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How to Choose a Good Tequila

Tequila 101: A Basic Primer

From margaritas to body shots, tequila has played an unforgettable role in America's drinking history. But let's face it: how much do you really know about this spirit? I'll be the first one to admit: I knew nada.

Thankfully, Ryan Fitzgerald, tequila expert and bar manager at Beretta, led me through a crash course on tequila, complete with flight tastings and all. Two hours later, I felt equipped with all the knowledge I needed to dive right into tequila appreciation: where it comes from, the way it's made, and how to taste it.

  • Tequila must come from one of five regions within Mexico: parts of Guanajuato, Michoacán, Nayarit, Tamaulipas, and the predominant region, Jalisco.
  • There are exceptions, but as a general rule of thumb, most of the quality tequilas out there are made of 100 percent blue agave and will say so on the label. Those that don't specify this may contain other fermentable sugars, such as corn syrup, in addition to agave.
  • Tequila is technically a mezcal, a distilled alcoholic beverage derived from the maguey plant. Not all mezcals are tequilas.
  • Tequila is made by harvesting the blue agave plant, then cooking the heart of the agave in an oven or autoclave. A pulp is created, and the agave fibers are then separated from their juice. The hearts are then fermented (with or without the fibers). At this point, the fermented mix is distilled twice, maybe more (at least once in a copper pot still). Each distillation increases the alcohol content of the tequila. Then the tequila is aged in oak barrels for varying lengths of time.
  • To properly smell tequila without getting a whiff that's overpowered by alcohol, stick your nose into the glass, but breathe in (and out) through your mouth.
  • Tequila has four classifications based on age: blanco, which is aged in oak for zero to two months; reposado, which is aged two to 12 months; añejo, which is aged 12 months to three years and has a restricted barrel size; and the newest category, extra añejo, which is aged more than three years and has a maximum oak barrel size of 600 liters. As tequila ages, it becomes oakier and more mellow in flavor.

Do you consider yourself as well-educated about tequila as you are other spirits?

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