Is Tequila The World’s Most Misunderstood Spirit?
“Why is it that tequila is never equated with something that is labour-intensive and quality-driven?” asks Victoria Chow, a hint of exasperation in her voice. The question hangs in the air, and I take a closer look at the dizzying array of spirits laid out in front of us at The Woods, Chow’s cocktail bar in Central. It’s a Monday afternoon, but there appears to be a serious tasting session ahead of us—at least a dozen of the bottles have travelled back to Hong Kong from Mexico, where Chow and her team have just spent four days and four nights tasting their way through the states of Jalisco and Oaxaca, learning all there is to learn about the distilled agave spirits of tequila and mezcal.
Tequila may be the favourite of every Saturday night out, but the true expressions of the spirit are virtually unknown outside of Mexico and certain parts of the United States. Very few realise that tequila—which by definition must be made in a specified region near and around the city of Tequila, from 100 per cent blue agave—is simply a style of mezcal with a denomination of origin status. Chow found her lack of understanding of the spirit disconcerting, and so this April she took a journey across the globe to rectify it.
Her first stop was the town of Santiago de Tequila in Jalisco, the birthplace of tequila itself. With a population of just over 40,000, Tequila is a small community that has prospered thanks to José Cuervo, the industry’s dominating producer of tequila. The Cuervo family were the first to be given permission to produce tequila in 1795. Today, José Cuervo owns the sole luxury hotel property in the centre of Tequila—the Relais & Châteaux-rated Solar de las Ánimas—as well as a luxury train linking the state capital of Guadalajara with the town.
"The entire town [of Tequila] smells like roasted agave. You step out of your car and you’re immediately greeted with the scent of barbecuing fruit, a smoky sweetness that reminds me of roasted pineapples."—Victoria Chow
“The entire town smells like roasted agave,” recalls Chow. “You step out of your car and you’re immediately greeted with the scent of barbecuing fruit, a smoky sweetness that reminds me of roasted pineapples.” The art of appreciating tequila is far removed from the knock-them-back mentality that has pervaded drinking enclaves around the world. Chow describes how dotted around the city are simple street-side stalls heaving with buckets of citrus—lemons, limes, grapefruits—all to be crushed and served in wide clay cantarito mugs rimmed with a salt-and-pepper mixture, along with a generous slug of tequila from an impressive line-up of bottles.
“Tequila naturally goes with citrus and salt, but not in the way that people outside of Mexico have traditionally drunk it,” she says. “We met a lot of locals who would ask us whether it was true that we would do shots of tequila. They were aghast. To these people, tequila was not a joke.”
An agave plant, the foundation of all mezcal and tequila, requires a minimum of six years to reach maturity; most are harvested at year 10 or older. Suddenly, it seems almost perverse that a decade of work can be diminished in seconds. The sentiment is encapsulated in the phrase “sip it, don’t shoot it,” coined by California-born mezcal advocate Ron Cooper. Cooper is the founder of the Del Maguey brand, which represents multiple independent distilleries across Oaxaca, and he is often credited for bringing distilled agave into the American consciousness. For her journey onwards to Oaxaca, Chow connected with Cooper to witness what she called “the wild west” of mezcal production, far removed from the clean and cheerful scene of Tequila.
An agave plant, the foundation of all mezcal and tequila, requires a minimum of six years to reach maturity; most are harvested at year 10 or older. Suddenly, it seems almost perverse that a decade of work can be diminished in seconds.
“He greets us at the airport, greying man-bun and all, and although it’s only nine in the morning, he hands each of us a copita,” says Chow. “He brings out one of his top lines of mezcal, pours us each a full copita in the middle of the carpark, then drizzles half of it on the floor in the shape of a cross. It’s a dedication to the land from which the agave grows.”
Dozens of small palenque (distilleries) proudly make mezcal across the state of Oaxaca. “We witnessed how mezcal was made, in the most rustic way possible, where the piñas [agave hearts] are crushed with what looked like baseball bats,” Chow recalls. “We tasted mezcal warm from the stills, when it was at 60-70 proof before it was diluted.” Different expressions of the spirit abounded—even one that Cooper calls pechuga, in which a raw chicken is hung over the still. “They say it smooths out the flavours and brings a softness and tiny bit of a savoury character,” says Chow. “But if you talk to producers, there’s nothing they love more than just blanco, or ‘white’ mezcal. It’s their preferred form, the purest expression of the plant and terroir. It’s what they want to taste.”
It’s not surprising, considering that the rough terrain of Oaxaca is conducive to the growth of dozens of kinds of agave—among them an array of rare species that require an agonisingly long time to mature. Tobalá, a small and broad-leafed agave, grows under Mexican oak trees on high altitude slopes and takes at least 10-15 years to mature; its roots secrete a unique enzyme which are able to break down the granite in order to stabilise the plant on steep slopes. Wild tepeztate requires 25-35 years to mature. Its broad and wavy leaves can be seen hanging horizontally from rocky mountain cliffs, and is said to lend an intensely vegetal and herbal note to the mezcal it produces.
During this short but spirited trip, countless copitas were drained, each offering a different expression of the land. One moment sticks out to Chow in among all the tasting and exploration: when she arrived at the home of Florencio Carlos Sarmiento, a 90-something-year-old palenquero maestro. Dressed simply in a faded blue sweatshirt, he got out of his makeshift cot in the middle of the courtyard to greet his guests. Turning to Cooper, he passed on a message: “Please, tell our guests that this is a humble home, and we are only a humble farm. We are only farmers.”
Cooper insists that Sarmiento should be one of the wealthiest distillers in the country. “I don’t know what he does with all his money,” he told Chow, gesturing towards Sarmiento’s modest dwellings. They’re told that in his heyday, the old man would spend 14 days and 14 nights locked up in a room perfecting mezcal. “He’s an artist,” laughs Chow.
To Chow, mezcal is now more than just a product of Mexico. “It’s the story of their land,” she says. “It’s a story that has never been told. And it has made me want to tell more people about it.”
See also: A Food Lover's Guide to Tulum, Mexico