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Video: How to become a tequila connoisseur

By Food Editor
TODAY
updated 12/29/2006 12:20:04 PM ET 2006-12-29T17:20:04

When most Americans think of tequila, it brings them back to their college days — and unfortunately too often the memories tend to surround bad headaches or even worse.

The truth is that tequila is much more of a complex distilled beverage than most of us realize. It is a spirit that is made from the blue agave plant, which takes 8 to 10 years to mature, and can only be harvested once. The leaves of the plant are stripped away, leaving a core that can weighs on average between 40 and 70 pounds and can sometimes grow to 200 pounds.

Once the agave core is split, it is baked, roasted or steamed in large ovens, where the natural starch turns to sugar. Roughly speaking, it takes 15 pounds of core to produce one quart of tequila as we know it.

The cooked cores are then shredded, pressed and placed in fermenting vats where yeast is added to convert the sugars into alcohol for next 30 to 48 hours. The juices are then distilled twice. The first distillation produces a low-grade alcohol; the second converts the liquid to a more fiery colorless product with alcohol content between 70 and 110 proof.

The variety of spirit we call "tequila" actually gets its name from the town of Tequila located in the state of Jalisco, where production of the product started hundreds of years ago. And in fact, by Mexican law, it can only be produced in this region under strict guidelines.

There are two kinds of tequila: 100 percent blue agave and "mixtos." The latter is distilled from a mixture of at least 60 percent blue agave and other sugars, which typically less expensive and responsible for those terrible headaches. The Tequila Regulatory Council supervises the quality of tequila and actually issues a certificate guaranteeing when a given product is 100 percent agave.

According to ACNielsen, sales of the Ultra Premium Tequilas (those retailing for more than $26 a bottle) grew over the past twelve months by 41 percent, while those of the mixtos (with an average price less than $11.99) actually decreased just over 3 percent.

According to the NOM (Norma Oficial Mexicana) standards these are four types of tequila:

  • Blanco (sometimes called "silver" or "white"): Blanco tequila is not aged, and is clear and transparent and must be bottled immediately after distillation. It is the base for all the other types of tequilas. It has the true bouquet and flavor of the blue agave and is typically strong in alcohol content.
  • Oro (sometimes called "gold" or "joven"): This tequila is Blanco which is then "mellowed" with caramel or other coloring added to appear aged. This is the most common tequila sold in the United States and is widely used in margaritas.
  • Reposado (sometimes called "rested"): Blanco that is aged in white oak barrels or casks for more than two months and up to one year. A more mellow taste with a pale color.
  • Anejo (sometimes called "aged"): Blanco that is aged in white oak barrels or casks for more than one year, with each barrel capacity less than 159 gallons. The oxidation through the wood barrels gives it a unique bouquet and taste producing an amber color and more woody flavor.

Super (or ultra) premium tequilas are the fastest-growing category. Even though NOM doesn't have any standards for this category, these tequilas typically are aged in wooden casks and some are aged for up to eight years.

By the way, each bottle of tequila must show a NOM number on the label. Since some distilleries produce dozens of brands (and the basics of production within a distiller is the same) looking at the NOM number is a quick way to compare quality and price.

So let's get to our taste test!

Most of us think the way to drink tequila is in a shot glass with some salt and a squirt lime. A true tequila aficionado would never do this, as it actually hides the qualities of tequila. The best way to taste tequila:

  • Pour approximately one ounce of tequila in a brandy snifter. Hold the snifter at the base (not the bowl), raise to eye level to determine color.
  • Swirl the tequila gently to the left for about one minute. Note if the tequila clings to the side of the glass and falls slowly to form a "string of pearls" effect
  • Take a small sip, keep between your lips and tip of your tongue for 10 seconds before swishing the tequila around the inside of your mouth, then swallow
  • Once you've tasted and found the one you like the best, whether you decide to make a margarita, other cocktail or just drink it straight, you'll be more satisfied.

Tequilas we tasted on TODAY:

Asombroso: Located in Tala, Mexico, Asombroso tequilas are aged seven to 10 years from 100 percent blue agave plants.

El Platino (Silver): Old fashioned methods using state of the art modern technology; prepared with only the best hand selected agave plants. Best served neat and chilled or as the basis for many mixed drinks.
$39.00 to $43.00

La Rosa Reposado: World's first tequila aged three months in French Oak barrels once used for vintage Bordeaux wine. Pink hue color due to the influence of the barrels. Best served neat and chilled in a snifter or in a martini.
Aged three months: $43 to $48.00; aged 11 months: $48 to $55

Añejo: Extra aged at least five years in French Oak casks. Comparable to an aged cognac or Armagnac. Smooth and mellow, sipping tequila. Best served at or below room temperature in a snifter. Named "Best of the Best" by the prestigious Robb Report.
$189.00 to $210.00

Don Julio: In 1942, Don Julio Gonzalez opened his first distillery, La Primavera, in a little town called Atotonilco, and began producing the most prestigious tequila brand in Mexico. Tequila Don Julio is made from 100 percent pure blue agave plants grown in Los Altos, the highlands of Jalisco — the country’s most exclusive agave-growing region.  Each plant matures for seven to ten years, longer than the legal standard, to deliver a more mellow, fully developed agave flavor. 

