The tax-free travel guide to tequila ....
Tequila is undeniably the bad boy of the spirits world. Many a good night out has been ruined by the sight of a waitress wearing a shot-glass cross belt sidling over to your table and shouting over the loud rock music: “Tequila slammer, boys?” Answer “yes”, and the rest of the evening is going to get messy. It is also unlikely that you will ever see a tequila bottle again and not feel just a little bit queasy.
Many peoples’ first experience of tequila is a bad one. We’ve all heard the old joke: “One tequila, two tequila, three tequila, floor!” The drink’s association with shots, debauched student parties and ritualistic, shot-oriented drinking games continues to hamper the drink’s image away from its native heartland in Mexico. This is a big shame because in recent years there has been a huge increase in the number of quality of tequilas available in the marketplace, and this distinctive tasting spirit can make some truly excellent, summery cocktails.
There are a lot of misconceptions about tequila, which we are more than happy to put right. Firstly, tequila is not made from a cactus plant despite the fact that green, cartoon-like cacti adorn many a cheap bottle of this pungent spirit. Tequila is in fact made from the slow-growing agave plant, which is actually a member of the lily family. The huge, starchy heart of the plant, which is known as the piña, is what tequila distillers use to cook, mash and then distil into what we know as tequila.
On to myth number two: you will never, ever find a worm in a bottle of tequila. That worm is actually a larva and is added to some cheaper bottles of mescal not tequila. (Nobody quite knows the reason why worms are added, by the way). Mescal is fierier, smokier spirit than its more refined cousin, and is made from a variety of agave plants. It is distilled just once whereas tequila is generally distilled twice for a smoother flavour. Mexican law also states that tequila has to be produced in the state of Jalisco.
Lastly, drinking tequila is not a sure fire way to wake up with the hangover from hell. Sure, if you drink copious amounts preceded by umpteen glasses of wine or beer, the next morning it will indeed feel like a woodpecker has taken up residence inside your skull. Yet drunk in moderation, tequila is no worse or better than any other white spirit.
Many people’s bad experiences with tequila can be traced back to the fact that they were drinking shots of cheap ‘mixto’ tequila, which is only required to contain 51% agave sugars. The rest is made up of sugar cane spirit and often nasty, hangover-inducing additives. In contrast, the good stuff is made from 100% blue agave, and it is worth looking out for it on the bottle label. It will cost you more, of course, but that’s because processing the heavy agave plants is much more expensive and time-consuming than sugar cane.
Tequila is not aged for anything like as long as Scotch whisky. In fact white (blanco) or silver (plata) tequilas are bottled pretty much straight off the still rather like vodka. Higher up the price ladder, ‘reposado’ tequilas are aged up to one year in oak barrels, while ‘añejo’ tequilas are aged one year and over. Silver tequilas are ideal for mixing in cocktails, while the best reposado and añejo tequilas can be sipped neat like a good Cognac or single-malt whisky.
Outside of Mexico tequila is still a poorly represented product category in most airport duty-free shops. Of course, the big brands such as Sauza and José Cuervo will occupy a spot on the white spirits shelves, but travellers are unlikely to find too many other tequilas to tempt them. One excellent, but expensive brand they may find, however, is Patrón tequila, which has been expanding fast into travel-retail over the past years.
Backed by wealthy American owners and drunk by Hollywood stars, Patrón prides itself on its quality-driven production process and its stylish, hand-blown bottle. Even the brand’s cheapest line, Patrón Silver, will still set you back about $40 a bottle, while the top-of-the-range Gran Patrón Burdeos, which is finished in Bordeaux wine barrels, won’t give you much change from $400. Ouch!
Another luxury tequila travellers may stumble on is Don Julio, whose British owner (Diageo) also has the likes of Johnnie Walker whisky and Smirnoff vodka in its brand family. Expect to pay around $60 for the critically acclaimed añejo, while the top-of-line, straw-coloured Don Julio 1942 is complex and refined thanks to at least two and a half years in the barrel. It boasts a distinctively peppery kick, and will set you back about $125 a bottle.
Unsurprisingly, North American airports have a better selection of tequilas than their European counterparts, but the best selections are found at the big Mexican airports such as Mexico City
. Here every gift store at these hubs seems to have its own selection of tequilas and the range on offer is amazing. Many brands such as the wonderful, triple-distilled Milagro boast attractively decorated bottles, but do please ensure you are buying 100% agave.
Other tequilas to look out for on your Mexican travels? Well, if money is no option, keep an eye out for Gran Centenario Leyenda Extra Añejo, which is likely to fetch over $200 a bottle. Matured for an amazing 15 years this beautifully packaged tequila has a great depth of flavour. If it’s a versatile cocktail mixer you are after, try the sharp, lively Tesoro Blanco, while the classic, award-winning Herradura Reposado is in our opinion a good value all-rounder.
If you can’t wait to get home to fix up a margarita, look out for the José Cuervo Tequileria outlets at many US and Mexican airports. We can’t vouch for the routine Tex-Mex fare they dish up, but hey, at least they serve genuine Mexican tequila. At Las Vegas McCarran
and New York JFK Terminal 7
you can also find a tequila-dominated drinks list at Sammy’s Beach Bar & Grill, which is owned by Cabo Wabo tequila producer and rock star Sammy Hagar.
Once you get your prized bottle of tequila home don’t let it collect dust on the shelf. Forget the old salt-and-lemon slammer treatment. Try something altogether classier. The iconic margarita cocktail of tequila, triple sec and freshly squeezed lime makes for a perfect sundowner alongside some salty snacks. Then there is the Tequila Sunrise, Long Island Iced Tea…the list goes on and on.
As for cheaper mixto tequilas, try marinating beef or chicken in tequila the next time you make fajitas like they do in Mexico. Tequila and lime sorbet makes for a refreshing dessert, and the next time you need a thirst-quenching drink on a hot day, why not try mixing a glass of ice-cold beer with shots of tequila and lime cordial? Whatever you do, just leave the shot glasses back in the drinks cupboard!