Appreciating Agave

Tequila and mezcal are loved for their unique smoky, caramel sweetness and smooth finish

Mention tequila and we think about shots – throwing back a heady, fiery 40% alcoholic distillate that makes our heads swim and jump for joy. We also think of cocktails by the sea.

But there is more to tequila and mezcal than shots and colourful cocktails. Drink connoisseurs place the best tequila and mezcal in the same class as brandy and whisky. They can be sipped and enjoyed at leisure.

Both tequila and mezcal are made from the agave plant, and are made in Mexico. The main difference is that tequila must be made from only the blue agave and must be produced in the state of Jalisco. Mezcal can be made from any of the 30 distillable types of agave and can be made anywhere in Mexico. The distilling process is also different. All tequila is mezcal but not all mezcal is tequila.

ALL TEQUILA IS MEZCAL BUT NOT ALL MEZCAL IS TEQUILA

The agave is harvested, leaves removed and the heart (piña) is cooked and processed. The juice is then fermented, distilled and aged. There are many grades and qualities of tequila and mezcal depending on the quality of agave, how long they are aged in the oak barrels, and region (for mezcal). Mezcal imparts a smoky charcoal taste that people enjoy because the agave is placed in a pit dug into the ground and filled with hot coals, where it sits for two to three days.

How to drink

Mezcal was traditionally enjoyed by the Mexicans by sipping it with a slice of orange and worm salt, which is a blend of crushed salt, chilli and dried agave larvae (Singaporeans say this tastes like ikan bilis or sotong). The famous worm found in some bottles of mezcal is not a worm but this larvae that live on the agave plants. It was added to the bottle of liquor because it “added flavour” – in the same way the worm salt does.

Tequila and mezcal have come such a long way in terms of quality and finesse that worm salt and lime juice and colourful mixes are not needed any longer. Real drinkers want to taste the true tequila and the true mezcal. They sip it and have it neat. The expensive, quality ones are reserved for this occasion, while the more inexpensive ones are used in cocktails and mixes. The beauty of mezcal and tequila is that they don’t judge you, they don’t discriminate. You can have them anyway you choose as long as you’re having fun and are enjoying yourself.

Types of mezcal and tequila types of tequila

Joven: A young mezcal aged for only a few months

Dorado: A white mezcal with a little caramel colour added

Blanco: Tequila or mezcal that has not been aged and is clear without colour. It does not have the mellow flavours that ageing impart, and can be bottled immediately.

Reposado: Tequila or mezcal that has been aged in oak or wooden barrels for 2-11 months. More expensive than Blanco, and has a light golden tone. Flavours include caramel, smoke, vanilla and spice.

Añejo: Tequila or mezcal that has been aged in oak or wooden barrels for more than 12 months, these are the expensive grades that are usually sipped and drunk neat. The golden colour is rich, and the flavours of smokiness, spice and caramel are wonderfully deep but are still balanced. 

Tip: If you want to taste the true flavours of agave go for the ones that are not aged so you won’t get hits of oak or wood from the barrels.

Agave at the Loco Group

With a well-curated collection of agave in Singapore, The Loco Group (https://www.super-loco.com/) shines the spotlight on tequila and mezcal at The Group’s three restaurants – Super Loco Robertson Quay, Super Loco Customs House and Lucha Loco Duxton Hill.

A Chat with Ajay Parag, The Loco Group’s Beverage Director

If we were blindfolded and sipped tequila and mezcal – what is the main difference between the two in flavour?

Excellent quality artisanal tequila is made from 100% blue webber agave with no additives, while mezcal has more freedom and can be made from around 40 different varietals of the agave plant. The agave must be harvested at peak maturation; for blue webber agave this takes between 7 to 10 years, and mezcal varietals can take anywhere from from 8 to 20+ years. It is this long maturation process that makes tequila and mezcal so special and creates its strong complexity  and beautiful terroir.

In tequila production the agave is typically baked- or steam-cooked before being distilled. In mezcal production the agave is cooked using more traditional methods such as roasting in underground fire pits. It is this rustic cooking method that imparts mezcals’ unique and distinctive smoky character.

What is your favourite brand and type of tequila and mezcal?

It is incredibly difficult to choose only one favourite across tequila and mezcal, let alone unaged and aged as they all exhibit unique characteristics to savour and enjoy. However, I can highly recommend the following:

Unaged Tequila – Don Fulano Fuerte Blanco: This 100 proof tequila presents one of the purest flavours of the agave plant and of the rich red soil, characteristic of the upper Jalisco region where it is grown. It exhibits notes of green agave, pepper, clove, pineapple and citrus.

Aged Tequila – Fuenteseca 18 Years Extra Anejo: Barrel-aged for 18 years using techniques borrowed from fine cognac, this exquisite Tequila by legendary distiller Enrique Fonseca, is without doubt one of the finest spirits you will ever try.

Mezcal – Piedra Almas Mezcal de Pechuga: This very limited 100 proof mezcal has been triple distilled in the presence of heirloom fruit and the breast of a wild turkey. Smoky, lush and complex, its fragrance is reminiscent of an old forest of wild fruit trees.

… and how would you drink it?

Sipped and savoured in a fine tasting glass with enough diameter to nose. The process I recommend following is to firstly smell the spirit to notice the different aromas; then take a small sip, letting it coat your palette; now take a more generous sip and swallow; after swallowing breathe out slowly through your nose with mouth slightly open. This will allow activation of both sense of smell and taste to fully appreciate the complex range of flavours, aromas and terroir.

What are the top 3 mezcal cocktails at Loco?

1 – Mezcal Paloma: This refreshing cocktail is made with Alipus joven mezcal, aperol, grapefruit, mandarin and soda

2 – Dirty Negroni: A must try for negroni lovers, made with Widges gin, Alipus joven mezcal, Vermouth Chinato, and Campari

3 – Smoky Ron: In this old fashioned style cocktail we combine our own banana honey infused mezcal, Plantation dark rum, and Aztec chocolate & aged orange bitters. This is a perfect drink to enjoy after a meal or with dessert.

What Singapore food would go well with a mezcal and tequila?

My favourite local dish – barbeque stingray – is perfect while sipping mezcal or tequila. I would accompany it with a spicy tomato sangrita to sip along side and refresh the palette.

What advice would you give someone who is buying a bottle of mezcal for the first time?

Be open to experimentation, and try as many different varieties as you can to find out what flavour profile you enjoy. While mezcal is primarily produced in the state of Oaxaca, it is also made throughout Mexico. The flavours of these rustic handcrafted spirits, like wine, are affected by a multitude of factors including the age and type of agave, the geography, microclimate, soil type, the ripeness of the plant prior to harvesting, how it is farmed, cultivated and harvested; production and distilling methods. All these factors result in a product that is unique and distinct.

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