National Tequila Day is July 24th – a time for all Americans to celebrate tequila in all its forms, from the incredibly cheap rocket fuel that powers house parties when the keg runs dry to the complex spirits designed to be sipped and savored like a fine whiskey.
And why shouldn't it have its own day? Appreciation for what's considered North America's first native-born distilled spirit is at an all-time high. In fact, the Mexican liquor is the fastest growing distilled spirits category in the U.S.
It's no surprise. Tequila has been exported to the U.S. since the late 1800s, but only recently have the liquor-drinking masses have found much use for it beyond day-glo hued margaritas and mind-numbing benders. Now there are premium and super-premium tequilas as smooth and nuanced as any single-malt scotch that have been embraced by the American market, with the category growing by nearly 10 percent per year since 2002.
This tequila renaissance coincides rather nicely with Mexican regulations detailing the processes and ingredients that go into distilling tequila. To be officially known as tequila a spirit has to be made with blue agave in the Mexican state of Jalisco or in small designated areas of the states of Guanajuato, Michoacan, Nayarit and Tamaulipas. Higher end tequilas are made with 100 percent pure blue agave while cheaper brands, called mixtos, use less, rounding out the distillation with other varieties and sweeteners like sugar.
All tequilas, however, must be made with a minimum of 51 percent blue agave in order to be called tequila at all. In addition, true tequila must not only be distilled but also bottled in Mexico. While many distilleries already followed these rules, codifying them into law reassured the marketplace that it was getting a quality product, and spurred huge sales growth and a rise in appreciation for the liquor.
Of course, many have never had the chance to try a premium tequila. Rather than the harsh burn and smoky spice most of us remember from our college days, well-made tequilas are smooth, with deep herbal, almost vegetal flavors. When aged in oak barrels, as in reposado and anejo tequilas, which must be at least two months and one year old respectively, tequila takes on whiskey-like qualities as well – making for an incredibly layered character, often featuring vanilla and caramel notes similar to a quality bourbon. Obviously, those kinds don't belong in margaritas.
Luckily, National Tequila Day provides a tailor-made excuse to kick back and give one a try. Or three. It is Saturday, after all.
Herradura Anejo – Aged for two years in oak barrels, this is a big tequila. A deep amber in the bottle verging on golden brown, it has a toasty oak and nice buttery overlay on a solid peppery base. The time in the barrel also brings out more agave flavors and an herbal aroma that lingers for a long time after a few swallows of the stuff. Herradura has also taken notes from whiskey producers, offering a “Buy A Barrel” program. For the rock bottom price of $10,000, consumers can purchase their own barrel of reposado tequila, which is poured into 240 personalized bottles. It'd be a perfect way to help 239 of your closest friends celebrate National Tequila Day.
Milagro Tequila Select Barrel Reserve Silver – By far the coolest looking tequila bottle on the market, Milagro blows a replica of the agave plant into the base of each bottle and it looks amazing. Like most unaged tequilas, it has a heavy peppery bite, with an herbal, almost gin-like impact. There's touch of sweetness at the end as well, making this a tasty choice. Unfortunately, the bottle adds significantly to the price and at $60, there are other tequilas that are much better values.
Oro Azul Reposado – According to the distiller's marketing materials, this is one of the world's best tasting tequilas, and it's certainly tasty stuff. Sitting in oak barrels for six months has done this liquor nothing but good, adding some lip-smacking vanilla flavors and toasted sugar. There's still a muted green tang and bitterness in the aftertaste, but a $27 price tag for a reposado tequila means it's tough to beat this bottle for the money. Plus, that bottle happens to be an eye-catching pyramid shape.
Casa Noble Crystal – By far one of the most delicious blanco tequilas on the market, Casa Noble is smooth in every sense of the word. The usual green agave notes of a blanco take a back seat to a complex sweetness. There's honey there, with a richness and almost wheat-like body. There's virtually no heat, a rarity for an unaged tequila and a quality that makes it hard to put down. At $40 it's not cheap, but if there's a bottle that'll turn anyone on to tequila, this is it.
Gran Centenario Azul Tequila Reposado – It's virtually impossible to find a reposado tequila for $16, let alone one that won't turn your liver into a quivering mass of Jell-O. Gran Centenario is a huge value. In barrels for two months, it still has some lingering green agave flavors but those disappear in a hurry, leaving warm vanilla, oak and a gentle sweetness behind. By no means the greatest bottle on the market, it's tasty, versatile enough to sip or mix in a cocktail for those who won't put down the margaritas and won't break the bank. It'd be hard to do better than making this your “house brand.”