For the upcoming NW Tequila Fest on August 24th, the Crave Local team was sent to learn how to taste tequila – correctly. And it was one of the best classes ever, with our teacher, Clayton Szczech of Experience Tequila, fresh in from Guadalajara, and Little Water Cantina as the classroom, with tequila punch and amazing appetizers to go with the tasting.
Clayton started us off with a large amount of information about the process of making tequila, which he said was one of the most highly regulated in the world. First, tequila refers to a region, the Denomination of Origin for the spirit; agave, the raw material; and the highly controlled process of making the drink itself. Agave plants take 6-10 years to reach maturity, after being planted in June or July at the start of the rainy season then never watered again. This is also when the regulatory process begins, as each individual crop is registered, mapped, and monitored by an independent authority. And once the agave is ready to be harvested, the entire distillation must take place in the official tequila regions, which include Jalisco and four other areas in Mexico.
On to what you’re curious about: the tasting. First, we started by sampling raw agave, which is very similar to eating sugar cane: vegetal, sweet, and chewy, with a strong taste of molasses. (It’s apparently half fiber, 15% sugar, and 35% water, which explains the sweetness.)
There are two categories and five classes of tequila. There’s tequila, where the sugar source can be mixed, and 100% agave tequila. Clayton’s a supporter of the pure agave, which tastes better and is better for the tequila industry, which means we’ll continue to get better spirits for years to come. The five classes of tequila range from the blanco, or unaged, to extra-añejo, which is aged in oak for a minimum of three years. Blanco is the most traditional way to drink tequila, and is often undiluted with 55% alcohol, explaining that burn.
While the most commonly consumed type of tequila in Mexico now is the Reposado, which is aged in oak for two months, Clayton implored us to not write off blancos, which are rare for unaged spirits with their subtlety. They’re a great way to get started in tequila tasting.
Now, here’s how to taste:
First, make sure your glass is right for tequila tasting. It should be tall, with lots of room for air. Don’t agitate the tequila, but you can swirl it gently. A good tequila should have enough friction and body to stick to the glass, which is a sign of fermentation.
Smell the tequila. Angle the glass so you can place your nose in it. Breathing through your mouth, take in the vapors, much like tasting wine. Start low in the glass and work your way up, so you can see how the vapors change: they should get more herbal.
For the first sip, you’re clearing the palate. Take a tiny amount in your mouth and swirl it along your gums and palate. (It may look ridiculous, but that’s okay.)
For the next sip, you’re tasting. Inhale, hold that breath, then take a sip, swirl it on your tongue a few times, then exhale. You should have less burn this time, and more of the taste.
Repeat all the above steps for each tequila you try.
Also: Never shoot tequila, which removes the ability to actually taste it.
Now you can apply all these skills yourself at the NW Tequila Fest. Remember: once you’re there, there’s no rush. This is one of the best times to ask the makers questions, and these are spirits to be savored. Still, it’s a good idea to make a game plan before you go. The agave list is already up on Facebook, and there will be buckets if you’d like to do a proper tasting. Since most likely your palate will become fatigued at 5-6 tastes, it’s a great way to enjoy a sunny day in Seattle. Just don’t ask for a shot.