Clayton Szczech's love affair with tequila started like many of ours, with some seriously low-end spirits.
"They were so rough I had to keep them in the freezer. But I was fascinated by how different they were. I was living in Xalapa, the capital of Veracruz," he explained, adding wryly, "I did an independent master's program in tequila."
Last week, Szczech, founder of Experience Tequila, shared what he knows and drinks with about two dozen people gathered at Red Mesa Cantina. Szczech, who spends half the year in Mexico, is a self-described advocate, educator and interpreter of the liquor made from the blue agave plant.
With some 900 brands produced in five Mexican states, the bulk in Jalisco, near the central Pacific Coast, they are made in four general styles. A blanco is tequila that hasn't been aged and that has been bottled after the second distillation. It's clear, often fruity and spicy. Reposado, on the other hand, is stored in small oak barrels or vats for just up to a year. Pale gold, it will have a smoother taste and a balance between fruit and oak. Anejo is aged longer still, just up to three years, with sophistication much like a fine cognac. And extra anejo, a new category added in 2006, is deep brown and expensive, aged in oak for more than three years.
Starting with a pair of blancos — Casa Noble Crystal and Ocho Plata — Szczech led the group through a tasting of what he described as the oldest distilled beverage in the Americas, as well as the most stringently regulated.
"Examine it visually by giving the glass a little twirl," he exhorted, describing the organically grown Casa Noble as "a very funky tequila, whether you're feeling the funk or not."
Swirling, sniffing and tasting, the group tried to identify individual characteristics from the four aroma categories created in the fermentation process: fruit, herbal, spice and floral. Meanwhile, Red Mesa Cantina chef Chris Fernandez began sending out tequila-friendly nibbles: snapper ceviche and lime-marinated hunks of jicama, cuke and mango.
Next up was the Casa Noble reposado, aged almost a year in French oak: "There's still a little funkiness," Szczech said, "but strong vanilla and a little chocolate." By comparison, the Azuñia reposado, aged in American oak, started out sweet but was dry on the finish.
"Some tequilas are aged in old whiskey barrels. This is a secondary market for barrels and there are a lot of good reasons to use used barrels. New oak is assertive," Szczech explained. "You want that silver [another word for the blanco style] to be shining through."
After dispatching plates of Fernandez's little corn sopes topped with poblanos and rounds of crispy chorizo, the group attacked the final pair of anejo tequilas.
"You see a price jump to the anejos," explained Szczech. Evaporation is a factor with these longer-aged tequilas, that evaporated amount often called the angel's share. "With an extra anejo, easily a third of a barrel is lost to the angel."
The group perceived dark chocolate and hints of spice and earth on the Casa Noble anejo as well as that made by Corazón, a remarkable foil for a plate of cinnamon-dusted orange segments. Enthused by the group's response to the tequilas, Fernandez and Red Mesa Cantina owner Peter Veytia brought out one more sample from their lineup of more than 200 tequilas and their kissing cousin, mezcal.
"Made from a genetic ancestor of the blue agave, most mezcals are made in Oaxaca," Szczech noted. "They are produced in a more rustic, primitive style with a characteristic smoky flavor."
Laura Reiley can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter.