Everything you need to know about tequila and mezcal

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This image features a bottle of tequila and a bottle of mezcal alongside each other.

Tequila and mezcal are spirits that owe everything to their raw ingredient. It is the character of agave – the spiky succulent that grows in Mexico’s hot, arid climate – that gives these spirits their earthy, smoky flavour. They have inherent terroir; it’s about that plant, in that place. 

And we’re drinking more of it than ever before. Last year, Mexico produced more than 350 million litres of tequila, up 45% since 2014. A huge 70% of that is being exported, mainly to the US. While still on a much smaller scale, mezcal production more than trebled between 2014 and 2018, reaching more than 5 million litres. When our Spirits Buyer Rob Whitehead first took over buying spirits in 2010, Berry Bros. & Rudd didn’t stock any agave spirits. Now, there are a dozen lining our shelves from five different producers, with the range rapidly growing to meet customer demand.  

So what is it about these unique spirits that have seen their reputation – and their sales – grow so much in the last few years? With some help from Rob, we break down their unique flavour, their styles and their production process. 

Tequila and mezcal 

While these two products tend to be talked about as though they’re separate entities, the connection between them is still a source of confusion to many consumers. The reality, though, is actually quite simple: tequila has to be made in the state of Jalisco and a few other municipalities in neighbouring states, and only with blue agave. Mezcal, on the other hand, is much more varied: it can be made in eight different areas of Mexico, and can be made with more than 40 different types of agave (also known as maguey).  

In layman’s terms, it’s as simple as knowing that all tequilas are mezcals, but only a few mezcals can be called tequila. The confusion that remains, though, is a contributor to some of the misconceptions people have about agave spirits: specifically the idea that mezcal is an upmarket alternative to tequila that’s better for sipping. There are plenty of mezcals on the market that make beautiful sipping spirits, but there are lots of fantastic tequilas, too. 

Mezcal’s artisanal history 

Mezcal is made far and wide across Mexico, with so many different species of agave. As our Buyer Rob Whitehead explains, this results in mezcal being perceived as “more characterful, and less safe” than many tequilas, often with more intense and varied flavours. They’re often made in a more “traditional” way, and almost invariably in smaller volumes and limited-run batches. Before the last generation of producers, mezcal was almost exclusively consumed by those who made it, or sold to their neighbours. It’s only relatively recently that this spirit has been commercialised.  

The core ingredient 

Each type of agave offers its own specific flavour profile, thriving in different soils and microclimates, needing more or less time to mature. Espadín is the most common variety used for mezcal, but Tepextate is often deemed the best – largely because this enormous breed has a low sugar content (meaning more is needed to produce the same volume of mezcal), and can take up to 30 years to mature (versus eight to 12 years for Espadín). Today the type of agave, as well as where it grows, takes pride of place on mezcal bottles. Furthermore, where field blends were once the norm, there’s a move towards varietal expressions, celebrating the diversity of agave. 

The production process 

Of course, it isn’t just about the raw ingredient; there is extraordinary craft involved in producing tequila or mezcal – and very little has changed in the way it’s made. Once mature, a jimador harvests the agave by hand, using an axe or machete to cut down the agave plant and remove its spiky leaves (which would otherwise add a bitter note to the final spirit). The heart of the plant that remains is the piña, which is chopped in half and cooked, softening the piña for milling and converting the complex carbohydrates into fermentable sugars. Traditionally this takes place in stone-lined pits in the ground, or earthenware ovens – and, generally speaking, the slower the cooking, the better. The cooked piña is then ground: for smaller producers this takes place in a stone pit, with a one-ton stone wheel – a tahona – turned by horse or ox (although this stage of the process is now mechanised at larger producers). 

Next comes the fermentation – with all the same decisions that you’d imagine for wine, from the sort of yeast used to the length and temperature, impacting the final flavour. Time is key here: the longer and slower the fermentation, the more complex the resulting liquid will be – and it can take anything from 24 hours to several weeks. The resulting liquid is then distilled, normally twice in small pot stills, with the aim of a lower alcohol level to retain as much flavour as possible. The spirit is then either bottled or aged in oak (normally ex-Bourbon casks) and then bottled. 

Most important, Ben Schroder explains, is that there is no recipe, there are no written rules or measurements. “A lot is based on smell and aroma, about knowing when the ferment or fire is ready; it would take a long time for a master mezcalero to train someone else, because it’s all based on feeling.” With such craft credentials, it’s no surprise that mezcal has become the bartender’s drink of choice – and one that’s fast gaining ground with those on the other side of the bar. 

