Like so many other former frat-house habitués, tequila is all grown up now, and having turned its back on its old best friend—the chipped, sticky shot glass—it aspires instead to be contemplatively sipped from a stemmed Riedel taster. And that is exactly where I found it one recent afternoon at the spiffy Riviera Maya resort Rosewood Mayakoba, in the pleasant confines of its Agave Azul Raw Bar and Tequila Library, which has more than 100 different tip-top tequila vintages on hand for tippling.
“Wow,” my wife said as we strolled in and sized things up. “It’s like a tequila shrine.”
And it was, because the hotel food and beverage director Diego Weiss had opened the bar up hours early to personally escort us through a private tasting of some of his more notable offerings, and this was not an assignment he was taking lightly. While awaiting our arrival he had mounted a small display case on a low, marble-topped bar, draped it with a colourful hand-woven shawl, fanned out a half-dozen bottles across the top, and at the base, arranged an array of tasting glasses. The right tasting glasses: the very same Riedel-designed stemmed number that was anointed the Official Tequila Glass by the Consejo Regulador del Tequila upon its introduction back in 2002. “White tequila is my favourite,” Weiss remarked as he got ready to pour. “It keeps all the true flavours of the agave.”
This will be confusing to some because white—or silver—tequila is also the least expensive edition of any particular brand or type. But the reasoning is simple: unlike, say, with whisky, of which what is called the “middle cut” or “new make” emerges from the spirit still in a palate-scorching state that requires years to mellow in a wooden cask before even a bum will come near it, tequila has the good grace to come out of the still ready to play.
Take a slug of this fresh stuff and you are drinking “white.” Swirl in a little caramel to sweeten and mellow things slightly, and in the process, impose a cheap change of colour to give the appearance of age—and you’ve got “gold.” Put it aside instead in an oak barrel for two months or more and you get reposado; leave it there for over a year and the tequila is called añejo. Any longer and the exquisite brew is commonly dubbed a reserva.
The only other thing you really need to know is that a bottle marked with the label tequila alone merely indicates that just 51 per cent of the distillate within need be derived from the blue agave—the primo succulent of all the mescal possibilities. What you want instead is the variety marked 100 per cent agave, which is the single malt of the field. White “tequila” will be very rough around the edge and so is generally of little interest to anyone but the skint dipsomaniacs, like the homeless, and university students. But white 100 per cent agave tequila is exactly as Weiss had ventured—the truest expression of the complex and intoxicating flavours of the blue agave. And fortunately, at the Library, every last bottle is 100 per cent agave.
So without any further ado we tucked into the basic silver from Milagro, a relative newcomer to the tequila scene that has won three gold medals and a best-in-show at the last two World Spirits Competitions—no mean feat. Alas, they did not win with this one: it is intense and earthy but ends a little too sweetly, and while—as that old Mexican expression goes—you would not kick it out of the liquor cabinet for getting the shelf sticky—you would not sip it neat whilst reading Juan Rulfo on the beach, either. But next we try Milagro’s select barrel reposado—and it cascades over the tongue like the lightest syrup, supple and smoky, with a late rumble of alcohol. The añejo incarnation is even more intriguing, with woody notes and a stronger, smokier finish.
Then we dip into a Don Julio reserva called Real, which is riper and smoother, but with a mysteriously abrupt finish. Next, Reserva de la familia from Jose Cuervo, which has a most enticing lightness to its flavour profile. And then we ended (more or less) with the sensational Herradura Seleccion Suprema extra añejo, which is exquisitely supple and complex, with lovely woody notes and an incredibly slow progression of flavours.
Alas, you will almost certainly not find these here. And you would not want to either, because when you take the typical rapacious Canadian government-endorsed markup that turns merely decent tequilas into local $100-plus purchases, and apply that to the real premium tequila category, you would end up just doing the sensible thing and buying a plane ticket to the source instead.