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What Is Tequila?

tequilaFirst, there are two ways to make tequila. If you know the difference, it is easy to spot. But if you don’t, it won’t be obvious.

All tequila is made from Tequilana Weber Azul Agave (Blue Agave), and all from the same region – the Mexican state of Jalisco near the city appropriately named Tequila. The Mexican government sets strict regulations on what can and can’t be done to call something tequila.

If ‘100%’ and ‘Agave’ and/or ‘Tequila’ show up on the label or bottle, then it is 100% blue agave – all harvested from Jalisco, distilled according to the highest standards, aged (or not for silver) in specific barrels, and bottled all in Jalisco.

So what if a bottle doesn’t say 100%? Well, this is where things get tricky. For starters, it is only required to contain 51% blue agave distillate in Jalisco to be labeled as tequila. The other 49% of the finished distilled product can be from any other agave source, or as the Mexican Government states it, ‘other sugars,’ which is rather vague. It does not need to be all distilled in Jalisco either. This type of tequila can be aged, though rarely is, but must still be bottled in Jalisco. So basically, it’s mostly blue agave and bottled in Jalisco. In this type of tequila, coloring and flavoring may be added.

There are five different types of tequila.

  • Blanco or plata means silver tequila and is clear and un-aged.
  • Joven or oro means gold tequila and is colored tequila.
  • Reposado must be aged for at least two months in oak barrels.
  • Anejo must be aged for at least one year in oak barrels.
  • Extra-Anejo must be aged for at least three years in oak barrels and is hard to find outside of Mexico.

Since all these ages are listed as minimums, two-year-old tequila can still be labeled as reposado, I will say it is uncommon, but nothing says it cannot be done.

As with all aged spirits, just because it’s aged longer does not mean it is better. The clean mineral, white pepper, and light citrus notes found in unaged tequilas will start to be overpowered quickly when put into oak barrels for aging. The older it is, the more oak you will taste and the less light delicate flavors of the blue agave you will be able to pick up.

So here I recommend you try to find the right balance for you, regardless of what the age is. Tequila is for more than shots. Well-crafted tequila sips like a well-crafted whiskey, with many layers of finer nuances.

Two final notes. Iif a distillery in Jalisco is licensed to make 100% tequila, they are not allowed to make anything other than tequila, and one distillery may be shared by multiple distillers all making their own labels.

Lastly, no tequila will ever have a worm in it. As soon as the worm is added, it is immediately reclassified as mezcal. Tequila is actually a type of mezcal. Mezcals are made from Maguey (Agave Americana), a type of agave, and it can be made most anywhere in Mexico. Flavorwise mexcal is very similar to tequila, but without many of the guidelines to be labeled tequila. So they will come in many styles, with and without worms. If you like tequila, you might want to give mezcal a shot as well. Mezcals are not substandard, in fact, some can be crafted with more care than their tequila counterparts.

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Boxed Wine, or Bag-In-a-Box

This really comes down to quality versus price. Twenty years ago, the quality of wine in a box was low and, to most, just plain bad.

Well, in the last 15 years, there has been a veritable renaissance in this area of wine. Some of the old school boxed wines are still out there, and they have started to increase their quality of boxed wines. But the real leaps forward in quality has been from new boxed wine producers.

These days there are hundreds of wineries producing box wines –  everything from the traditional $15, 5-liter box to some $40, 3-liter options.

First thing to note other than new found quality is the price per unit. A 3-liter box is equivalent to four standard 750ml bottles, or two 1.5-liter bottles (magnums). Since these boxes are the same as four bottles, a $20 box is the same as four $5 bottles.

But does that mean it tastes like a $5 bottle? The answer is no. Most $20 box wines will taste like a $10 bottle. Okay, so it’s not a super-premium wine, but it’s still a great bang for your buck. Not to mention instead of lasting a few days at best, box wines will last two to three months (refrigerated or not).

As far as value is concerned, box wines top the charts. There are some real gems on the market now. Can a $25 box wine stand up to a $15 bottle? Sounds crazy, but yes, it’s true. It’s all about finding the right fit for you.

Alongside these 3-liter and 5-liter boxes are also a fairly new innovation, the 500ml tetra box. These are sometimes known as mini-boxes. Most people will recognize these because they look a juice box. These are basically smaller versions to the boxes wine. But instead of a bag that deflates as you pour, the bag itself has been glued to the side of the container. So it doesn’t have the two- to three-month life span of a box. But these are great for anyone heading to the park, any outdoor venue that does not allow glass or for a wonderful day trip into the Adirondacks.

Also worth mentioning is the overall cost and carbon footprint involved with box wines. Not only does the packaging cost less than standard glass bottles, but more can be shipped in a smaller amount of space and weigh less as well. This means you get more wine for the money and a more eco-friendly package in the process. While glass is nearly 100% recyclable and the cardboard used is the same, some regions don’t have the ability to recycle soft plastics like bags (and the type found in these boxes), more and more communities are investing in ways to recycle bags and most grocery stores have some form of bag recycling program as well, which can help in areas without soft plastic recycling.

Over the next few years, these bag-in-the-box wines will not only be more affordable, but also contain award-worthy wines and leave a smaller eco-footprint than other styles of packages. Overall this is a win for everyone involved, including the consumer.

Cork Versus Screw Cap

First let’s cover a couple basics about corks. Cork is a bark harvested from cork trees in the Mediterranean European countries, Portugal, Spain, Southern France, and Italy, some from the Gulf and Pacific areas of North America, Florida, Louisiana, Texas, Arizona, and California, and Pacific regions of China and India.

There are a few types of corks used for wines — straight cork, particle cork, and composite cork. Straight cork is all one solid piece of cork. Particle cork is a lot like particle board or ply wood, as in it is made from bonding small parts of cork together.  Composite cork is a lot like sealing together saw dust, ultra-fine pieces of cork formed together. Then of course there are synthetic corks made from plastic.

Corks, regardless of type, all react very much the same for wine with some differences. Since cork is a plant it is naturally porous, and allows tiny amounts of air in over long periods of time allowing the wine to age in the bottle. While natural cork is the most porous, the other types will still allow for this aging just in a slightly longer time frame – while synthetic corks are almost total closures, mostly, but not completely, stopping the aging process.

Now for screw caps- this is technically called a Stelvin Closure. Screw caps create a complete seal through the use of the synthetic lining, so aging after bottling will not occur.

Depending on what the wine maker wants, he will use different styles of closures. Wines designed to age for long periods will use straight cork. Wines made to be drunk within 10 years may use any number of options. For wines made to be drank within 3 years, which is most wine on the market, a screw cap is the best way to go. Since it creates a complete seal, you don’t have to worry about the wine spoiling due to corks slipping during shipment or storage. Also, since organic closures run the risk of contamination during the growth or harvest time, they can eliminate that factor for potential damage. Let me note, cork taint, or something called corked wine, is a harmless bacteria in the natural cork. These bacteria will not harm the drinker in any way, but will make the wine taste and smell like an old dish clothe.

In short, screw caps are a good thing, depending on the wine. I know we all like to hear that authentic pop as we pull the cork out of a bottle, but considering the options, screw caps make sure the wine is fresher and tastes the way the wine maker wants. While the harvesting of cork has come a long way in the past 20 years, it is still not perfect. Don’t shy away from a bottle just because it doesn’t have a cork.

Dave Geurtze, Spa City Wine & Spirits