Agave and sustainability 

As agave spirits rocket in popularity, the road ahead isn’t necessarily easy. Climate change poses a challenge, and there is also the question of sustainability. With such a slow-growing crop, supply is struggling to meet the rising demand – and, as a result, the price of raw agave is increasing. It’s encouraging, however, to see significant players like Patrón pushing for sustainability, especially when it comes to waste management. They take any waste agave (all but the piña) from both their own production and that of any neighbours to make organic compost, which in turn is offered free to other producers; as well as using reverse osmosis to enable them to recycle excess distillate as water. 

The future of agave  

So what’s next? While historically, tequila might have been destined for margaritas and other cocktails, the emphasis today – especially with mezcal – is on enjoying these spirits solo. But cocktails will undoubtedly remain the gateway to agave spirits for new consumers. From being the top of everyone’s holiday destination wish list, to our enthusiasm for the nation’s vibrant art, culture and flavours, this might just be Mexico’s moment – and it’s possible agave spirits are riding the wave. But these remarkable spirits can’t just be a fad. As Rob Whitehead explains, “Agave is so tasty, so weird, so mad, so characterful: there’s nothing like it.” 

Two of our favourites

Arette Blanco, Tequila (38%) 

This is the first Tequila we ever stocked and is the perfect start for any voyage into the world of agave. Deliciously smooth and smoky with vegetal intensity, this benchmark unaged Tequila tastes exactly as it should. (£55.55)

Gran Patrón, Burdeos, Añejo, Tequila (40%) 

This extraordinary spirit is closer to a fine single malt than anything else. Aged in American oak for a year, then distilled a third time, this Tequila spends time in new French oak, and then ex-Bordeaux barrels (hence the name, Burdeos, which is Bordeaux in Spanish). The result is viscous with layers of toffee popcorn, caramel, vanilla and dried fruit – but still with an underlying earthiness that speaks of its agave roots. (£250) 

Category: Spirits

What we’re drinking: Our favourite wines

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This image shows a line-up of wines and spirits selected by our staff, featuring an English sparkling wine, Bollinger's Pinot Noir and The Macallan Whiskey.

Our experts relish any opportunity to help you discover something new – as much as they love a good wine itself. Here are a few of their favourites, from Bollinger’s lesser-known Pinot Noir to Hambledon’s sparkling wine. So dive in, find out what our team are drinking, and perhaps you’ll find a new favourite, too.

An unexpected red

2015 Coteaux Champenois, La Côte aux Enfants Rouge, Bollinger, Champagne

A still Pinot Noir from Bollinger? Why not. This is 100% Pinot Noir, originating from a single parcel of four hectares called “La Cote aux Enfants” – a very small production dedicated only to the greatest vintages. The result is a concentrated, powerful wine, with great ageing potential. It has an intense ruby colour, and the nose has notes of cloves, spice and pepper, reminiscent of Blaufränkisch (a black-skinned, blackberry-flavoured grape), along with truffles and sweet spices. On the palate, flavours like cherry, kirsch, prunes and hints of rose emerge – very Burgundy. This is, in short, a distinctive red wine from my favourite Champagne producer.

Dario Cinti, Wine Advisor

An English sparkling wine

2015 Berry Bros. & Rudd, English Sparkling, Blanc de Blancs by Hambledon Vineyards, Hampshire, England

Having celebrated a “big” birthday recently, I was lucky enough to receive a bottle of 2015 Berry Bros. & Rudd, English Sparkling, Blanc de Blancs by Hambledon. As celebratory bottles go, this one was a triumph. This English expression of Burgundy’s classic white grape (Chardonnay) instantly entices with piquant gooseberry and lychee aromas. If your mouth isn’t watering already, the invigorating acidity carries lemon, biscuit crumb and crisp, green apple flavours onto a creamily smooth finish. A superb, homegrown alternative to Champagne for a celebration, or something to make “Fish Friday” that little bit more decadent – it’s the perfect accompaniment to cod and chips!

Alexandra Gray de Walden, Product Master Data Administator

A comforting classic

The Macallan, 12-Year-Old, Double Cask, Speyside, Single Malt Scotch Whisky (40%)

In times of turbulence and uncertainty, an approach I sometimes favour is to lean into the comfort of the classics. From the Beatles to Beethoven, Mark Twain to toad-in-the-hole, familiarity can be just the tonic for a weary soul. Very few distilleries can even attempt to claim the plaudits heaped upon The Macallan. My current preferred bottle, kept always within reach, is the lusciously fruity Double Cask 12-year-old.

