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Published 2/5/17

Updated 6/7/19

X-Wings, with s-foils locked in attack position, close in to destroy shitty tequila

In Defense of Tequila

If you've woken up with a tequila hangover at any point in your life, I'm sure you read the title of this article and are thinking Tim, you're nothing but a sexy, brilliant liar. Tequila is TERRIBLE!! Now stop lying, you handsome devil!! That response is understandable: many people have a single, terrible experience with Jose Cuervo Gold and swear off tequila for the rest of their lives.

Understanding Tequila

Before we examine what good tequila is, let's examine what Jose Cuervo Gold is (spoiler alert: it's not good). Cuervo Gold and other cheap tequilas are a type of tequila called mixto. Mixto type tequila must be at least 51% alcohol from agave, with the remaining content coming from . . . where ever - grains, sugars, etc. It's also often colored gold with caramel coloring to trick you into believing there's some rich character in the alcohol and in the production process. What it REALLY is, however, is a hangover in a bottle: mixing those ingredients (agave alcohol, grain alcohol, sugar, whatever) is a sure recipe for a hangover. Why would you need to color your liquor artificially and dilute it with other trash alcohols unless you're trying to trick people to buy total crap alcohol?

A Quick Aside, for Context

All this talk about artificially coloring alcohol and sneaking other alcohols into liquor actually reminds me of a funny story. I grew up friends with two girls who lived right by me, let's call them Sally-Ann and Princess Leia. So one summer Sally-Ann's family takes a vacation and asks Princess Leia to water the plants, take care of the house, etc. One morning Princess Leia calls me in a bit of a panic: she and some friends had drank Sally-Ann's parents' spiced rum the night before (I may or may not have joined them; the records on that have been lost to time). She was going to be in big trouble because she was the only one who had access to the house, so Sally-Ann's parents would know it was her. We needed some rum to fill the bottle back up. So I called a buddy of mine who had an older brother who could buy; a few minutes later I picked him and his brother up, drove them to the store, and he bought us some replacement rum.

Great, we're in the clear, right? Well, we pour the replacement rum in the bottle and immediately realize we're in trouble: the spiced rum we drank had a dark color to it, but our replacement rum was entirely clear. With nothing to lose, we looked thru Sally-Ann's cupboards and found some food coloring. We tried a drop of orange coloring in the rum: it proceeded to turn dark orange. We panicked a bit, but, with nothing to lose, we doubled down on the food coloring, and added a drop of yellow to try to lighten the color up a bit. To our surprise, the addition of the yellow food coloring turned the rum into just about the right color, as far as we could tell, but it was still a little too dark. Sensing some hope here, we added a bit of water to the rum/food-coloring concoction and lightened it up just enough that we figured it may pass. So we replaced the bottle in the pantry and hoped for the best. Nothing ever came of that episode. We had no idea if they noticed or not; what we do know is that Sally-Ann's parents eventually did end up drinking the replacement rum. And that's what Jose Cuervo is trying to do to you: pass off crappy, diluted, artificially colored crap and hope that you just don't notice.

There is Hope!

But just like in that story, with tequila, all hope is not lost! There is an alternative! When I say tequila I mean pure tequila from 100% agave. This type of tequila must be produced, bottled, and inspected in the Mexican state of Jalisco. When selecting tequila, always look for 100% agave on the bottle.  Having experience with tequila now for a few years, I will attest to not yet having a hangover when sticking to 100% agave silver or reposado tequila (we'll cover what the silver and reposado categories mean in the next section). And it's not just that I wake up the next morning thinking I feel pretty good despite having been drinking last night. No, it's much more than that: when I wake up the next morning, I often feel better for having drank tequila! It's amazing! In fact, science has uncovered facts** that show that drinking 100% agave tequila makes you 30% more handsome and up to 26% stronger.

**alternative facts

Tequila Categories: One of These Is Not Like the Others

To throw more shade on Jose Cuervo Gold and its kind, just look at the categories of tequila. The info below comes from Wikipedia and provides a good description of each category:

Did anyone else pause on the second item? The one where they add caramel coloring and sugar? Does that one sound markedly different from the others in that list? Does it sound very similar to what happened in my story about the rum? Does that item sound at all legit? You're better than that. Don't drink it.

The Tastes

The blanco/silver/plata category will have a distinct bite at the beginning.  That is the pure agave flavor.  The better silvers will mellow out quickly in your mouth.  Silvers will be completely clear in color.

The reposados will have a noticeably more mellow initial agave bite than the silvers.  Many people are surprised by the smoothness.  The reposado will still express a lot of the agave plant's flavor, however, but will do so with a bit less edge.   I've seen more than one person become a tequila believer after having a good reposado pour.  They will be slighly tan in color (the reposados will be slightly tan, not necessarily the people who become believers). 

