Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Agave: The cause of, and solution to, all of life's problems

I'm sitting on my couch, emotionally bruised and battered since my last post, a star-crossed manifesto intended to muster my local heroes on the field of battle. Alas, the outcome was beyond opposite of what I had hoped, hanging my high-spirited braggadocio out to dry; an eternal reminder of what could-have-been, gone awry, committed to the annals of cyberspace.

Last Saturday's demise of the Atlanta Falcons put me in a funk that required a few days cowering from the public eye (barely, in regards to this blog). With a humble heart, and a tip of the cap to the Green Bay Packers, I've decided it is time to move on. As George Harrison once sang, "all things must pass..."

Or I could be wrong about all this "needing a moment" malarky that kept me away. It might have been Tequila.

No, not Tila Tequila. I'm allergic to penicillin, thus, I'm allergic to Tila Tequila.

Ah, there we go. Tequila, the pride of México. The ultimate manifestation of the humble (yet imposing) agave plant. The shot of choice, called upon in both situations a man most often encounters: the impetus of a bachelor party and the crushing pain of fandom. I fell into the latter category a few days ago.

Traditionally- in the States- slammed with a bit of salt and a wedge of lime or lemon, tequila has a bad reputation as the hangover culprit...most often earned through the fact (yes, fact) that one never takes just one tequila shot. They just seem to multiply. It's sort of like the Biblical story of the loaves and fishes, except in a bar, and you're there, and you're drunk. Jesus is probably there too, and he's disappointed in you. But he forgives you. I'm thinking Jesus is pretty good like that. Or maybe it's just some biker with long hair and a beard. Yep, just like that, you've drank too much tequila. It happens that way every time.

Usually in these instances, we're slugging back well-brand blanco, the most simple (and often, lowest quality) style of tequila. Like wine, not all of it is created equal, and this south-of-the-border tipple may be a victim of unfair representation.

"Tequila" is made from the distilled juice of the blue agave plant, a sort of pineapple/yucca/cactus-looking thing that is high in natural sugars. It's name comes from the town of Tequila in the Mexican state of Jalisco. All true tequila must come from Jalisco. Production laws are vaguely similar to France's AOC and Italy's DOC in this regard. Any bottle marked "tequila" has to contain at least 51% blue agave spirit, with the remaining fermented spirit coming from other sugars. The exception is any bottling labeled "100% Agave", which must contain all spirits from the pulp of the plant. The higher-quality stuff is often labeled and produced this way, and it's probably not what you were knocking back with the gang at Horny O'Sullivan's the other night. Regardless, all levels are often distilled to a high alcoholic content, then diluted with water to finish around 80 proof (40% alcohol by volume). At all quality levels, flavorings and coloring agents may be added, unless this has changed since my 1997 copy of Bartending for Dummies hit the bookshelves.

Aging, however, is really the differentiator. There are 5 levels of tequila, based mostly on such requirements:

Blanco or Plata - meaning "white" or "silver", respectively, this clear stuff is usually bottled right after distillation with no aging. In some cases, it receives no more than 2 months aging in neutral oak barrels or stainless steel.

Oro or Joven - "gold" or "young". A blend of blanco and reposado tequilas.

Reposado ("rested") - aged no less than 2 months, but no more than 1 year in oak barrels (of any size).

Añejo ("aged") - this tequila spends no less than 1 year, but no more than 3 years, in small (no larger than 600 liters) oak barrels.

Extra Añejo ("ultra aged") - aged no less than 3 years in small oak barrels. This is a relatively new category, established in 2006.

As with wine, oak aging mellows the spirit, imparts flavors, and adds complexity. Different levels of usage, toasting, etc. create unique flavors and aromas. Some producers even employ old barrels that were used to age whiskey, scotch, etc.

Some of the finest tequilas can be totally enjoyable sipped neat, or with an ice cube or two. The experience is certainly a far cry from hugging your toilet seat at 3 AM...

Not that I was doing that the other night. It went more like this, as I recall:

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