Rob Whitehead, Spirits Buyer

A poignant tribute

2015 Saumur Blanc, Chenin du Puy

We were all saddened at the recent news that Loire winemaker Frédéric Mabileau died in a light aircraft crash. As our Loire Buyer, Adam Bruntlett, said: “He was someone who was always asking questions of himself, always trying to improve and was open to hearing new ideas.” Last week, I drank his 2015 Saumur Blanc, Chenin du Puy, which I had picked up in our Summer Sale. Sadly, it has now all gone but his incredible 2017 Cabernet Franc is still available. The 2015 Saumur was in a good spot, five years into its life and still full of that vibrancy and “bitter minerality” that marks so many of the Loire Chenin Blancs. I had it with roast chicken, but it would stand up to a mild curry because of how rich it is. Full of complexity and depth, the 2015 Saumur is a worthy tribute to its maker.

Will Wrightson, Fine Wine Marketing Manager

Category: What we're drinking

On your reading list: Inside Bordeaux

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Jane Anson, photographed at Berry Bros. & Rudd
Photograph: Elena Heatherwick

Wine writer, author and critic Jane Anson has recently released her latest book, Inside Bordeaux. She is the winner of the Ramos Pinto Online Communicator 2020 award at the Louis Roederer International Wine Writers’ Awards 2020. We talk to her about mapping out Bordeaux’s wine regions in painstaking detail and uncovering the secrets of its terroir.

Back in 2003, Jane Anson packed up her mother’s old BMW 628 with her husband and six-month-old daughter in tow. She thought she was off to France only for a year or so. “It was completely mad. We didn’t have a plan; we just drove to Bordeaux,” she laughs. Some 17 years later, she calls the world’s most famous wine region home.

Jane Anson on Inside Bordeaux

BB&R Press published Jane’s latest book Inside Bordeaux in May. It may be a 700-plus page epic guide – with enough material to satisfy the most enthusiastic of wine geeks – but it’s also a gripping read, keeping the less initiated turning pages. “In every case I’ve asked myself, ‘Why am I writing about this château?’”, she says. “They’re only in the book if I’m telling you something interesting: who’s making the wines now, what’s different, what’s interesting or why it’s worth finding them.”

Jane’s hope is that people who pick up the book will feel excited – enlightened, even; her aim is that readers can look at the region in a new, re-energised light. As she puts it, “We’re trying to move the conversation about Bordeaux forward.”

A head start

When she arrived in Bordeaux, Jane immersed herself in studying the art and science of wine. She worked through WSET courses and a diploma in wine tasting from the Institute of Vine & Wine Science (ISVV). She initially secured a writing job at Decanter, later deciding that she was ready to start tasting professionally. “After about six years as the Bordeaux correspondent I got to the point where I wanted to go deeper,” she says, “to properly understand the soils of Bordeaux. I wanted to explore all the things that we talk about for Burgundy: are they true for Bordeaux and why? I didn’t want to write something that would just scratch the surface. I absolutely know that there’s a tonne of stuff in this book which we’re writing for the first time.”

Mapping out the region

The key to breaking this new ground came from a contact made while Jane was studying for her diploma. “I’d spoken to Kees van Leeuwen, a professor at the ISVV, about translating his scientific knowledge into a more readable format, but that would have just been about terroir. I was so lucky that he agreed to do loads of new maps for this book. They’re so ground-breaking that they will now be used to teach new students of oenology and viticulture in van Leeuwen’s classes. And that’s really exciting.”

The finer details

As you might expect, Inside Bordeaux takes you through the Left and Right Banks. What might surprise you is the level of detail and analysis that, Jane believes, has never been brought together. “On the Left Bank, there are six key gravel terraces that have an impact on the taste profile of the wines. We have mapped them from the Médoc down through Pessac-Léognan to Graves and Sauternes, showing how they differ. That information was all out there but never in one place. Then on the Right Bank a key feature is the limestone plateau. It’s often just talked about in St Emilion but we’ve mapped it all across Fronsac, Montagne St Emilion, Castillon. Feedback even from the winemakers is that they are using it to further their understanding.”

there are these gravel terraces, which people know about but not really: what we’ve done is go all the way from the Médoc down through Pessac-Léognan to Graves and Sauternes, showing how they differ. That information was all out there but never in one place. Then on the Right Bank you have all these limestone cliffs, and it’s often just talked about in St Emilion but we’ve done it all across Fronsac, Montagne St Emilion, Castillon. Even the winemakers are going to be learning new stuff.”

The terroir of Bordeaux

“We think that Bordeaux doesn’t have terroir in the same way that Burgundy does, but these things make a huge, genuine difference to what your wine is going to taste like. It means you can start thinking, ‘Ah, that’s why I like Pomerol, because it’s that kind of soil.’” Then, Jane explains, once you’ve unlocked that information, you have the key to discovering all sorts of new wines. “We’ve found other areas of Bordeaux that have similar types of soil – which might be less expensive – so you can use it as a signpost to find unknown or less expensive wines.”

