Cinco de Mayo – 5th of May – is a day of celebration for tequila lovers the world over. So much so that many believe it to be Mexico’s Independence Day, yet in truth the day celebrates Mexico’s triumph at the Battle of Puebla over the French 155 years ago. General Zaragoza’s unlikely victory became a source of pride for the country marked with military parades and celebrations across Mexico, only overshadowed by the country’s actual Independence Day that occurred 50 years earlier on September 16th – let’s not mention the French coming back a year later and winning the re-match!
Celebrations started in California after the victory in 1862 and continue to this day. The Mexican population living in America tend to celebrate it more than the people living in Mexico but they are also more likely to celebrate the 4th of July too as this is the national day of their adopted country. The holiday came into vogue in the 1940s and spread across the country, gaining real traction in the 1980s when beer companies, and indeed tequila brands, capitalized on the celebrations. The Americans just love to party and drink tequila and with the amount of tequila sold in America it is a big opportunity for the tequila brands to shift some bottles.
Since the second world war tequila has become a big business in the US and the rest of the world. Moving away from the college ritual of a shot and a lime wedge into sipping aged liquids and cocktail serve has seen sales of tequila in the US rise from under a billion dollars in 2003 to over $2.5 billion in 2014, with the category growing year on year and the volume sold doubling between 2003 and 2016. In the UK a similar story is seen with a 37% increase in the past two years to £173million in 2016. London is often seen to lead trends in the alcohol industry and yet recent data shows that Yorkshire as a region has seen the highest growth in volume – up 16% on last year!
Tequila’s march forward into the psyche of drinkers across the world started with US colleges in the 1990s with mixto tequila consumed as a shot with lime and salt, becoming the ubiquitous party drink often seen in films. Yet today’s category growth is not in mixto tequilas but in more refined, premium tequilas made from 100% Blue Weber Agave, and also in more aged variants. This has thrown the category wide open with premium tequila becoming known for expressing terroir (the impact of the region’s soil, climate and environment on the flavour).
But what’s the difference?
Mixto tequila, synonymous with house parties in the 90s, brightly coloured cocktails and university hangovers must contain a minimum of 51% Blue Weber Agave spirit, the remaining 49% made up of other alcohols – predominantly corn spirit used because it is cheap and easy to produce, and has a touch of sweetness. This mass-produced style brought tequila to the wider world and so we have a lot to thank it for.
100% Blue Agave tequila, as the name suggestions is spirit made from 100% Blue Weber Agave, giving a cleaner, purer taste, and resulting a spirit that expresses the terroir in which it is produced. A key example is the difference between highland and lowland tequilas where the highland produces sweeter, floral liquid and lowland or valley tequilas have a distinct peppery, herbal taste. It is this arguably more artisan product that is now driving the growth of tequila in both the on and off trade.
Whisky, cognac and other spirits have made a big deal about the maturation process and how this changes the nature of the liquid to make a richer, smoother spirit. Using different types of oak or other wood, placing the barrels in different warehouses, using different barrels that have contained other spirits or wines. All have an effect on the flavour of the spirit and of course add a nice dimension to the brand story.
Many tequila brands now use this process to age and mature their liquid, releasing tequilas aged from 2 months to more than 7 years. Reposado tequila is aged for 2-12 months and gains a light amber colour with hints of vanilla on the palate; older Anejo tequila is aged for up to 36 months resulting in a deep golden amber hue and rich indulgent flavours of tobacco, caramel and leather much like an aged bourbon. Muy (extra) Anejo tequilas are becoming increasingly popular, aged for other 3 years with powerful whisky-like flavours. However, the price of such releases is high – in Scotland the ‘Angel’s Share’ of liquid lost to evaporation is relatively low (around 2%) a year, yet in the hot Mexican climate this is much larger, with the product ageing quicker but also with less product remaining each year. Care must be taken to avoid the delicate tasting agave plant being dominated by the oak, balancing the sweet spice notes from the barrel with the natural herbal flavours within the agave.
Drinks for Cinco de Mayo don’t stop with tequila though – as it becomes more popular so do other regional variations such as Sotol, Bacanora and Mezcal. In particular, Mezcal has become a bartenders’ favourite with its richer, smokier flavour that is more robust and able to take on some stronger flavours. Produced from a range of agave plants that each impart certain flavours; it is definitely something worth trying in a cocktail.
So, alongside sipping a variation on a classic Old Fashioned this Cinco de Mayo there are many other classic tequila mixed drinks to ease yourself in to the category, or to test the adaptability of Mexico’s greatest export.
Tequila Cocktail Recipes
Paloma - a delightfully refreshing summertime cocktail that is quick and easy to make
50ml Reposado tequila
15ml lime juice
Grapefruit Soda, such as Ting!
Simply build the drink in a tall glass filled with ice and garnish with a lime wedge.
Dulce de Tequila - tequila candy in drink form with a lovely touch of sweet orange.
35ml Reposado tequila
15ml Cognac (VS/VSOP)
10ml lime juice
10ml agave nectar
Shake all ingredients with ice and double strain into a chilled cocktail glass, garnish with a lemon twist.
Tequila Old-Fashioned – aged tequila adds a smooth vanilla note to this classic cocktail.
50ml Reposado or Anejo tequila
1 teaspoon agave nectar
2 slices orange
Black Walnut Bitter
Muddle the agave nectar and orange in a mixing glass, add ice and tequila and stir until well-chilled, slowly adding more ice if needed. Strain into an ice-filled old fashioned glass, add a few dashes of bitters and garnish with a thin slice of orange.
And if you just have to shot the stuff, try it with an accompanying shot of verdita – a bright green, refreshing palate cleanser taken just before the tequila.
To make a batch blend a handful of coriander, ½ the amount of mint, 2 green jalapenos, 1 litre of pineapple juice. Once blended well, chill for a few hours and it is good to go!