The Manual - A Guide to Boutique Tequila

Forget the late night tequila slammers, these days boutique tequilas are made for sipping on the rocks or long in cocktails. Craig Butcher explains what the connoisseurs are choosing and why longer is better.

What is tequila?
A protected-origin spirit produced in Mexico's south-west, to be 'tequila' it must be produced from at least 51 per cent blue agave, the cactus-like plant which carpets this region, in which case it is a 'mixto', the remainder bulked out with corn syrup and/or fructose; or the superior 100 per cent blue agave, exclusively produced from the agave plant, which takes 5-7 years to grow fully (cheaper producers harvest much younger, around three years).

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How is it made?
The agave core, or 'piña', is harvested by hand, slow-roasted in clay ovens (Sauza, uniquely, steams), its juices fermented (Casa Herradura is the only distillery in the world which, incredibly, awaits natural fermentation yeasts from neighbouring lemon groves, which may or may not play ball), then distilled and bottled to produce a clear, un-aged 'blanco'.

What should it be mixed with?
Quality blancos are best used as a base for classic cocktails like the Paloma (with grapefruit juice or grapefruit soda) and a Margarita (with triple sec and lime or lemon juice) but if sipped neat won't need salt, lime or ice - leave that to the amateurs.

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What do the terms on the label mean?
A 'reposado' (or 'rested' tequila) is the white spirit laid down in oak barrels for at least two months (Herradura's gets 11 months) and for an 'anejo', 12 months (Herradura's enjoys 49 months). Reposados and anejos take on more of the spices and wood from the barrels than the blanco or 'plata' spirit and are equally enjoyable sipped neat in a brandy glass or as a base for long drinks like a mule (with ginger ale) or a cosmopolitan (with triple sec, lime juice and cranberry juice).

What should I be looking for?
An 'extra anejo', signifies a minimum three years in barrel and takes on smooth bourbon-like caramels enjoyed like a single malt Scotch. If you're buying this stuff, you've probably won the lottery. Remember - quality tequilas come at a price, are 100 per cent blue agave, well-made and never have a worm in the bottom. Salud!