Understand the allure of these agave based liquors: tequila and mezcal

As one of the most regulated spirits in the world, tequila and mezcal have gained increasing popularity in recent years. In fact, tequila is known as the first product to receive a denomination of origin outside of Europe.

Co-founder of COA in Hong Kong (Asia’s Best Bar 2021), Jay Khan has passionately been educating the market on 100 per cent agave tequila and traditional mezcal, helping put these spirits on the map in Southeast Asia. We talk to him to learn more about these hot-topic tipples.

“One special characteristic about both tequila and mezcal is the amount of time it requires to make them. Just the raw ingredient for tequila (blue agave) takes an average of six to eight years to mature before it is ready to harvest,” he remarks, underscoring the delicacy and nuances attributed to the production process of what is often called one of the least understood spirits. “Some varieties of agave used for Mezcal can take as long as 30 years,” he adds, saying that “they are very terroir driven, just like wine.” The liquor’s flavour profile often reflects the terrain that it’s produced in ways that not many others are able to.

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Clearly region and terroir are key to not only the natural materials, but also the name for each of these spirits. However, remember that all tequilas are mezcal, but not all mezals are tequilas.

While both are made from the fermented juices of the agave plant, for tequila location is everything. This beverage is only allowed to be produced in Mexico, in five specific states: Jalisco, Nayarit, Michoacan, Guanajuato, Tamaulipas. Khan tells us that Jalisco is the dominant state responsible for 90% of all tequila exports today. For Mezcal, Oaxaca is currently responsible for a majority of today’s product. Much like Champange, these too are region-specific. “If a spirit is made outside [of the area] it needs to be called something else. Most often [they are] called Agave spirits,” he says.

The many fans of the more notable smokey, deep, caramel flavours of agave liquors remain unsure of the exact differences between tequila and mezcal, but a key bit of information to take note of is that tequila is only allowed to be produced from a single variety (blue agave), while mezcal can be made from a variety of agave variants. “As many as 40 or more,” Khan comments. Out of 166 agave variants, 125 come from Mexico, and tequila can only be made from one.

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When asked what made this expert fall in love with agave in the first place he said simply: “[its] diversity”. “The flavours and varieties are immense in this category,” Khan expounds. “The [taste] spectrum is very diverse based on the variety used [for mezcal]. However agave spirits are often associated with savoury flavours, [which] can range from citrus, fruit, floral, pepper, and even cheese and smoke (especially for mezcal),” he elaborates.

Interestingly, Khan shares that for unaged tequila and mezcal, “these products, except for water, are unadulterated. Thinking of all the natural flavours available is just mind-blowing.” You may have noticed a variance in colour to these spirits, ranging from clear to gold, and amber. Many tequilas are unaged and bottled after distillation; these blancos remain clear in colour and boast a brighter, citrus profile on the palate with more of the agave plant’s flavour. Reposado, anejo or extra anejo tequilas on the other hand are rested, or aged for a few months and up to several years, gaining hints of colour (plus a more caramel-like flavour) through their time in oak barrels.

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With a plethora of tastes and a symphony of layers to each sip from every kind of agave-based spirit, learning how best to consume it is an art in itself. Khan reminds us that “there’s no right or wrong way [to appreciate these beverages]. Drink them the way you like them.”

Since each one is born out of the culinary capital of Mexico, a country bursting with a beautifully rich cuisine and food culture, there are time-tested traditions to consuming both. “For tequila, it is popularly served with a sangrita in Guadalajara and mezcal with a plate of fresh fruits sprinkled with worm salt in Oaxaca (a traditional salt which is a mixture of smoke-dried worms with salt and pepper added),” Khan shares. He on the contrary prefers to take each one without any pairings.

To this agave expert, pairing the spirit neat with food is too overpowering for a meal. Instead, he suggests serving tequila or mezcal based cocktails. If indulging in something packed with spices, go for a refreshing sip; when delighting in a greasy cheat meal, opt for a tart order; and upon enjoying a sweet meal finisher, interestingly Khan suggests choosing an even sweeter tipple–one that can keep up with the desserts sugariness instead of falling into the background.\

With more players entering the game and more attention being paid to agave-based products, there is undoubtedly a great deal more to comprehend–a task we will embark on, one sip at a time. 

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