1. The heart of tequila
The agave is a plant native to Mexico. From the west in Jalisco, to the southeast in Yucatan, different kinds of agave plants have left their imprint in history and defined our country’s landscape, giving it an unmistakable flavor to our identity.
Its leaves are fleshy, thick, and sharp, and just like cacti, they accumulate water in the inside to survive. The agave plants are so versatile that humans have used them to extract fibers, paper, candy, vinegar, honey, sugar and three kinds of liquor that make Mexico proud: tequila, mescal and pulque. There are over 200 species of agave plants and they differentiate from each other by their shape, size and color.
The Mexicas would worship the maguey plant, or American agave, which they considered the representation of Mayahuel, the goddess of drunkenness that would feed their 400 children the pulque emanating from her numerous breasts. Mayahuel was related to the moon, the feminine, the vegetation and its lifecycle. The liquor extracted from this plant is called pulque, and it was a sacred drink that could only be enjoyed on special occasions by the tlatoanis or governors, monks or the elders.
From another specie known as henequen and native to the Yucatan Peninsula, Mayans extracted fibers to manufacture ropes and carpets. Later on, the henequen plant was the engine of a great industry in this region at the end of the 19th century.
By combining several species of agave, we obtain the mescal, a traditional liquor in the Oaxaca region, and whose artisan production amazes and enchants visitors. It is called mescal because that is the name of the agave plant’s heart, where a delicious nectar is found. Mescal means in the Nahuatl language, “the moon’s home”, and contextually, it refers to the heart, the essential or the core of something.
Finally, from the blue agave, or Agave Tequiliana Weber, the country’s most famous drink is produced, a hard liquor related to the festive and brave feature of all Mexicans: the tequila. It is also an allegory to our history since it fuses the goodness of an endemic plant with European techniques brought by the Spaniards during the colonial era.
In Mexico, tequila is synonymous with partying, pride and complicity among friends. In the warmth of a few tequila drinks, people spend great nights; with tequila people drink a toast to their success, and tequila makes life’s pains much easier to swallow. With a tequila shot, life’s memorable anecdotes begin, and with another shot we remember them.
2. Jalisco, the birthplace of Tequila
Hieratic and elegant, the agave raises its sharp leaves towards the sky. Thousands of blue-green spades can be observed in the horizon with the sky’s red sunset and the night sounds starting to appear. This is the agave landscape in Tequila, Jalisco, which in 2006 was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, and it is the departing point for history with a rich Mexican flavor.
During the colonial era, those fields of blue agave in Tequila were highly valued because they provided the raw material for roofs, needles, awls, needles and fibers to produce paper and threads. The aloe vera from its leaves was also used to treat wounds, and even the plant’s ashes were used as detergent.
Someone once realized or remembered that the mescal, or the agave’s heart, was consumed as a candy, and when fermented, it produced a delicious liquor. Spaniards quickly took advantage of this finding, and even with the alcohol prohibition in the United States, the Tequila mescal wine became very famous among clandestine social centers.
Due to its great demand, the Spanish kings authorized their production, as long as the applicable taxes were paid. After Mexico’s independence in 1821, the tequila drink monopolized the market left by Spanish wines and triumphant took the throne as the national drink.
The tequila took the international spotlight during the golden era of the Mexican movie industry, between 1930 and 1940. A bottle of tequila was the ever-present friend of great Mexican actors in their adventures along haciendas, horses and balconies under the moonlight and with mariachi music as the soundtrack.
Today, the tequila is legally protected by an origin denomination; that is, only the drink distilled from blue agave harvested in Jalisco and some regions of Guanajuato, Nayarit, Michoacan and Tamaulipas, can be called “tequila”.
The tourism industry has contributed to the consolidation of the tequila as a Mexican icon by naming the city of Tequila a Magic Town, which has served as the base of a great variety of tourism offerings, such as the Tequila Express, which is a train departing from Guadalajara and with stops at the most prominent tequila haciendas of Jalisco; and the Tequila Route, which links several towns where visitors can enjoy stays at boutique hotels and take on adventure activities, in addition to tasting tequilas of different brands.
