I’ll be honest. My tequila drinking experience before Saturday night had been limited to late-night shots with overripe bar limes and too-sweet margaritas caked in gritty cocktail salt.
But all that changed at Santa Barbara’s Third Annual Tequila Harvest Festival when exhibiting label reps lining the Carrillo Rec Center’s walls schooled this rookie in the finer points of top-shelf tequila tasting, explaining how the south-of-the-border liquor can and should be approached with the same discerning appreciation that goes with sipping fine wine or nipping single-malt scotch.
After smiling back at Miss Blanco, Miss Reposado, and Miss Anejo in the courtyard (I’ll explain those names later), and then hurrying past the red carpet-like photo setup at the door, I came to my first tasting booth. The enthusiastic rep for Dos Armadillos Tequila humored me as I asked a few dumb questions, like, “What’s up with your three different kinds of tequila?” He explained most labels distill their tequila into a trifecta of categories based on how long the liquid is left to age.
Blanco or “silver” tequilas are typically un-aged, reposado or “rested” tequilas are aged two to a dozen months in oak barrels, and anejo or “aged” tequilas sit forone to three years also in oak barrels. When tasting, the rep went on, start with the blanco. “If that tastes like shit, don’t even bother with the others,” he explained. Fair enough. I grabbed a tiny thimble of Dos Armadillos’s blanco and, luckily, it tasted great, so I went down the line.
I hit another booth, then another, then another — trying all three “expressions” at each — and quickly picked up on this pattern: The blancos had definite hints of fruit and pepper, the cactus-like plant all tequila is made from coming through the clearest. The reposados were more woody with an overall heavier body and taste. And with anejos, the oak was obvious, flavors of coffee, cinnamon, and sometimes chocolate making cameos.
After scarfing down half a dozen beef tongue (lengua) and milk gland (tripas de leche) tacos provided by Los Amigos Café (I quickly realized I needed more food in my system if I was going to last the night), I sidled up to the Casa Dragones Tequila table. Tipping a small amount of drink from a $250 bottle, the rep explained how the tequila market has gotten quite competitive in recent years, hundreds of makers in California alone jockeying for shelf space in regular bars and those that just serve tequila. The Casa Dragones joven, a different classification that blends silver tequila with a hint of extra-aged anejo tequila, was light, flowery, and went down easy.
Nestled among the 20 or so tequila tasting booths were three mezcal makers. While tequila is made exclusively from blue agave in the Mexican state of Jalisco and in a few other specific regions, mezcal comes from 30 different agaves found mainly in Oaxaca. It’s production is usually more rustic by comparison, a Beneva Mezcal representative told me, the blends often cooked in pits and distilled in copper or clay pots.
The maker held out a small glass with a splash of his dark mezcal in it and told me to sniff. I did, and he quickly handed me a taster thimble that I downed. The 80-proof spirit aged in white oak barrels was smokey, to say the least. I thought of coals and a campfire, and had another shot — super tasty and decidedly different from anything else I had tried that night.
Meanwhile, in a backroom usually reserved for yoga and dance classes, tequila “specialist” Clayton Szczech, of ExperienceTequila.com, led a class of about 50 VIPs on how to swirl, sniff, and sip fine tequila. The engaging tasting included six different styles from six different producers, an informational and entertaining offering that gave significant value to the extra VIP fee.
At this point I slowed down, feeling the tickets in my pocket for the Twin Shadow concert later that night. I briefly chatted with a man hand-rolling cigars for $20 apiece, ate a couple ahi tartare finger-food thingies washed down with liquid guacamole infused with (you guessed it) tequila, and listened to the emcee announce that the Santa Barbara Dance Institute would be given all proceeds from the upcoming silent raffle and 15 percent of all ticket sales.
The night wrapped up with a tequila tasting competition judged by four hand-picked tequila enthusiasts. Here are those results:
1. Platinum: Kah Tequila
2. Gold: Karma Tequila
3. Silver: Alquimia Tequila
1. Platinum: Tequila Carreta de Oro
2. Gold: Tequila Dos Armadillos
3. Silver: Tequila Alquimia
1. Platinum: Tequila Don Pilar
2. Gold: Tequila Casta Negra
3. Silver: Tequila Alquimia
Tequila Extra Añejo
1. Platinum: Don Elias
2. Gold: Tequila Alquimia
3. Silver: Don Pilar
1. Platinum: Tosba Mezcal
2. Gold: Beneva Mezcal
3. Silver: Wahaka Mezcal
Mezcal Reposado Best in Class
1. Platinum: Wahaka Mezcal