Of course, Bordeaux is not all undiscovered terroir – it is after all home to the world’s most famous wines. Jane’s work shows why it’s not money, marketing or family that have made the region’s biggest names, but their terroir. “There is a reason why Lafite can make a 12.5% wine in 2018 when everybody else was making 14%, or 15% wines. It’s the soil: eight to 10-metre-deep fine gravel.” Simply put, she explains, gravel is elegance; clay is power; sand is aromatics. “Latour has a lot of gravel but it has a lot of clay as well, and that’s why Latour is a much more powerful wine than Lafite, and why Lafite is a much more elegant wine than Latour. When those things fall into place, it’s really cool: it adds another level and appreciation and understanding.”

A changing landscape

Considering the region’s terroir brings Jane to the next big issue that her book addresses: climate change. As the world warms, and winemakers find themselves dealing with increasingly unpredictable weather, Jane has interpreted the maps to highlight where is likely to cope best.

“It’s increasingly important, with the change in climate, to look where might be good as it gets hotter,” she explains. “If you’ve got a particularly hot summer like 2003, the traditional places that get really ripe might get overripe, so you can start to look where you can get some of those qualities without it having been pushed so far.” This is exciting stuff. No matter which vintage you, as a consumer, are looking at buying into, Inside Bordeaux can help you decode what you should be buying and from where.

She has been equally rigorous about which properties she should include. “I wanted it to be different,” she explains. “One of the things that I, personally, am very interested in is organic wines, biodynamic wines, green winemaking – the people trying to do something different.”

Inside Bordeaux by Jane Anson is out now. Order your copy here.

Category: Bordeaux Wine

A summer’s end starter

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A summer starter recipe of creamy burrata, courgettes and peas
Photograph: Joe Woodhouse

This full-flavoured recipe delves into the veg patch’s sunniest corners to combine oversized courgettes and instantly evocative herbs with lusciously indulgent burrata. It’s a slice of late summer on a plate

This simple starter comprises some of my favourite late-summer ingredients – and everything can be made in advance (so it’s perfect for easy entertaining). Campania is the spiritual home of Mozzarella, but its more indulgent sibling, burrata, is from neighbouring Apulia. Local flavour combinations are often the best, so here we include Amalfi coast lemons. And, when it comes to wine matches, this should work in harmony with the whites of the region.

Burrata with courgettes, peas and lemon

  • 1 yellow courgette
  • 2 large courgettes
  • 2 cloves of garlic – smashed
  • 3 sprigs of thyme
  • 1 small chilli – deseeded and finely chopped
  • Half a bunch of basil – picked
  • 1 lemon
  • Half a bunch of mint
  • 150g fresh peas – picked and blanched
  • 250g burrata
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper
  • Olive oil

Split the courgettes lengthways, and pan-fry the halves (cut-side down) in a good glug of olive oil, for two to three minutes, until nicely caramelised. Then add the smashed garlic, thyme and basil stalks and cook for a further two minutes. Turn the courgettes over and continue to cook until they’re just tender. Remove from the pan and set aside.

Place the peas in a bowl and season to taste. Mix in the zest of half a lemon and the chopped mint.

Finely slice the yellow courgette into thin rounds and place in a bowl. About five minutes before you are ready to serve, season with salt, pepper, a pinch of chopped chilli and a pinch of finely chopped garlic. Finish with a squeeze of lemon juice and a good glug of extra virgin olive oil.

Drain the burrata, place in a colander and tear into large chunks, retaining any of the creamy liquid that comes from the cheese.

To serve, warm the courgette halves. The yellow courgettes should have wilted slightly, so drain off the liquid if there is any. Mix this with the liquid from the burrata and a good splash of oil to form a dressing. Place the warm courgette in the centre of a platter, scatter over the pea mix and the torn burrata, finish with the dressed courgette slices and some torn basil leaves, then spoon over the dressing.

What to drink – recommended wine pairing from Barbara Drew MW

For a fresh, citrussy summer match to this recipe, head straight to Italy and pour a glass of Roberto Sarotto’s Gavi di Gavi. Made from the Cortese grape, the tangy grapefruit pith flavours will pick out the fresh pea and herb flavours and cut through the richness of the cheese.

Alternatively, taking our cue from Head Chef, another classic pairing for this dish would be a Southern Italian white wine; one from Campania, such as the Fiano by Vigneti Tardis, would work well. A complex wine, with plenty of weight and a hint of creaminess, this will complement the burrata superbly – a match that is as much about texture as flavour.

Further afield, look for whites with a balance of fruit and lemony freshness – New World Sauvignon Blanc would be an excellent choice. Our own New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc by Isabel Estate has just the right mix of tropical and green fruit, and a pleasingly round mouthfeel to offset the mouthwatering acidity.

Category: Miscellaneous