Agave Is For Lovers: The Return Of Blanco Tequila
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When chef Enrique Olvera speaks, the Mexican culinary world listens. This is the kind of platform you earn when your Mexico City restaurant, Pujol, has been named the 17th best restaurant in the world for a high-minded, though traditionally rooted, take on classic dishes like sopes — his are topped with sea urchin plucked from the Sea of Cortez. To say Olvera, 38, put Mexican cooking on the world stage is like saying Tim Duncan did bit for basketball in San Antonio.
So when I caught up with Olvera recently at Mesa Abierta, his food conference taking place near San Miguel de Allende, I was listening. Actually, I was probing — PRESS was printed on my laminated badge after all — to find out the burning topics in the country his holds so dear. The answer? Tequila! Olvera wanted to talk about tequila, the aqua vitae of his native land. And, mostly, everything that was wrong with it.
“At some point in Mexico we got confused,” he says, wiping his brow in the searing Mexican sun. “Tequila producers started making tequilas that tasted like cognac — tequila that was aged forever and tasted like wood. You must taste the agave.”
Like any spirit, tequila elicits many differing opinions and tastes. Some prefer power and residual heat, others like earthy and vegetal notes, while even more like their tequila to simply taste “smooth” — which is my mother’s chief concern when she shakes a round of Patron shots. For the record, this is a shot-free article, as any tequila expert will tell you is no bueno with thegood stuff.
And what most tequila experts will also tell you? “Blanco is what’s up,” says Chantal Martineau, author of How the Gringoes Stole Tequila, a Michael
Pollan like take on the tequila industry, scheduled to be published next year. “The flavor of cooked agave is sweet and caramelized, like cooked pumpkin, and blanco is definitely the best way to experience this flavor because it’s not being covered up by the flavors oak imparts — mainly vanilla, toffee and cedar.”
Before we go any further, a little back of the napkin explanation about tequila aging: Typically, you’ll find three main types at your favorite tequila bar: blanco (“white” and sometimes called silver and un-aged), reposados (“rested” and aged in oak barrels for 2 to 12 months), and añejos (“vintage” aged in oak 1-3 years). Like with bourbon and whiskey, the longer the liquid ages in a barrel, the more characteristics it draws from the wood. It’s also, uniformly, more expensive with age.
“The human palate, especially one that is unfamiliar with powerful flavors, has a tendency to prefer sweetness, which is part of what wood aging gives tequila,” says Nils Bernstein, who has written extensively about Mexico’s food and drink.
Which all leads to the booming interest in reposado and añejos, which is not only coveted for its milder address, but to cater to the whiskey drinker’s mentality that more age means better. According to Martineau, in Mexico 80 percent of tequila consumed falls under the reposados category, which is ironic given that product was originally marketed to cater more to Americans. A cottage industry of so-called extra-añejos has also emerged, peddling pricey bottles that have been soaking in oak at least three years, and sometimes as many as six. But as Martineau explains, with tequila, age doesnt always mean better. It also can get Mexicos most-famous chef shaking his fist. “It’s like
drinking a chair,” says Olvera of the over-aged products that have inundated his country.
But instead of just talking, Olvera is on a bit of a pro-blanco crusade with the opening of his new New York City restaurant, Cosme. The casual cantina, slated to open this summer in the Flatiron District, will serve fresh guacamole and more chefy fair like homemade masa with fair-trade corn and barbecoa tacos with rutabaga. And when it comes to the spirits list, he estimates that there will be at least 25 blancos, as well as cocktails made with the un-aged tequila.
“A large swath of American tequila drinkers are seeking out 100 percent agave tequila for sipping, or for drinking in craft cocktails,” Martineau says, adding that this a particular amenity for blanco among wine drinkers. People who understand, and often hang-on, the concept of terroir. So it is no surprise that winemakers in California were some of the first people to demand better tequila in the United States. You can think of the anti-wood sentiments for tequila as a parallel to the ABC backlash (short for Anything But Chardonnay) that disrupted the American wine world starting in the early-2000s.
Bertha Gonzalez speaks passionately about the terroir for her agave plants. As the master distiller at Casa Dragones, the high-end tequila producer backed by MTV founder Bob Pittman, she talks about the mineral-rich soil and natural spring water flowing from the Volcano of Tequila that feeds her beloved blue agave — as if the spiny plants were family members. A Maestra Tequilera — a rarefied group similar to the Court of Master Sommeliers — with over a decade of experience in both the distillery and boardroom as an executive Grupo Jose Cuervo, Gonzalez believes that blanco is the future of tequila. The distiller in
her sees blanco as an opportunity to bring the “pure essence of agave” to the curious drinking public. The businesswoman sees an opportunity.
Just how large of an opportunity? Well, acccording to International Wine & Spirit Research, blanco tequila currently makes up 39 percent of the total consumption in the United, with the number is expected to rise to 45 percent by 2018. That’s a significant increase in an industry that accounted for $1.88 billion in sales in 2012, nearly doubling in the last decade. It’s one of the reason Casa Dragones launched their blanco bottling in March, which sells for around $75 compared with their ultra-premium joven (a master blend of both blanco and more aged tequilas that goes for $275 a bottle).
By no means a tequila expert, and somebody more likely to order a Paloma than a snifter of extra añejos, I recently tasted both Dragones side by side. And while the pricier joven was my favorite — a bit more complex and, shit, when you’re drinking something that is $48 a shot doesn’t it always taste better? — I was struck how easy it was to drink blanco, both neat and slightly chilled with a cube or two. Blanco has become my new happy hour sipper — the perfect 5 p.m. fix with heat, spice and lots of character. Blanco is considered a great starter tequila, given that it really illustrates how the varying climate and elevation in Jalisco (where tequila is exclusively produced) can shape a bottling. I’ve moved on to many other blancos, including those produced by Espolon, El Tesoro and Charbay, and look forward to seeing the list evolve at Cosme while I enjoy me some hyper local tortillas. “Blancos are no better or worse than reposados or añejos, says Bernstein, diplomatically. “It’s a matter of taste, but people should understand that the difference is from wood and the aging process, not from the agave itself or the distillation process.” And for some tastes, good agave is all you need.