& The Independent on Sunday
Tequila: Get into the party spirit
There's more to tequila than margaritas
and slammers. Tim Wapshott hits the agave trail and learns
to savour the real thing
26 November 2009
Cleo Rocos is on a mission. She'd like to
teach the world the virtues of tequila. This year, she even
set up The Tequila Society to educate and encourage more of
us in the UK to get a taste for her favourite tipple. The
comedian may seem an unlikely ambassador for tequila, but
it is a quest she not only relishes but takes very seriously.
Last month she was officially named the
UK's Tequila Queen by the Mexican tequila chamber, which owns
and runs the country's long-established tequila industry.
Every few months she is a well-received visitor in Guadalajara,
the city at the heart of Mexico's tequila world.
"My love of tequila goes back 10 years,
to when I had my first sip of El Tesoro," she told me
as we set off for the dusty town of Arandas, an hour east
of the city, where several of Mexico's finest tequilas are
bottled. "I loved El Tesoro after my first taste, and
then got a thirst to try more and more tequilas. My favourites
are 100 per cent blue agave tequilas, made from the blue agave
plant for which the Arandas region is famous."
Most of us have probably tried mescal, which
technically cannot be called a tequila since it can be made
from any agave plant and produced and bottled outside the
country's designated tequila 'appellation' areas. Most mescal
boasts a signature worm in the bottom of the bottle –
plucked from the agave plants when they are being harvested.
The inclusion of the sodden worm in the bottle is simply a
It was not merely the taste of blue agave
tequila which seduced Rocos: "I found that I could drink
it without putting on weight or feeling bloated. In fact,
it's a digestive: I have always had a 'nervous' stomach, but
I find tequila very easy on the stomach."
Come rain, shine or influenza, tequila remains
one of Mexico's main earners and a staggering 74 per cent
of the country's tequila production is traditionally bound
for North America. The biggest consumers are California, its
neighbouring states and – perhaps not too surprisingly
– New Mexico. In Europe it is the Germans and us Brits
who are the biggest consumers of Mexican agave tequila and,
if Rocos gets her way, we could leave the Germans standing
in our level of consumption.
El Tesoro is one of the oldest that can
be officially dubbed a "100 per cent blue agave tequila".
It has always been bottled in the town of Arandas, along with
other well-established brands such as El Charro and Tezon.
Down the road from the impressive Arandas Cathedral, the El
Tesoro bottles roll out of the bottling plant just as they
have done for more than a century.
Now they do so under the watchful eye of
the the two sons of the founder, Don Felipe Camarena. Carlos
and Felipe Camarena continue the family tradition and also
produce the Tapatio and Tequila Ocho brands. The bottling
plant is literally awash with the spirit: the empty bottles
are rinsed out in tequila rather than water before being filled,
to make sure no impurities get in.
Tequila is brought to the plant from the
Camarenas' rural distillery, 20 minutes away by road. The
fields around Arandas are lined with rows of blue-green agave
plants and there are many things that will impact on the flavour
of the tequila they finally produce. The ideal soil for the
plants is red in colour, a sign that it is rich in iron oxide.
Each plant takes eight years to mature fully, but then they
must be quickly harvested otherwise they will start to rot.
Fully grown, a healthy blue agave plant
is about 5ft tall and 4-5ft round. Its spiky leaves are hacked
off to leave a large "nut" husk 1ft by 1.5ft long,
which looks almost like a giant pineapple. The nuts are stacked
in steaming huts where they are cooked for a day-and-a-half.
It is the intense steam that turns the starch into sugar,
The nuts are then taken out of the huts
and placed on a small thrashing production line that squeezes
out a sweet, brown nectar. This is stored in towering wooden
barrels that quickly start to ferment. "Yeast is a vital
part of the fermentation process of agave tequila, and most
Mexican distilleries are obsessively protective of their special
yeast formulas," says Rocos. "At the La Altena distillery
they are more relaxed, perhaps because their yeast formula
is practically impossible to replicate. Most of the Camarenas'
fermentation barrels have been in use for more than a century,
so that even after a thorough rinsing some of the living yeast
remains in the wood – and this springs back to life
whenever new agave juice is added."
