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Stew Cues: Purity, traditional processing key to good tequila

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Stew Cues: by Alene Keenan

In my wine and spirits classes, discussing tequila usually elicits strong responses, both good and bad. Younger, inexperienced students may say that it tastes gross, and older students who may have had one too many margaritas or shots of cheap tequila vow they will never touch it again. More mature students may have come out on the other side and enjoy sipping the subtle nuances and complexities of the spirit.

Tequila is a regional distilled beverage made from the blue agave plant, mainly in the region northwest of Guadalajara, in the highlands of the central western Mexican state of Jalisco. Tequila is like Champagne, in that it can only be produced in one country – in this case, Mexico. Technically, tequila is a mezcal. Just like all Champagne is sparkling wine, but not all sparkling wine is Champagne; all tequila is mezcal, but not all mezcal is tequila. All tequila must be produced with blue agave, while a variety of plants may be used to make mezcal, and it can be produced in multiple Mexican states.

Tequila is one of the most closely regulated spirits in the world, watched over by the Mexican government and other bodies. Individual distilleries decide on their own techniques and quality levels, but specifics like aging  must be closely followed. Look for the words “100% agave” on the label, which means that all the alcohol in the bottle is the direct result of the fermentation of agave, and only agave. Inferior tequilas may have sugar and caramel added. Ouch, here comes a hangover.

Blue agave takes 8-12 years to mature before the heart, or piña, is harvested. Just as with wine, the soil and growing condition affect the finished product.

While sipping a Blanco or Silver, you may pick up citrus and fruit notes, roasted agave or herbal notes, to name a few. Reposado means rested, and these are aged two to 12 months in oak, so they pick up vanilla and caramel notes from the wood. Anejo tequilas take on character similar to cognac or bourbon and have caramel, wood, chocolate and butterscotch aromas. After four or more years of aging in barrels, the tequila takes on more of the qualities of the cask it is aged in.

Not all brands follow the same standards. Many brands add commercial yeast to speed up the fermentation process, and autoclaves to pressure cook the agave at very high temperatures. The autoclave saves time and money, but the high temperature reduces the quality of the tequila.

The traditional process of making tequila is very different. The blue agave plants are harvested after eight to 10 years. Workers called jimadors use a razor-sharp tool called a coa to cut away the spiky leaves. The core of the plant, called the piña, or pineapple, is then hand split and slow roasted in a traditional clay oven called a horno. After roasting, the piñas are crushed and shredded to extract the agave juice.

At a recent Triton event, the One With Life tequila brand was offering samples and sharing recipes. This brand is sustainably grown in the same volcanic soil cultivated by the Aztecs, and is farmed with no pesticides and no GMOs. It is gluten- and sulfate-free, certified kosher and certified organic. The company adheres to traditional production practice and uses no additives.

I’m one of those people who enjoys sipping the subtle nuances of tequila. I tried One With Life and I liked it. The back label reads, “Please enjoy One With Life Tequila responsibly and join us in a toast to Being Fully Present, Listening Deeply, Speaking With Love, And Being One With Life.” I like that, too!

Here is a fresh take on a popular drink. The Mayan Mule:
Pour 1 ½ -2 ounces of One With Life Tequila into a copper mug filled with ice. Squeeze ½ of a fresh lime, fill with ginger beer and garnish with fresh mint and a lime wheel. Look out Moscow, here we come.

Alene Keenan is lead instructor of interior courses at Maritime Professional Training in Fort Lauderdale. She shares more than 20 years experience as a stew in her book, “The Yacht Guru’s Bible: The Service Manual for Every Yacht,” available at yachtstewsolutions.com. Comments are welcome below.

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