Savoring Tequila and the Sophisticated Tastes of Mexico

Nancy Lackey Shaffer

 

One whiff of tequila is often all it takes to conjure up memories of a sun-drenched spring break  or a painfully regrettable hangover (or all three, in succession). But for those who look beyond margarita mixes,, a bold, earthy and exciting culinary adventure awaits. Premium tequila makers, such as Partida, are showing consumers—ever eager to explore new horizons with their palates and wallets—the way.

 

“I think it is a trend that has been sparked across the spirits world,” says Jacque Bezuidenhout, Partida’s brand ambassador. “Consumers are looking to drink better wine, beer and spirits, and so they are looking at premium brands to spend their money on. They may be drinking a little less, but better quality.”

 

Made from the blue agave, tequila is the first distilled spirit indigenous to North America. The blue agave is native to Jalisco, a Mexican state halfway between the country’s northern and southern borders and nestled next to the Pacific Ocean. Overshadowed by Jalisco’s more famous cities, Guadalajara (the capital) and Puerto Vallarta, the small town of Tequila is the center of the Tequila Valley, where most of the spirit is produced. Rich, red volcanic soil nourishes the succulent agave plant, which takes years to mature.

 

Mexico carefully guards the name and legacy of its national spirit. Any liquor bearing the label “tequila” must be produced in Mexico, from blue agave (Agave tequilana azul) of the Weber Blue variety grown in Jalisco, or tequila of specially designated regions of Nayarit, Guanajuato, Michoacán and Tamaulipas. Distilleries are also carefully regulated, and assigned a NOM (Norma Oficial Mexicana) number.

 

Much of the mass-produced tequila found in American liquor stores comes from fairly young agave plants, harvested when the sap is tart and acidic. Producers make up for the loss in quality with additives like glycerin and caramel color. These spirits are called “mixto,” as they consist of a mix of agave (at least 51 percent), cane sugar and other additives. It’s often these additives, along with a higher sugar content from the cane, that produce the headaches and hangovers for which lower quality tequila has become famous.

 

 

Premium tequila must be made from 100 percent pure agave, with no additives of any kind, and is an entirely different class of liquor altogether. Consumer interest in high-end tequila is new compared to the long-established passion for fine wine, but it has grown in step with the current “foodie culture” and an enthusiasm for gourmet Mexican cuisine popularized (in part) by Rick Bayless of Frontera Grill in Chicago. This New World spirit is proudly taking its place among the giants of distillation—cognac, gin and scotch—whose heritage and prestige make them coveted by connoisseurs and collectors alike.

 

Bezuidenhout is a major player in this movement. Originally from South Africa, he made a name for himself as a career bartender in London before moving to San Francisco in 1998. His extensive knowledge covers every type of distillation (gin, vodka, scotch, bourbon, rum and tequila) and before joining Partida he worked with Tres Agaves Tequila and Plymouth Gin. As a multi-award-winning bartender, his mixology prowess is legendary.

 

But it’s his passion for tequila history and culture that has made him so valuable to Partida as a brand, and tequila as an industry. Bezuidenhout is tireless in his efforts to educate consumers and bartenders about tequila: In addition to representing Partida at events across the globe, he hosts seminars, judges cocktail competitions and helped organize the San Francisco chapter of the United States Bartenders Guild. The Kimpton Hotel Group has worked very closely with Bezuidenhout to develop their beverage programs. Through these endeavors, he has helped shift the perception of tequila from salt-lime-shots and drunken excess to a complex spirit that should be savored. It’s easy to see why Bezuidenhout was nominated recently for Wine Enthusiast’s “Mixologist/Brand Ambassador of the Year” (winners of the 2012 Wine Star Awards will be announced in January).

 

 

Partida is being doubly honored by the wine and spirits magazine, as the company itself is up for the prestigious “Distiller of the Year” award for being “one of the only major Tequila brands still produced as an estate-grown product,” in addition to its dedication to tequila education. But for those who drink Partida tequila, it’s the exceptional quality that stands out. To achieve it, the company employs a blend of old and new approaches.

 

Tradition drives the growing process: Blue agave is cultivated on estate land in the heart of the Tequila Valley, avoiding herbicides and pesticides; the goal is to keep the farming as sustainable as possible. Long leaves, bluish-gray and fleshy yet razor-sharp, jut out from the base of the plant, surrounding a core of concentrated sugar: the piña, or heart. Jimadores harvest the plants at maturity, after a decade or more of growing time, when the agave flavors are fully developed. The leaves are stripped from the piña, which are then baked to soften the fibers and remove the carbohydrate-rich sap.

