Cocktails and Spirits with Paul Clarke: Tequila Terroir

Cocktails and Spirits with Paul Clarke

Weekly insight into the world of drinks with Paul Clarke from the Cocktail Chronicles and Imbibe magazine.

Summer is one of the best times to enjoy tequila, and yesterday Emily Koh gave a great overview of the basic types of the agave spirit. Currently, though, there are several tequila producers who are working to refine tequila's category even further, sourcing the agave to certain fields to see if there's a distinctive enough difference in the tequila made from these different regions.

This topic of tequila terroir is addressed in this month's Wine & Spirits by a tag team of spirits writers composed of Camper English and David Wondrich—and it's a sticky topic, indeed. While there's long been a noted distinction between the sweeter, floral highland tequilas from Los Altos and the earthier lowland tequilas from Tequila Valley, breaking the flavors down further can be a challenging process.

What carries through plainly when a grape is crushed and fermented is easily obscured when that wine is distilled into brandy. The distillation process erases certain nuances from most spirits; the flavors that fans come to enjoy are often more related to the fermentation and aging process than the source material that went into the fermenter. And while regionally defined spirits, such as cognac and rhum agricole, owe much of their identity to the growing and production conditions of their respective geographic homes, the spirits are typically made from blends of raw materials. They are blended again after distillation, rather than being made exclusively from a crop grown on a certain hillside on a particular farm—the foundation of terroir.

But some tequila producers are now showcasing the spirits from very specific regions. As English notes, "Tequila doesn't necessarily reflect the origin of the agave; the point is that it can." Banking on this idea, producers are releasing brands such as Ocho and Maestro Dobel that are made from agave from more specific growing areas. Time will tell if these tequilas will be discernibly different, but it's an exercise that should have interesting results no matter how it pans out.