class session left, while I have two, and then it’s just final exams for us.

We’re about to go on a short vacation, and are taking all our study materials with us. We’ll get home, and two days later take exams. Then we’ll get our Ph.D.s, and become eligible for field work with our favorite professor! If you can believe it, there’s actually a waiting list for volunteers for his trips, so it’ll probably be next year before we can head down to Mexico with him and do some original research.

There’s a short description of our program available online, if you’re interested in more details. Yes, it’s a Ph.D. in booze. What did you think we would be studying???

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Make margaritas, not war

by Michael Alderete on 3/2/2003

I’ll spare you the politics, and just say once again that we’re huuuuge fans of Tommy’s Mexican Restaurant, on Geary between 23rd and 24th. They have, hands down, game over, the best margaritas in the Bay Area, and probably in the United States. There’s more than 200 premium tequilas available, and a deep and abiding love for the spirit that makes you love it too.

Rochelle and I are spending most of our Sunday afternoons there between now and the end of May, working on our Ph. D. in tequila, timed for completion with Rochelle’s birthday. Come by and drink with us!

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