Contrary to popular belief, Cinco de Mayo—that’s Spanish for “Fifth of May”—has nothing to do with Mexican independence, but commemorates an unlikely victory over the French in 1862 when they came looking to settle a war debt.
It’s not even that big of a holiday in Mexico; but America took the idea and ran with it, turning it into a Mexican version of St. Patrick’s Day celebrating all things South of the Border. Naturally, copious quantities of tequila are involved.
But the whole lime-squeezing, salt-licking, shot-pounding tradition of tequila is an American invention. Go to Mexico and you’ll see the national spirit being saluted, sipped and savored, not swigged, slammed and swallowed so fast the wealth of notes, aromas, and mysteries fly by with nary a notice.
To see what all the fuss is about, here are three tequilas to introduce what Mexico is really all about.
Alacrán Blanco: The Exuberance of Youth
“None of the available tequilas in the marketplace pleased us; we thought they were boring, too ‘permed,’” says Ernesto Ibarra Henkel, CEO of Alacrán Tequila. “We wanted a fresh, new mash. We wanted a white tequila you could drink straight without feeling overwhelmed by alcohol.”
Enter Alacrán, a bottle of tequila that’s hard to miss for a simple reason: contrast. Walk into the tequila section of your local boozery and the tsunami of flowery skulls, sparkly sombreros and swooshy flamenco skirts will sweep you away, leaving nothing but a bad Speedy Gonzales impersonation in its wake. Alacrán speaks for itself, with a sleek, simple, and distinctive matte black bottle emblazoned with a scorpion (“alacrán”, in Spanish).
But it’s what pours out of it is that does the talking. Who needs snappy packaging when you have a diamond-clear, crystalline ultra premium spirit made from 100 per cent blue agave, with an intensely sweet notes followed quickly by a spicy, peppery kick?
So far it’s worked like a charm. Henkel, a young upstart, in operation only since 2011, has created a true luxury blanco. No slow build-up here; reviewers, including this one, have been easily won over. But don’t let the simplicity fool you; underneath that smooth taste and natural scent, Alacrán still packs a punch in the form of an ABV of 40 percent, enough to make a shot or a margarita a force to be reckoned with.
Herradura Reposado: A Woman’s Touch
When Maria Teresa Lara López took over as Master Distiller for Casa Herradura four years ago, not only was she one of the very few women in the world to hold the title, she found herself in charge of a tequila that gave the category the term “reposado.” Herradura, easily identifiable by its horseshoe motif, introduced the first officially-recognized reposado back in 1974. No pressure. Really.
“I pay attention to every detail,” López says. “We craft it using only mature blue agave, artisanal methods, such as slowly cooking the agave in traditional clay ovens and fermenting naturally with wild yeast. Everything about our tequila is a 100 per cent natural, from color to flavor.”
After being distilled twice, the tequila is aged in American white oak barrels for 11 months, creating a sumptuously copper-colored reposado, with an aroma dashed with agave, anise, fruit and spices. lowing smoothly across the palate with sweet notes of cooked agave, vanilla, butter and dried fruit, and finishing with hint of brown spice, Herradura has swept up most of the critical awards, from the standard-setting San Francisco World Spirits Competition to the hip Ultimate Spirits Challenge.
Yes, it does bare an eerie resemblance to that thing that burst out of John Hurt’s stomach in Alien, but the object lurking in the Milagro bottle is actually a hand-blown sculpture of a piña, the heart of the agave plant, and the foundation of all tequilas. That doesn’t make them equal, however.
Jaime Salas, Milagro’s “brand ambassador” and resident wiz-kid for all things tequila, tells how creators Daniel Schneeweiss and Moises Guindi went to a local watering hole and were left apathetic.
“Both grew up there and had an appreciation for the techniques of traditional tequila making,” says Salas. “What they didn’t appreciate was the tequila they were served that day.”
So Schneeweiss and Guindi came up with Milagro, Spanish for miracle.
“Using clay ovens, we slow roast the agave longer than most distillers,” Salas explains. Triple-distilled, Select Barrel Reserve Añejo is then aged for three years in French white oak barrels, yielding a smooth and full-bodied spirit that’s an intriguing mixture of sweetness and oak.
And more. All that alchemy creates a golden amber color and a nose of vanilla and caramel with oak aromas, backed up by a taste imbued of strong oak notes with hints of vanilla, caramel, unsweetened chocolate, tobacco leaves and butterscotch, before gliding out with a dry finish.
You almost don’t notice the 40 per cent ABV kick. And incongruously, this really good tequila owes its existence to a really bad one. Necessity, after all, being the mother of invention.