 

“I believe that one of the most important factors is the agave because it can take seven to 12 years to mature before harvesting,” says Jose Valdez, master distiller for Partida Tequila. “That’s something that no other spirit in the world can say when it comes to the fundamental creation of the beverage.”

 

 

For roasting the piña, Partida eschews traditional stone ovens in favor of state-of-the-technology stainless steel ovens, to avoid imparting a smoky character and let more of the pure agave flavor come through. “We also make the cooking process longer (at a lower temperature) than normal, to ensure the piñas are cooked evenly,” adds Valdez. After the sap is released, it’s fermented in stainless steel tanks, using only the wild yeast from the environment in which the agave is grown. Valdez distills the product of fermentation twice, under precisely controlled temperatures, to create a high-quality spirit that is smooth yet still abundant in the herbaceous and citrus-like essence of the agave.

 

Aging of the reposado, anejo and extra-anejo varieties (blanco is bottled right after distillation) takes place in American oak barrels that once held Jack Daniels. The woody character of the oak, and the small whiskey residue (the barrels are hot-washed twice, but a touch remains), impart a unique and complex flavor profile to the tequila.

 

Valdez and his production team are credited with maintaining Partida’s exceptional quality year after year. His attention to detail is unsurprising: before joining Partida, he worked as an industrial engineer in Guadalajara, Mexico’s Silicon Valley. But he always had an interest and love for tequila.

 

 

“My passion for tequila started when I was a child,” he explains. “My father taught me that tequila is our national beverage and we should be proud of this product. I remember he had one or two neat tequilas before the family meal every Sunday. From his example, I learned that tequila is something special that has to be savored slowly and responsibly. Later, when I moved to Guadalajara to begin college, I started visiting some tequila distilleries. I got involved in many events such as seminars, tastings, tours and more. I also learned from many people involved in the harvest and at the distillery, people who have been doing the same time-honored activities for many generations. These included jimadores, producers, tasters and distributors.”

 

Eventually, Valdez met Vinicio Estrada, who introduced him to J. Gary Shansby, a brand expert from San Francisco who had worked with Famous Amos Cookies and Mauna Loa Macadamias. Shansby, now a partner in a successful private equity firm, had a passion for Mexico and wanted to start a premium tequila brand that showcased the classic characteristics of the Tequila Valley. It was a meeting of the minds: Shansby founded Partida in June 2005, naming Vinicio Estrada vice president of Mexican operations and Jose Valdez as Master Distiller.

 

“I have been with Partida since the birth of the company,” Valdez says. “I have literally tasted every single production batch of Tequila Partida.” The knowledge he gained as an engineer and as a hobby enthusiast was augmented with a Tequila Expert degree from Cultura y Capacitación del Tequila A.C. (Tequila Culture and Training Association), and a Tequila Technician certification from the Consejo Regulador del Tequila (Tequila Regulatory Council) and the Universidad Autonoma de Guadalajara (Autonomous University of Guadalajara). He is also an accredited Tequila Master Taster and a member of the Mexican Academy of Tequila Tasters.

 

So what does this exceptional spirit taste like? The unaged Blanco, clear as water and sometimes referred to as “silver tequila,” has a spicy and citrus aroma, clean on the palate with delicate floral and herb notes. It makes a dynamite margarita. Reposado (“rested” for 6 months) is golden in color and starts to display the woody notes from the oak barrels. There’s a lot of honey and spice in the nose, and the taste is richer and sweeter; the finish is somewhat caramel- and bourbon-like (perhaps courtesy of Jack Daniels?). The Anejo (“aged”) shows exceptional complexity: After 18 months in the oak, it’s darker, richer and exceptionally smooth, with enticing flavors of curry, ginger and molasses. Many of these elements come through in a mixed drink made with Anejo, but neat may be the best way to enjoy it.

 

Mexican food is a natural accompaniment to tequila, but it would be a mistake not to consider serving Partida with a variety of cuisines. “I love that tequila can pair with a diverse selection of foods,” says Bezuidenhout. “I love Blanco with ceviche and seafood. The Reposado works with seafood as well, and really stands up to spicy foods. Reposado and Anejo play well with meats like carne asada or pork dishes. And Anejo also goes very well with desserts.”

 

No matter how  one chooses  to enjoy a premium tequila like Partida, it’s important to savor all of its multi-layered and earthy elements, sip by sip.

Author Bio:

Nancy Lackey Shaffer is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.

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Courtesy of Partida Tequila
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