Tequila Crash Course -- Part I: Some Things to Know

Tequila is made by distilling a fermented liquid made from pressed agave piñas that have been roasted or steamed. The plants are harvested from the ground. The leaves are hacked off. The hearts are cooked and the sweet juices that escape during this process are captured (called the mieles dulces). Once the sugars are concentrated, the agave is shredded and pressed and the liquid captured is added to the tank where it is fermented. This is called the mosto. The rest of the process is just like single malt whisky. The mosto (or wort) is distilled twice on a pot still and the resulting spirit is tequila.

Agave is a plant that is native to the southwest United States and Central America. There are over 200 species of agave, but only the blue agave (agave azul) can be used in tequila production. Its high sugar content makes it a natural candidate for the fermentation of alcohol.

By law, tequila must be comprised of at least 51% agave spirit. A tequila that is distilled from 100% blue agave can claim this on its label. Any tequila not distilled from 100% blue agave is a mixto or blend. Much like blended whisky and single malt whisky differ, blended mixtos use both agave and sugar spirits, while 100% agave uses only the pure agave distillate. Currently there are no mixtos sold at K&L.

No one really knew there was such a thing as 100% agave tequila until 1983 when Chinaco hit the American market. Bob Denton and Marilyn Smith were the importers in Texas. Chinaco was twice as expensive as many of its competitors at the time, but the taste was enough to convince people of the difference. It was clean, pure, smooth, and nuanced. By the late 1980s, the "premium" tequila market began to take shape, comprised of other 100% agave tequilas.

The CRT (tequila regulatory council) was founded in 1994 by the Mexican government to help protect and foster the high-standards concerning premium tequila production. It is a board of farmers, distillers, bottlers, and merchants who work together on behalf of the industry. The CRT enforces the tequila NOM (Norma Oficial Mexicana) which is the set of guidelines and rules concerning tequila distillation: all distilleries must have a four-digit NOM number to designate the tequila's origin (yet there are some complications with this system as distilleries were allowed to use different NOM numbers to designate different brands). The CRT not only polices the industry, it also works to improve it with scientific studies and research on behalf of better production.

Tequila can be sold as blanco (unaged), reposado (aged two months to a year), añejo (aged one to three years), and extra añejo (aged more than three years).

Tequila is one of the few spirits that tastes distinctly like the product from which it is distilled (some others being fruit eau de vies, Calvados, and agricole rum). Like pear brandy or kirschwasser, the goal is to translate the flavor of the produce into the spirit itself -- hence, why better agave can result in a better tequila.

Some people think the fructans in cooked agave and ultimately tequila are much easier on the body than the sugars in other distilled spirits, creating a healthier buzz that's easier on our metabolism. That's why 100% pure agave tequilas are said to be better for hangovers, while mixto tequilas with their pure sugar distillates blended in can cause terrible symptoms the next day.

Just a few things to get your minds ready for the onslaught of information to come.

-David Driscoll


A Week of Tequila

Since I received so much positive feedback (mostly from non-vodka drinkers) about last week's vodka series, I decided I'd do the same thing this week with tequila. No other spirit has inspired me more over the last few months and no other drink has filled me with as much wonder and curiosity. This is mainly due to the advancements made in quality and production methods, mirroring many of the changes we've seen in the wine industry over the last two decades -- the same dynamic changes that inspired me to quit teaching to work in a wine shop. Wine appreciation has gone from merely enjoying the flavors of different grapes to understanding the influence of the land itself upon them -- terroir, as the French say. Part of the fun comes from knowing that only grapes grown in this particular type of soil, in this particular climate, in this particular part of the world can taste this way. That is, as long as the vintner doesn't fuck everything up by adding all kinds of new oak and designer yeasts during fermentation.

The idea of minimalist wine making, or "hands off" production, has become very fashionable over the past five years; stemming from the mindset that we should do as little as possible to alter the pure flavor within the grape itself. Look at Burgundy, for example, where grapes from one plot of land might cost ten times as much as grapes from another -- despite only being fifty yards apart on the same hillside. There are vineyard maps, geographical documents, and soil charts that point out which parcels have the potential for greatness and decide which wines are superior -- before the wine has even been made!! And this is all concerning a fruit that grows not under the ground, but on the vine -- far above the soil itself. The terroir is said to make its way into the grape via the roots and the stems, ultimately expressing itself within the juice.

