I love Mexico. I also love its national (according to me) nectar—tequila. I had been planning on educating myself a bit more on this spirited spirit when I got an invitation to a secret supper event featuring … tequila. It sounded way more fun than drinking alone, so I accepted.
All I knew was the supper was one of a sold-out series sponsored by Roca Patrón tequila, an artisanal tahona-made tequila, and that its proceeds would benefit the Savory Institute, a Colorado-based organization working on regeneration of the world's grasslands to address desertification, climate change and food and water insecurity. I love it when I can feel good about drinking, so one recent Saturday, I joined about 50 strangers aboard a bus to somewhere.
"Somewhere" ended up being a -picturesque spot atop a hill in Cerrillos, and as I milled through the handsome crowd, an appetizer of rich huitlacoche in one hand, a delicate tequila and watermelon concoction in the other, I finally spotted something familiar—the signature hat of Fernando Olea. Olea, chef and partner at Sazon and co-owner of Sasella, was about to serve up a mind-blowing six-course menu cooked over nothing more than a roaring campfire. What was more, each course came paired with a gorgeous tequila-based cocktail. This is no easy feat, so I searched out the responsible party and was directed to Carla Gilfillan, a Santa Fe craft mixologist who has worked with Hotel La Fonda and Albuquerque's Heritage Hotels, among others.
Gilfillan told me she has visited many of Mexico's tequila distilleries, learning not only about the nuances of the spirit, but gaining admiration for the plant it is made from and the communities that farm it. "It's kind of like the same way I feel about my community—I can tell you about it all day, but you have to be there to feel it," she says.
"When I started visiting Jalisco distilleries, their passion was infectious and it infected me. I've met a lot of people who distill, but it's just a different feeling I get from agave growers," explains Gilfillan. "Tequila is my favorite spirit because I feel like it has a heart and a soul."
Agave has long been revered in Mexico. The Aztecs even had a goddess of agave, Mayahuel, who was also called the "woman of the 400 breasts" in reference to pulque, the milky juice naturally fermented in the heart of agave. The process of transforming agave into tequila now falls to the 130+ tequila distilleries currently operating in Mexico. Similar to Champagne, tequila has an appellation of origin with only five Mexican states certified to produce it; Jalisco is the only state designated in its entirety.
It begins with the planting and tending of blue agave, from which tequila is exclusively made. After six to 10 years, the heart of the plant (the piña) is harvested. The piñas are cooked to ready their sugars for fermentation, then crushed to extract their juices. Fermentation begins and after seven to 12 days bubbling away in large tanks, the juice moves to the distillation process. Most tequilas are distilled twice, the second resulting in the tequila known as silver or blanco. Some of this liquid is then put into oak barrels and aged: reposados for two to 12 months, añejos between one and three years and extra añejos for over three years.
It's a fascinating spirit, tequila, but when it comes down to it, what I really need to know is how to buy it. How do you know what's good or what's not? Thankfully, Nick Sherwood of Susan's Fine Wine & Spirits (1005 S St. Francis Drive, Ste. 101, 984-1582) has some ideas.
Sherwood recommends being clear on how you're planning to use the tequila. For instance, if you're looking to make a margarita, you'll likely want to go with a blanco.
"A good middle ground for margaritas are blancos from Corralejo ($30-$35) or Gran Centenario ($30.99)," he says. "These have straightforward, fresh agave flavors that won't compete with the other ingredients of the drink."
If you're looking to get crafty and mix up something of your own, Sherwood likes Fortaleza reposado ($57.99), "a great tequila house that straddles the line between big producer and smaller, more rustic, craft tequila."
Another of Sherwood's favorites is Chamucos reposado ($53.99), "a quality, small batch, craft tequila," says Sherwood. Many will recognize this brand by its label, which features little black devil-like figures that look curiously similar to me on tequila.
Sherwood also speaks highly of ArteNOM ($57.99-$84.99), a co-op that distributes selections distinctive of their regions-, similar to wine and terroir. According to the NOM (the law that governs tequila production in Mexico), each distillery is assigned an ID number and these are the labels for ArteNOM's selections. For example, No. 1146 comes from master distiller Enrique Fonseca. His unconventional story of necessity is a good one to Google, but the sum of it is that he is legendary for creating a "new" tequila—the extra añejo.
"Extra is too much for margaritas or for mixing in most drinks as it's almost like a whiskey," explains Sherwood. Fonseca's premium extra añejos, bottled under the name Fuenteseca, range from $187.99 for the seven-year to $979.99 for the 21-year, and so are likely best enjoyed simply as slow sips with your best friend—namely, me.
Note: If you want to do a tequila tasting, beyond the average flight, the Rosewood Inn of the Anasazi restaurant offers them starting at $35 per person.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story misspelled Carla Gilfillan. We regret the error.