Tequila is produced through an age-old technique of distilling the juices of the agave plant. This member of the lily family is responsible for the whole family of Mezcal spirits, but while all Tequila is Mezcal, but not all Mezcal is Tequila!
By Mexican law, genuine Tequila can only be made from the blue agave plant, and only in certain regions – primarily the state of Jalisco in west-central Mexico. To experience the rich flavours of real 100% Agave Tequila, it’s recommended to go straight to the source and travel to Mexico.
Tequila and the Aztecs
Tequila boasts a history that dates back two thousand years. The early Aztecs found that when left exposed to air, the juice of the agave plant would ferment into a milky-white alcoholic liquid.
The called this drink ‘octili poliqhui’, which the Spaniards later corrupted into ‘pulque’. Apart from on feast days, pulque was only drunk by the ruling classes, as well as captive warriors, who were usually treated to a tipple just before they had their hearts cut out on a sacrificial altar.
Harvesting the agave
Before harvesting the agave, the plants are carefully tended for as long as ten years. The agave farmer, or campesino, waits until the plant reaches sexual maturity, before cutting off the flower stalk. This causes growth to be redirected to the bulb, which grows and swells, coming to resemble a bizarre green and white pineapple. Hence the name given to the harvested agave bulb – the ‘piña’, or ‘pineapple’.
The Evolution of Tequila
Tequila enjoys a rich and fascinating heritage. After the Spanish arrived in Mexico in the 16th Century, pulque was enjoyed for some time by the conquistadores – though not as much as they enjoyed their European wines, as at this stage it still had a very low alcohol content.
It was later discovered that cooking the agave pulp produced a sweeter juice, which could then be fermented to produce the superior Mezcal wine. This flourished in the local tavernas, despite attempts to inhibit it by the Spanish royalty.
In the 17th century, the small village of Tequila in the province of Guadalajara was granted an official charter to produce the wine. Trade boomed, and shipments of Tequila Mezcal wine were soon being exported in all directions. In 1795, the Spanish Crown granted a license to a man by the name of José Cuervo, who soon began distilling the much stronger Tequila that we know today. The rest, as they say, is history.
Aging the Tequila
Tequila will usually be referred to as añejo (‘old’) or reposado (‘rested’), depending on how long it has been aged.
While reposado Tequila must be aged for a minimum legal period of two months, the older variety spends at least a year in oak barrels before being served. Some may be matured for as long as three years, but generally four years is considered to be the maximum. Any more than this, and there is a danger of the oak flavours overwhelming the subtler agave notes.
A number of ‘mixto’ Tequilas are available, where the ‘honey water’ is mixed with non-agave sweeteners, such as cane sugar. The higher quality, pure varieties are more popular however, containing nothing other than agave juice and a little water, and are renowned for their superior flavour characteristics. By Mexican law, all 100% agave Tequila must be bottled in Mexico.
Gold and Silver
There are two main varieties of Tequila, which are either gold or silver (clear) in colour. Silver Tequila is not aged for as long, generally spending no more than 60 days maturing in stainless steel tanks. Some varieties are not aged at all.
Gold Tequila on the other hand is often barrel aged for up to four years, and the colour comes from the addition of caramel, as well as various other flavourings – popular choices in the past have included sherry, prunes and coconut!
One famous Tequila tradition is eating the worm that can often be found floating in the bottle. This alcohol pickled larva is notoriously potent, and, according to some, can have hallucinogenic effects!
The worm itself is actually the larva of one of the two moths that live on the agave plant, and technically, it is never added to Tequila – finding a worm in your bottle is a pretty sure indicator that you’re actually drinking Tequila’s country cousin, Mezcal.
It certainly seems like a strange tradition, and no-one knows for sure when or why it started. However, one plausible story is that the worm provides evidence for the strength of the Mezcal; if the worm remains intact, it suggests that the alcohol content is high enough to preserve the pickled worm.
The Birth of the Margarita
Although small amounts of Tequila were exported into the US as early as the 19th century, it wasn’t until the 1940s that it became widespread. A number of Hollywood actors caught on to this hip new drink, and pretty soon Tequila-infused drinks such as the Margarita and the Tequila Sunrise became fashionable at cocktail parties around the globe. Actor and crooner Bing Crosby was so taken with the beverage, that he even started importing Tequila himself!
A Town Called Tequila
For a great trip idea when on holiday in Guadalajara, ride the Tequila Express for a tour of the nearby town called Tequila. Here, dozens of different distilleries produce their own brands of Tequila. There are too many distilleries to see them all, but if you only visit one, make it La Rojena, the home of Jose Cuervo. Not only is Jose Cuervo the bestselling Tequila in the world, but La Rojena is also the oldest distillery in North America.
|Meet the Author: David Clough
Dave Clough is a music journalist, blogger and travel writer from the UK. He has DJ’d across the globe and is involved in club night event promotions in London.