Terroir is a tough sell to many wine customers already, let alone spirits consumers. The idea of geography and climate playing such an important role in a wine's flavor is sweeping and romantic, but suspicious if it results in a higher price tag. "I'm paying an extra $10 a bottle to taste earth?" When you distill that flavor out of the wine and into a brandy that spends twenty years in French oak, terroir isn't only tough to sell, it's also difficult to taste under all that wood. Terroir in whiskey? Good luck. Terroir in rum? Not when you're distilling from molasses. But what about tequila? Blanco tequila specifically. Not only does tequila come from a plant that grows in the ground, but more importantly, from a piña that actually grows within the ground. The agave piña itself spends six to eight years developing its flavors within various types of soils: rocky, gravelly, volcanic, mineral-rich. It might be said that an agave plant, even more so than a grape, is prone to flavors of terroir due to its actual, physical contact with the tierra itself.

I've already begun the dialogue about terroir and tequila this week by spending an hour on the phone with Siembra Azul's David Suro -- a man who strongly believes in agriculture's role within the flavor and quality of a tequila. That conversation is available to everyone via our podcast archive. However, I'm still looking for more clarity. How exactly does terroir affect the specific flavors of a tequila? What exactly makes an agave piña fruity, floral, spicy, peppery, or tangy? How can consumers use this information to help them choose a tequila that speaks to them? More importantly, why should anyone care about terroir in tequila in the first place? By shedding some more light on the producers who are actively working to express the intricate flavors of their agave, I think we can understand how the industry itself has developed to this point and where it still might take us.

Stay tuned!

-David Driscoll


We Know You've Been Waiting Patiently

The Bay Area's most popular gin is back for round three. How does this one stack up against the last two?

Faultline Gin Batch #3 $34.99 -- How does one follow up two of the most popular batches of gin ever sold in the history of K&L? It's been tough coming up with that act. Even my own mother was trying to exert her parental influence, hoping to convince Dave Smith and I to do a second batch of Batch #2 -- our lovely smoked citrus peel delight. We held fast, however, determined to make each batch of Faultline a one-time-only edition in the name of soldiering forward towards new flavors and new ideas. We originally began the blueprint of Batch #3 with melon in mind. We wanted to make a softer, rounder, fruitier style of gin, but two things happened that prevented this approach: our melon distillates left a lot to be desired and Tanqueray resurrected their similarly-styled Malacca gin. Dave and I went back to the drawing board. Both of us have been trying to create a grapefruit aperitif for the past year so we had a well of grapefruit spirit to take from. Dave had also finished a batch of clove-macerated spirit that might pair quite well with the citrus. A few gin-soaked nights later we had the right balance - lot's of grapefruit, highlighted with the bright, herbaceous note of fresh clove and accented with pepper and juniper. It's still gin and tonic season in the Bay Area, so this should take us through October. Try mixing a Greyhound or Corpse Reviver #2 as well. You'll be pleased.

-David Driscoll


K&L Spirits Journal Podcast #26 – David Suro

I first met David Suro a little more than a month ago when he visited K&L on behalf of his tequila brand Siembra Azul. We were supposed to meet for about ten minutes, taste through the portfolio, and go about our days. Over an hour later, David and I were still talking in the tasting bar about the agriculture of agave, the history of distillation, and the possibility of creating a terroir-based map of Jalisco's agave fields. David represents his Siembra Azul tequilas in the same way that I want to sell tequila at K&L: armed with information concerning where the agave plants were sourced, how they were harvested, how they were fermented, how they were distilled, and ultimately how all of these factors impact flavor. If you're even remotely interested in tequila, this might be the conversation that lights a fire under your feet and sends you on your own educational journey. David Suro is quite a fountain of information. We talk geography, production, and the possibility of changing the world's known history of distillation with recent discoveries in Colima.

