Great Tequila: It’s More than Margaritas

Tequila shot

There’s a lot to know about great tequila.

Wine lovers know that the flavor and quality of wine is dependent on geography and geology. Much like wine – tequila is also greatly affected by the location of the agave plant that it came from. A major difference, however is that while wine grapes are grown virtually all over the globe, tequila is distilled from agave grown in a very limited area with just two variations – high lands or low lands.

The production of a fermented beverage from the agave plant goes back to the ancient Aztecs. The “modern” version – tequila – dates back to the year 1600, when it was first mass-produced by Don Pedro Sanchez de Tagle.

The Rare Blue Agave

Blue agave, the type from which tequila is distilled, is found only in Mexico, principally in the area around Tequila, Guadalajara and in the state of Jalisco, in the highlands of western Mexico. The blue agave is a succulent perennial – grown in the rich blue volcanic soil of western Mexico. The plants, which are a dusty greenish blue, can grow quite large and require 7 – 8 years to mature enough to be used for tequila production. The main body of the agave plant can reach more than 7 ft. in height. Agaves also sprout a main stalk which can grow an additional 16 feet and are topped with yellow flowers. (A 50 year old agave plant in a Boston Greenhouse grew to a height of 30 feet!)

Blue agave field

Blue agave, the plant that produces tequila, only grows in Mexico.

For commercial usage, the stalk is removed to avoid flowering and to channel more energy into the heart of the plant. When a plant has reached an appropriate maturity, the bitter outer leaves are removed to reveal the pina, the heart of the agave. Plants grown at a higher altitude produce tequila that is sweeter in aroma and taste than plants from the lowlands, which are more herbaceous.

The Proof in the Tasting

Tequila production

Producing tequila is a pain-staking job that requires lots of hand-on labor. Here the juice is squeezed from the agave pulp.

Olmeca Altos, is a distillery located high in the hills of Jalisco. Altos – which means the highlands in Spanish – boasts some of the best tasting tequila on the market, at least according to participants in a blind taste test held recently at Cactus restaurant in the Lake Union district of Seattle. Altos was lined up with both un-aged (blanco) and aged (reposado) varieties such as Cuervo 1800, Cazadores and El Jimador. The range of taste, feel and aroma of the different tequilas was extraordinary.

The tequila was served in two flights of small, elegant snifters. The Altos Reposado, in particular, was very smooth with an after-burst of citrus and vanilla flavors. No surprise to the tasters, the Altos Reposado won the gold in the 2012 International Wine and Spirit Competition.

Olmeca Altos Tequila

The tequila sampling included both Olmeca’s Blanco (unaged) and Reposada (aged) tequilas.

The tasting was led by Altos’ Maestro Tequilero Jesús Hernandez, who supervises the entire production from harvest to bottling. Jesús is a native of Jalisco, although he moved with his family to California at the age of 11. In 1994, he returned to Jalisco armed with a degree in architecture and years of experience in bottling facilities. In 1997, he signed on at Altos as Maestro Tequilero.

Accompanying Jesús was Steffin Oghene, who could very well be one of the only “tequila geeks” from his native Scotland. He certainly has to be the only Scottish tequila geek with an afro! Steffin has worked in the hospitality industry since he was 14, mainly in Scotland and England, and now serves as Brand Ambassador for Olmeca Altos. As he led the tasting experience, his love of tequila was clearly evident.

Cactus: Great Tequila, Delicious Food

Olmeca executives

Olmeca Altos’ brand ambassador (left) and master distiller helped us unravel the many secrets of great tequila.

Cactus, which hosted the tasting, is one of the Seattle area’s premier Mexican restaurants. (Cactus has four locations in Seattle.) Its décor is warm and colorful, and the staff is unfailingly friendly and helpful.

Cactus, Scallopps, Seattle

At Cactus, they specialize in Southwest and Mexican dishes with a Northwest twist.

Using lots of fresh and local ingredients, Cactus offers a delightful dining experience. The appetizers served reflected the adventurousness of the Cactus menu, which features all the favorites from the Southwest and Mexico, but with a unique Northwest twist. The Smoked Chicken Quesadilla and the Pepper and Goat Cheese Quesadilla were the crowd favorites. Also delicious was the Camarones d’el Diablo, prawns in diablo sauce and mango-pineapple mojo).


What’s better than great Southwest/Mexican food served with fine tequila?

You can even do your own tequila tasting in the bar at Cactus with the Tequila Sampler. Your choice of three of the many Tequilas carried are served on a tasting board. It’s great fun for sampling and sharing. Top it off with some delicious Southwest flavors – and you’ve got yourself a party! – Elizabeth Fagin, RFT Contributor

Photos courtesy Olmeca Altos



Elizabeth Fagin

Elizabeth Fagin has been an educator and a writer for more than 20 years. She enjoys reading, travel and adventure. And she thinks all of those go better with a nice glass of wine.

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