Rethink Tequila – A Reintroduction to the Mexican Spirit

In my ongoing quest to go from amateur to expert in the world of wine, beer and spirits, I’ve attended tastings, taken classes, visited wineries, breweries and distilleries and made countless visits to liquor stores. Even as I’ve delved more into spirits, I never really paid much attention to tequila. Blame it on some not so pleasant experiences in the past — wild nights out with friends when doing a shot (or several) of the throat-scorching liquid seemed like a great idea after several other rounds of drinks.

Though I may have stayed away over recent years, I couldn’t ignore tequila’s popularity. In the past few months I’ve heard many people rave about tequila. Even Chef Eric Ripert said he enjoys sipping the Mexican spirit.

Curious to see what I’d been missing out on, I decided to give tequila another taste.

For my reeducation I couldn’t have picked a better teacher: Heriberto Oviedo, Tequilier at the Ritz-Carlton, Key Biscayne’s Cantina Beach restaurant. Think of him as a sommelier for tequila — Heriberto oversees the 85 plus tequilas at the oceanfront Mexican-inspired restaurant, offering recommendations and pairing suggestions to guests. Heriberto, who honed his knowledge in Mexico, is the only Tequilier in South Florida and, to my knowledge, the country.

On the warm and sunny afternoon with the ocean as our backdrop, Heriberto started with a brief overview on how tequila is made.

As he explained, there are more than 100 different kinds of agave plants in the world but tequila can only be made from agave azul, or blue agave, native to Jalisco, Mexico. This state, plus parts of four other Mexican states, are the only regions where tequila can legally be produced; otherwise the liquor may not be called tequila.

The agave plant grows for 7 to 12 years before it is ready for harvest. Once fully grown the leaves are chopped off, leaving the core of the plant called the piña. The piña is cut up and baked for up to 72 hours. After resting for another 8 hours, the agave goes through machines that shred the plant and extract the juice. About 45% of this juice is sugar, which is converted to alcohol during fermentation. After fermentation the tequila is distilled twice (some producers distill it three times), and it may be aged in oak barrels.

Besides barrel aging, tequila gets its flavor from where the agave is grown. Tequila made from agave grown in the lowlands has more of a tropical and fruity flavor because the plants are surrounded by tropical fruit trees. Tequila produced in the highlands has more mineral qualities because of the volcanic and rocky soil.

With that introduction, it was time to taste the first tequila: Casa Noble Crystal, a blanco tequila. Blanco, meaning white, is one of three main classifications of tequila. These tequilas are clear in color and not aged, which makes for a clean, citrus flavor that is stronger than aged tequilas — “the pure essence of the plant,” as Heriberto described it.

He told me the best way to appreciate tequila is not to shoot it but instead sip it at room temperature; let the tequila play on my palate to see what flavors I could appreciate.

I took my first sip of the Casa Noble Crystal. Far from being the shot of fire I recalled from past experiences, this tequila was quite pleasant. Sure it felt hot in my mouth because of the high alcohol content, but this triple-distilled tequila was also clean and smooth, with citrus and lime flavors and a hint of bell pepper on the warm, crisp finish.

Heriberto served the blanco with ceviche. It is an ideal pairing because the citrus flavors in both play off each other.  Heriberto also brought me a sangrita, a chilled tomato-based shot reminiscent of gazpacho. It is a blend of tomatoes, tomato juice, cilantro, jalapeño, lime juice, salt and a splash of grenadine and cranberry juice, meant to cleanse the palate between sips of the blanco.

The two other main classifications of tequila are reposado and añejo. Reposado, meaning rested, is aged in oak barrels between two months and a year. Añejo, meaning aged, can stay in barrels between one and three years.  Most barrels are made from American white oak, which imparts flavor and a golden color.

We then moved on to reposado with Casa Noble Reposado, which spends one year in French white oak barrels. Right away I noticed a more sophisticated palate in this tequila due to the barrel aging. Along with citrus notes, the tequila had nice flavors of orange peel, vanilla and caramel.

The Casa Noble Reposado was served with Cantina Beach’s delicious pork carnitas. The pork ribs were cooked for around two hours, resulting in tender meat that slid off the bone. The sweetness of the sauce helped bring out the tequila’s sweeter notes. Heriberto recommends pairing reposados with grilled or fried meat and fish.

For another take on reposado, I got to taste Gran Centenario Rosangel. It is made from reposado that spends two months in Port barrels, giving the tequila a lovely sunset-pink color. The tequila is then infused with the subtly sweet flavor of Hibiscus flowers. I never thought I’d describe a tequila as elegant, but Rosangel is just that. It is smooth and gentle with floral notes and flavors of ripe citrus and dried apricots. Though I really enjoyed this tequila on its own, it was also great in Cantina Beach’s Rosangel Margarita.

Excited about my new appreciation for reposado tequilas, it was time to graduate to añejo. For this Heriberto brought out a taste of Reserva de la Familia from José Cuervo. As I learned, Cuervo owns a handful of tequila brands that differ in quality. Reserva de la Familia is a special tequila, aged in oak barrels for an average of three years with a final blend that includes tequila that is more than 30 years old.

Reserva de la Familia is a tequila you definitely want to enjoy on its own, not in a cocktail like a margarita. My favorite yet of the tasting, it was rich and full with flavors of caramel, vanilla, almond and milk chocolate, with a hint of smoke at the end.

Heriberto recommends serving añejo tequilas in snifters and pairing them with steaks and other grilled meats. The Reserva de la Familia went really well with my flank steak.

Next we took a brief departure from traditional tequila with Agavero, a tequila liqueur. It is a blend of reposado and añejo tequilas that are infused with Damiana, a flower native to the mountains of Jalisco. The tequilas are separately aged in specially charred French oak barrels. Thicker and sweeter than an añejo but with similar flavors of barrel-aged tequila, the Agavero makes for a great after dinner drink.

After a variety of tequila (and three delicious courses), I was so impressed by Heriberto’s selection and knowledge. But he wasn’t done yet.

Heriberto brought over a wooden box to the table and opened it, revealing a beautiful crystal bottle. It was Herradura Seleccion Suprema, one of Cantina Beach’s highest quality tequilas.

Heriberto poured the tequila into a snifter and handed me the glass. I took a small sniff, then a sip. Simply put, this tequila blew me away. Had I not known it was tequila I would have sworn it was Cognac. From the deep amber color and the creamy yet silky texture, to the warm flavors of caramel, hazelnut, toffee and vanilla, I was hooked.

It’s no wonder why so many people enjoy sipping tequila. When aged and nurtured this liquor can taste really, really good.

Heriberto said he often recommends guests enjoy a glass of the Herradura Seleccion Suprema with a nice cigar. I thought it was perfect with flan for dessert.

I came away from the tasting wanting to stock my home bar with blanco, reposado and añejo tequilas. Since some of the tequilas I tasted were on the expensive side, Heriberto recommended Partida, Chinaco, 7 Leguas and Corazón as good value brands.

At the beginning of the tasting, Heriberto told me he hoped as a Tequilier to educate people about tequila, so they give it a little more respect. I can emphatically say I have that new respect.

Tequilier Heriberto Oviedo offers free tequila tastings every day from 6pm to 6:30pm at Cantina Beach for diners and hotel guests. He also offers customized tequila flights.

Cantina Beach is located at the Ritz-Carlton Key Biscayne, 455 Grand Bay Drive in Key Biscayne, Florida (305) 365-4500.

photos of Heriberto and agave plants from the Ritz-Carlton, Key Biscayne