Finally, the añejo and especially the extra añejo categories will have stronger flavors from the barrels, and noticeably less agave flavor.  Their color will be distinctly darker than the reposados.

A Note For Whiskey/Bourbon/Cognac Drinkers

You may be hesitant to spend upwards of $18 and likely $35-$45 for a bottle of liquor that has only been aged for a couple months to a few years.  It's not uncommon for a good reposado that has been aged only 7 months to cost upwards of $50.  Clase Azul (an ultra-premium tequila brand) reposado or silver category tequilas cost roughly $75-$85 for a 750ml bottle.  Although these have not been aged for years, keep in mind that they are made from blue agave plants that have grown for 8-10 years, not grapes or grain that have grown in a matter of months.  The flavor profiles for silvers and reposados are going to be influenced heavily by the environment that the agave plant grew in for all those years.  It makes sense that the brown liquors are aged much longer in barrels because the brown liquors are designed to be heavily influenced by the barrels.  Tequila, however, gets its rich flavor from the blue agave plant's 8 year maturation and the artisanal production process.

The añejo and ultra añejo tequilas, since they are aged in barrels for years, will start to take on more characteristics of the brown liquors (and less from the agave plant) specifically because they are aged in barrels for much longer than silvers and reposados.    The picture below compares some aspects of a cognac and a few tequilas, including the aging and cost.

The Margarita

One handy tip to pass on concerns margaritas, because with many who've had a bad experience with tequila, it's come at the hands of a crappy, American-style sweet-and-sour-sugar-ita consisting of fake lime juice, sweet and sour mix, sugar/agave syrup, and terrible tequila. Again, this is a recipe for a disastrous next morning.

The COIN

Thanks to a friendly bartender, I was introduced to the COIN margarita a few years ago. The COIN is a traditional margarita made with the intended ingredients:

I find that the ideal COIN has the following ratio: 3 parts tequila, 1 part Cointreau, and 2 parts fresh lime juice.  The wildcard in all this is the lime juice, as it can vary from very sour to somewhat sweet.  Adjust fire on that ratio accordingly and enjoy.

The COIN name comes from the first 4 letters in Cointreau. When you see margaritas made with agave syrup, simple syrup, sweet-and-sour, orange juice (yuck), or anything that is not 100% agave tequila, fresh lime juice, and Cointreau, tread lightly: they're trying to fool you into drinking a hangover. Try a COIN instead: it's a work of art. I'm typically prone to hangovers, but I've not had one that involved sticking to 100% agave tequila and/or COIN margaritas.

Tequila Strategies

So you're out for the night (or day, if you're awesome) and you're starting with the drinks.  If you are playing for volume, stick to the silver or and perhaps the lighter 100% agave reposado tequilas and the COIN margs.  The silver category tequilas are one of the purest forms of alcohol you can drink, which is why they do not lend themselves to hangovers.  Reposado is still fairly pure, but the aging in oak, while it imparts some nice character to the tequila, also adds some impurities.  Personally, I've had great luck with the reposados in . . . heavy volume situations.  No hangovers.

If you are going to have the añejo or extra-añejo varieties, you are awesome, because those tend to be more of the sipping variety.  A marg made with the añejos can also have a very rich taste.  Understand, though, that since they are aged in barrels for much longer, they start to act, and even taste, like the brown liquors.  Don't go too overboard on these (despite the awesomeness) as they can give you a hangover if you have too much.  

Mezcal

Finally, I want to touch on mezcal, which not a lot of folks have heard of, and I had not heard of until my most recent trip to Mexico a couple years ago. I am specifically referring to artisanal mezcal. Tequila can only be made from the blue agave plant; mezcal can be made from any one of a variety of agave, which can add some subtle, different flavors. The biggest difference however, results from the cooking of the agave piñas in a stone pit for a few days before they are crushed and distilled. This is a key difference in the production process that imparts a very smoky flavor to the mezcal that a tequila will typically not have. Mezcals are a really great alternative if you want to try something different. Technically, all tequilas are mezcals, but in reality, you can refer to them as distinct liquors due to the very different flavor profiles.

Check out my article that explores mezcal here.

A Word of Caution

As with tequila, mezcal can also be butchered. The biggest example of this is the worm. Mezcal is sometimes known for having the worm in the bottle. I hope this is self evident, but that's trash. Don't do it. I'm sure Jose Cuervo is behind that nonsense***. Also, always stick to 100% agave mezcal.

***Yes, Jose Cuervo has some tequila that is in fact made with 100% agave and maybe those are OK, but really, for a company that claims to be the first producers of tequila in the world, they sure were happy to butcher it by selling cheap, diluted, sugary, caramel-color-added Jose Cuervo Gold just to make a peso. They are completely disrespecting the tradition. Not cool.

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