3. The production of tequila
According to the Official Mexican Norm (NOM, for its Spanish acronym), the tequila drink is defined as “a regional alcoholic beverage obtained from the distillation of musts (…), derived from the heads of the Agave Tequiliana Weber, blue variety, (…) subjected to an alcoholic fermentation with yeasts, harvested or not, being the musts susceptible to its enrichment (…) at a proportion no greater than 49% of sugars (…) The tequila is a liquid that, according to its class, is colorless or colored when it is aged or when it is sweetened but not aged.”
According to this same NOM, the production of tequila begins with the cultivation of the Agave Tequiliana Weber, blue variety, in the area protected by the origin denomination. The plant takes 10 years to ripen and produce the best nectar. Then, the harvesting process beings: the leaves are cut at the base. The agave’s heart or mescal is cooked with water steam during 12 or 48 hours, depending on the kind of oven.
Once cooked, the heart is cut into small pieces and the nectar is extracted, which will be mixed with other sugar nectars, jaggery, glucose and fructose. The fermentation of these nectars with yeasts turns the sugar into ethyl alcohol in approximately 24 hours.
It is important to point out that there are two categories of tequila. One of them allows a mix of up to 49% nectars not produced from agave, and 51% of agave-derived nectars. The other one does not allow mixes, and logically, it offers a higher quality. In order to use a “100% agave” label, the product must be bottled at the authorized bottling plant.
The fermented product is subjected to two distillation processes in order to obtain a liquid called “white tequila” or “silver tequila”. Its alcohol content ranges from 35 to 55°, and its taste is strong and burning. At this point, the drink can be bottled for its sale or it can be aged during different periods of time to offer aged or vintage tequilas. Some “white” tequilas are aged during two months to give it a smoother taste, but it is not considered aged tequila.
The young or golden tequila is produced from the mixing of white tequila with aged and/or vintage tequilas. It can be sweetened or smoothed by adding caramel color, natural oak and live oak extract, glycerin and sugar syrup.
The aged tequila is kept between two and 12 months in live oak or white oak barrels. It is smoother than white tequila and it has a golden color. Vintage tequila is aged in barrels for at least three years. Its flavor is smooth and it was a woody sensation. Those aged for more than three years, have a mahogany tree color and their flavor complexity is greater.
5. Shopping recommendations
Finding the best tequila means trying different brands and classifications. In order to avoid the disappointment of fake tequilas, the Tequila Regulating Board makes the following recommendations:
- Look for the official NOM code, which consists of four digits, a unique and non-repeating number for each tequila producing company.
- Do not buy tequila from places with a shady reputation.
- Never buy tequilas without labels. The label must be original and include the corresponding tag from the Internal Revenue Service.
- Make sure the bottle has tampered-proof features, especially on the cap.
- Check the liquid and look for particles or foreign matter, sediments or any other substance.
- Drinks named “agave distillation”, “agave liquor” or other similar names, ARE NOT TEQUILA.
- Watch out for tequilas offered at the popular “all you can drink” bars and the “2x1” offers at all inclusive bars.
- Verify the listing of certified brands issued on a regular basis by the CRT, and published on the website www.crt.org.mx, which will help you avoid the purchase of fake or non-certified products.
- Destroy empty bottles, even if you are at home.
- Inside a bar or restaurant, ask for the original bottle to be brought to your table.
6. Consumption recommendations
Just like with all alcoholic beverages, the first recommendation is moderation. Tequila is an excellent appetizer. White tequilas are usually consumed with salt, lemon and “sangrita”, a mix of tomato juice, lemon, orange, Tabasco Sauce and Worsteshire Sauce. For aged and vintage tequilas, the Tequila Regulating Board recommends serving it in Riedel glasses in order to enjoy all the aromas and tastes.
The shot glass is the small glass where tequila is usually served. Its size brings back memories of the bull horns used in the old times at tequila factories to taste the tequila on its way out of the distillation process.
In addition to the great quantity of tequila-based cocktails, such as the margarita and the tequila sunrise, there other tequila-based liquors and creams with other ingredients such as fruit or the traditional milk candy. Great options to move closer to the tequila.