March 6, 2014

A tequila-tasting education

Originally published in the Portland Phoenix on February 20, 2014

Outside, the city is digging out from under its fourth (or is it fifth?) heavy snowfall. But inside Zapoteca Restaurante y Tequileria, a warming bit of Mexico can be found in the form of an extensive selection of tequila. Sit at the bar in a luxe, dark-leather bar stool, and let the knowledgeable staff pour you a flight of warming libations or a snifter of an aged liquor that’s the color of caramel.

If your only experience with tequila involves the grimace after the lick-slam-squeeze of a salt and lime shooter, you may be surprised to hear that tequila is now being treated stateside with the same reverence as bourbon and scotch. Similarly, tequila has its own Appellation of Origin, a set of standards governing the production of tequila. In order for tequila to be called tequila, it has to be from specific territories of Mexico and produced in compliance with standards that cover everything from the fermentation process to the packaging.

Tequila is made from the blue agave plant, which grows in Mexico, South America, and the Southwest United States. The succulents resemble aloe with their thick, fleshy leaves, and are harvested for their hearts, like an artichoke. These hearts or piñas look like large, starchy pineapples and are split and roasted traditionally in a stone or brick oven, called a horno (hence Sauza’s Hornitos). The roasting process breaks down the agave’s starches into fermentable sugars. The roasted agave hearts are then crushed to release their juices, which is fermented in a process very similar to that of beer. The mildly-alcoholic agave wort is then distilled twice to produce tequila.

If the tequila is unaged, it’s called blanco or silver and is the best way to taste the pure agave flavors. Reposado or ‘rested’ tequila is then aged in oak barrels for two to 12 months. Reposado tequilas are great sipping tequilas for beginners, since the aging frequently mellows the more lively flavors of tequila (think pepper, citrus) and adds complexity. Añejo is aged for one to three years, and extra añejo is aged for a minimum of three years. Añejo tequilas are comparable to Scotch whiskey, infused with smoky flavors from the charred oak barrels in which they’re aged.

To decide which style you like best, head to Zapoteca for a flight of tequila. Zapoteca boasts the largest collection of tequila and mezcals in Maine (close to 80), which are managed by Sergio Ramos, who has completed the “Award T” certification course from the Tequila Regulatory Council of Mexico. A flight of tequila offers the three styles of tequila from one brand, giving you a chance to see how the flavors of the tequila change as it’s aged. The flights range in price from $15 to $80 and come with a palate-cleansing side of sangrita, a spicy slurry of fire-roasted tomatillos traditionally served alongside tequila to complement its acidity.

Recently, I sampled a flight of Tres Generaciones ($18). The silver tasted like you expect fine tequila should — peppery with a clean finish. As I moved onto the reposado, the spiciness mellowed, and I tasted fruity, vanilla notes. The añejo tasted much like the reposado, but with a slight smokiness. I preferred the reposado, and even moved on to the Casamigo reposado served neat ($13), which left a lingering caramel flavor in the finish.

At Zapoteca, you can also sample mezcal, another type of Mexican agave liquor. Mezcal is a catch-all phrase used to describe any liquor made from agave (including tequila). But the best mezcals come from the Mexican state of Oaxaca, and Zapoteca has several for you to try. While you may associate tequila more with patios and summertime, why not take advantage of the slower pace of winter in Maine to embrace a tequila education?

ZAPOTECA RESTAURANTE Y TEQUILERIA | 505 Fore St, Portland | 207.772.8242 or