"Some distilleries even play music
in the fermentation process," adds Carlos. "As yeast
is a living organism, it is thought that they enjoy the music.
But this is not something we have tried at La Altena."
The fermentation process lasts four or five
days and the resulting brown liquid is distilled to leave
ethanol – that is, the alcohol that humans can drink
safely. Then a second distillation process removes various
impurities, and the resulting tequila is barrelled up for
"The source and quality of the wood
for the barrels can dramatically affect the flavour,"
explains Cleo. They all tend to be made from oak, either American
or French ... As a rule of thumb, when American oak is used
it gives the tequila a vanilla flavour, but French oak delivers
a darker chocolatey taste."
"We prefer to use the same methods
that our father perfected," adds Carlos. "Automated
plants could turn around the harvesting-to-barrelling process
in just five days, but we don't like rushing things. After
all, we waited eight years for the agave plants to mature
so our thinking is, what's a few more days? Our process may
take us about 10 days – but we believe the results are
worth that extra wait!"
Apart from promoting The Tequila Society
(www.thetequilasociety.co.uk), Rocos is also about to start
importing a number of tequilas into the UK via her company
Tequilas of Mexico. Her visits to Mexico nowadays involve
endless meetings with small, family-owned tequila makers at
all hours of the day.
It can come as something of a shock to join
her for breakfast meetings in the cafe of Guadalajara's Fiesta
Americana business hotel and be sampling shots of several
aged tequilas alongside the coffee, eggs and bacon. It is
not a combination that really works too well, but I was almost
surprised that she didn't simply pour tequila on her cornflakes
and have done.
It's not something that's likely to appear
on British breakfast menus any time soon, but there are signs
that a new interest in tequila is stirring here. Restaurants
and bars such as Green and Red in Shoreditch, London, and
the Mexican restaurant Wahaca and The Parlour, which have
just opened in Canary Wharf, both say tequilas are finding
favour among discerning young drinkers.
Mark Selby, owner of Wahaca, believes Britain
should "sip, not slam" to get the best out of tequila.
He is adamant that the key to Britain really relishing tequila
is to disassociate it from its current party image. "There
are those tequilas that are best as before-dinner drinks,
those that are the perfect accompaniment to a meal, for example
a Blanco is great with spicy food, and those that make an
ideal after-dinner digestive," says Selby. "A true
100 per cent blue agave tequila is like nothing you've ever
tasted before. There are flavours of caramel and dried fruits.
It's novel and fascinating."
"Almost all of the 100 per cent blue
agave tequilas are organic," Cleo explains. " I
am now sourcing lesser-known, family-run brands to bring in
to theUK." She claims: "I've never had a hangover
from drinking too much tequila – so for me it is a very
Indeed. Pass the coffee, Cleo love. I seem
to have one hell of a hangover.
shots: Top tequilas
This legendary tequila is renowned for its quality and superior
taste. Part of the Tapatio family of tequilas, it is smooth
and a favourite with aficionados.
No fewer than six varieties, one of the more interesting is
the pink Diva Aha Toro which gets its colour by being aged
for a while in Merlot wine barrels.
A new arrival to theUK, this has a crisp and delicate taste.
The exact field in which the agave plant was sourced to produce
the tequila is detailed on every bottle.
Traditionally produced, the soft flavour of this tequila makes
it ideal for tequila novices.
One of Mexico's oldest tequilas, this has a creamy texture
with complex flavours.
Produced by one of Mexico's legendary distillers, these tequilas
have refined, soft flavours.
Its 'Enjeo' ('old one') version is produced
and aged for 5 years in American Oak and is ideal for margaritas
and cocktails or sipping. Value for the price.