You can listen to the podcast via the embedded media player above or by downloading the episode here. You can also download the episode via our iTunes directory. Previous episodes are archived on Libsyn and can be found using the link on the right-hand margin of the blog.

More information about David's Siembra Azul products can be found on his website here. K&L carries all three tequilas:

Siembra Azul Blanco Tequila $37.99

Siembra Azul Reposado Tequila $42.99

Siembra Azul Añejo Tequila $49.99

-David Driscoll


Too Connected?

A few days ago a friend sent me an email saying that whiskey was getting to be like concert tickets (an analogy I've made before concerning price increases, but never availability), in that you can never get the seats you want before the scalpers buy them all up and sell them for triple the price. I thought about that for a few minutes and replied back in agreement. But then I thought about that a bit more.

My wife mentioned that The Breeders were playing at the Fillmore this week and that maybe we should go. I checked last minute -- sold out. That seemed rather crazy to me. I saw The Breeders numerous times back in the 1990s and never had any problems getting a ticket. In fact, often they were simply opening for another band, like Primus or Sonic Youth, and most people would be getting a drink while they played. Then I thought further about that. I really never had a problem getting a ticket for anything back in the 90s. I simply got to the Ticketmaster outlet early, waited in line, got my seats, and went about my day. Usually there wasn't much competition either because, without the internet, you had to be pretty devout to know the onsale dates.

Today is a different story, however. Today you've gotta get online, login, and press your mouse button quickly to snag seats for anything -- and that's just to get the seats that are left over after Amex Rewards members and corporate CEOs snag the first ten rows. But that's not really my issue. In the case of The Breeders, this was a general admission show in a fairly large venue. There should have been plenty of space, even last minute for this show. Yet the floor was completely sold out. Rock and roll music has always been popular and going to concerts isn't some fun new activity; however, I'm starting to feel as if more people are going to concerts than ever before. I'm feeling that way because shows that shouldn't be hard to get into are suddenly a major event (even for little independent acts at Bottom of the Hill, or Slim's).

This exact same phenomenon is happening with whiskey right now. Whiskies that were never popular before are suddenly becoming hot items. I remember wondering what to do with leftover bottles of Old Forester Birthday Bourbon five years ago. Now I'm getting ten emails a day asking about when we'll get this year's allocation. Why are people wondering about the OFBB? And why are The Breeders suddenly selling out concerts fifteen years after they were in their prime? The internet. There's nothing like instant information to help create a bigger demand.

It's no coincidence that my spike in Old Forester requests coincided with the release of several favorable blog reviews of this year's release. The internet's impact on whiskey's demand is completely correlated, just like the ease of Robert Parker's pointed reviews (pun intended) helped to increase the consumption of wine. After reading a positive review people suddenly want something they never knew they wanted before. Before whiskey blogs became a big deal the general public didn't really know specifically what they should be looking for. Now they do, which sucks for the people who genuinely want these things. Instead of being able to simply do what it is you've until now taken for granted, you're now being forced to compete with thousands of casual interests -- as in "I've never heard of the Old Forester Birthday Bourbon before, but now it sounds like I should get one."

I did a search for "The Breeders" and, of course, I found an article literally called "Go Do This" -- a San Francisco-centered site for people looking for something cool to do. Now it all made sense. What should we do tonight? We should see The Breeders! Apparently this is the cool thing to do in San Francisco, so we need to be there. What should we be drinking this week? What should we be wearing this summer? Where should we eat tomorrow? Look it up on the internet because there's an answer! This is the reason why you have to wait an hour to eat brunch at the most-reviewed Yelp cafes. This is the reason you can't get tickets to the Book of Mormon. This is the reason I couldn't go see The Breeders last week. And, yes, this is the reason you'll likely have a tough time getting a bottle of Birthday Bourbon from K&L this year.

The internet is telling people what to do and people are listening. Sure, we can get information with ease, but now that info is finding its way to a much larger audience. Facebooking, Tweeting, Instagraming, and blogging. We're all responsible for our own frustrations.

-David Driscoll