  • Don Julio Blanco: Light, clean and dry, with a touch of black pepper. Nose of fresh agave. Serve over ice or as essential margarita ingredient.
    $40
  • Don Julio Reposado: Rested in oak barrels for up to 11 months. Light and sweet with nose of vanilla and chocolate. Silky and smooth profile with slight hints of dark chocolate. Refreshing over ice or with citrus soda as a La Paloma Suprema.  
    $45
  • Don JulioAñejo: Rested in oak barrels for over a year to impart a golden hue, with nose of lime, grapefruit and mandarin. Smooth and rich with a touch of wild honey. Savor neat or over ice.
    $55

Patrón: In 1989 two visionaries, Paul Mitchell Systems co-founder, John Paul DeJoria and entrepreneur Martin Crowley formed The Patrón Spirits Company with the singular goal of producing “the best tequila in the world”.  They took the100% pure Waeber blue agave, grown in the hills of Jalisco Mexico, and blended traditional techniques with modern technology. They created the world’s first ultra-premium tequila. Under the stewardship of DeJoria and former Seagram executive Ed Brown, a new distilling factory was built in Jalisco. With the guidance of the renown master distiller Francisco Alcarez, the new factory was designed to be state-of-the-art with a core steeped in tradition.

  • Gran Patrón Platinum (80 proof):  This starts with hand selecting the most exceptional agave plants from the harvest, meticulously removing any leftover sprouts to eliminate any bitterness before baking. This ultra-smooth silver tequila is triple distilled, aged for a limited time, and then blended to create the finest sipping tequila in the world. The handmade Gran Patrón Platinum etched crystal bottle comes in a handcrafted maple wood box.
    $199.00
  • Patrón Silver (80 proof): Thisis a crystal clear, pure ultra-premium tequila. This soft and light tequila is characterized by a fresh, smooth taste, without the flavor of oak. Delicious neat or on the rocks, Patrón Silver is also a perfect ingredient in a mixed cocktail or margarita.
    $42.99
  • Patrón Añejo (80 proof): This is a delicate blend of uniquely aged tequilas, all aged in small whiteoak barrels for a minimum of 12 months. Similar to winemaking, each vintage of Patrón Añejo is carefully blended to produce a smooth and distinctive-tasting tequila.  $52.99
  • Patrón Reposado (80 proof): Aged in oak barrels for an average of six months, Patrón Reposado is blended to combine the fresh clean taste of Patrón Silver with a hint of the oak flavor found in Patrón Añejo. Excellent as a sipping tequila, Patrón Reposado is also a key ingredient in an ultra-premium margarita or tequila cocktail.
    $46.99  

Frida Kahlo: Mexico's most famous female artist and style icon, Frida Kahlo, is the inspiration for a new super premium tequila, Frida Kahlo Tequila. Frida Kahlo Tequila is made from 100% pure blue agave and hand-crafted to the highest standards.  Frida Kahlo Tequila is made in Jesus Maria, in the highlands of Jalisco, Mexico.

  • Frida Kahlo Tequila Blanco is naturally fermented for up to four days; the agave juices are then double-distilled in antique copper stills and bottled un-aged. The result is a smooth, super-premium tequila that mixes perfectly with your favorite drink.
    $46.99
  • Frida Kahlo Tequila Reposado is aged after fermentation in American Oak casks for six to nine months before bottling. The result is a smooth, super-premium tequila to enjoy by itself or mixed in a cocktail.
    $54.99
  • Frida Kahlo Tequila Añejo is aged after fermentation in American Oak casks for at least three years before bottling. The result is exquisitely smooth, super-premium tequila that, like a fine cognac, is meant to be sipped and savored.
    $90

Trago Tequila is produced at the Los Alambiques Distillery, located in the higher altitude of the Arandas region in Central Mexico.  Los Alambiques is owned and operated by Felipe Camarena, son of the famous Don Felipe, who is known and revered throughout the world as "the Father of Tequila."  The Camarena family has been producing tequila for over 150 years.

  • Trago Silver: Crystal clear, smooth, clean agave taste. Trago Silver has a little spicy, smoky taste which is identifiable amongst tequila connoisseurs as pure agave flavor. The nose has a hint of pepper, citrus, mint and herbal aromas. The taste has the full bodied agave flavor that makes it the perfect base for any cocktail such as a margarita, a mojito or a martini.
    $49.95 to $54.95
  • Trago Reposado: Rested for four months in American oak barrels for smoothness. It still has a full agave flavor but sweetened with the subtle tones of vanilla and caramel that comes from the oak. Its color is slightly yellow. The palate is very smooth and well rounded with a long lasting finish. Ideal to make a top-shelf margaritas, enjoying on the rocks, or just to sip and savor, neat or in a snifter.
    $56.95 to $62.95
  • Trago Anejo: This 100% agave tequila is aged for 18 months in used bourbon American Oak barrels. Medium-brown with orange-golden color attributed to the aging; to the nose hints of vanilla, maple and almond aromas together with an undeniable smoke-peppery smell that comes from the agave plant. To the palate it is even better; having the full agave flavor surrounded by caramel, vanilla, chocolate, nuts and almond flavors which comes from the tannins of the oak. The finish is long lasting and the after-taste is still awesome; over 20 minutes after you drink the Anejo, you still will experience the agave "oaky" flavor in the back of your palate. There is only one word to describe Trago Anejo Tequila: unforgettable.
    $64.95 to $69.95

And by the way ... about "that worm" ... it's an invention of Hollywood! Tequila never contains a worm. Mezcal is another spirit made from agave plants other than the blue agave, and is distilled only once. A worm (white worms are more desirable than red ones) is placed in the bottle because the worm actually feeds off the agave plant and contains a concentrated essence of the plant and enhances the flavor.

And of course, drink responsibly and never over indulge. Over consumption of any alcohol has been linked to many safety and health problems.

Phil Lempert is food editor of the “Today” show. He welcomes questions and comments, which can be sent to phil.lempert@nbc.com or by using the mail box below. For more about the latest trends on the supermarket shelves, visit Phil’s Web site at SuperMarketGuru.com.

© 2013 MSNBC Interactive.  Reprints

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