Tequila, and its country cousin Mezcal, are made by distilling the fermented juice
of agave plants in Mexico. The agave is a spiky-leafed member of the lily family:
it is not a cactus. Agaves and cacti are both types ofsucculents, but are members
of different botanical classes (Liliopsida and Cactaceae, respectively). By Mexican
law the agave spirit called Tequila can be made only from one particular type of
agave, the blue agave (Agave Tequiliana Weber), and can be produced only in specifically
designated geographic areas, primarily the state of Jalisco in west-central Mexico.
Mezcal is made from the fermented juice of other species of agave. It is produced
throughout most of Mexico.
Tequila, and Mezcal, trace their origins back at least two thousand years. Around
the first century A.D., one or more of the Indian tribes that inhabited what is now
central Mexico discovered that the juice of the agave plant, if left exposed to air,
would ferment and turn into a milky, mildly alcoholic drink. News of this discovery
spread throughout agave-growing areas. The Aztecs called this beverage octili poliqhui,
a name that the Spaniards subsequently corrupted into pulque.
When the Spanish arrived in Mexico in the early 16th century, they soon began to
make and drink pulque, but the low alcohol content (around 3% ABV) and earthy, vegetal
taste made it less popular among the conquistadors than European-style beers and
brandies. Early attempts to distil pulque were unsuccessful, as the resulting spirit
was harsh and acrid. It was soon discovered, however, that cooking the agave pulp
resulted in a sweeter juice which, when fermented, became known as Mezcal Wine. This
"wine" was then distilled into the spirit that we know today as Mezcal.
Both Tequila and Mezcal are prepared for distillation in similar ways. The agave,
also know as maguey, is cultivated on plantations for eight to ten years, depending
on the type of agave. When the plant reaches sexual maturity it starts to grow a
flower stalk. The agave farmer, or campesino, cuts off the stalk just as it is starting
to grow. This redirects the plant growth into the central stalk, swelling it into
a large bulbous shape that contains a sweet juicy pulp. When the swelling is completed,
the campesino cuts the plant from its roots and removes the long sword-shaped leaves,
using a razor-sharp pike-like tool called a coa. The remaining piña ("pineapple"—so-called
because the cross-thatched denuded bulb resembles a giant green and white pineapple)
weighs anywhere from 25 to 100 pounds.
At the distillery the piñas are cut into quarters. For Tequila they are then slowly
baked in steam ovens or autoclaves (oversized pressure cookers) until all of the
starch has been converted to sugars. For Mezcal they are baked in underground ovens
heated with wood charcoal (which gives Mezcal its distinctive smoky taste). They
are then crushed (traditionally with a stone wheel drawn around a circular trough
by a mule) and shredded to extract the sweet juice, called aguamiel (honey water).
The fermentation stage determines whether the final product will be 100 percent agave
or mixed ("mixto"). The highest-quality Tequila is made from fermenting and then
distilling only agave juice mixed with some water. Mixto is made by fermenting and
then distilling a mix of agave juice and other sugars, usually cane sugar with water.
Mixtos made and bottled in Mexico can contain up to 40% alcohol derived from other
Distillation and Ageing
Traditionally Tequila and Mezcal have been distilled in pot stills to 110 proof (55%
ABV). The resulting spirit is clear, but contains a significant amount of congeners
and other flavour elements. Some light-coloured Tequilas are now being re-distilled
in column stills to produce a cleaner, blander spirit.
Colour in Tequila and Mezcal comes mostly from the addition of caramel, although
barrel ageing is a factor in some high-quality brands. Additionally, some distillers
add small amounts of natural flavourings such as sherry, prune concentrate, and coconut
to manipulate the product's flavour profile. These added flavours do not stand out
themselves, but instead serve to smooth out the often hard-edged palate of agave
Beyond the two basic designations of Tequila—agave and mixto—there are four categories:
Silver or Blanco/White Tequilas are clear, with little (no more than 60 days in stainless
steel tanks) or no ageing. They can be either 100% agave or mixto. Silver Tequilas
are used primarily for mixing and blend particularly well into fruit-based drinks.
Gold Tequila is unaged silver Tequila that has been coloured and flavoured with caramel.
It is usually a mixto.
Reposado ("rested") Tequila is aged in wooden tanks or casks for a legal minimum
period of at least two months, with the better-quality brands spending three to nine
months in wood. It can be either 100% agave or mixto. Reposado Tequilas are the best-selling
Tequilas in Mexico.
Añejo ("old") Tequila is aged in wooden barrels (usually old Bourbon barrels) for
a minimum of 12 months. The best-quality anejos are aged 18 months to three years
for mixtos, and up to four years for 100% agaves. Ageing Tequila for more than four
years is a matter of controversy.
Tequilas are often aged in used French or American oak barrels because it is more
cost effective to buy used barrels from scotch, bourbon, and whiskey makers. This
however affects the flavour of the tequila being consumed in a way that deviates
from the original taste. Most Tequila producers feel that "excessive" oak aging will
overwhelm the distinctive earthy and vegetal agave flavour notes.
Mezcal and the Worm
The famous "worm" that is found in some bottles of Mezcal (con gusano -- "with worm")
is actually the larva of one of two moths that live on the agave plant. The reason
for adding the worm to the bottle of Mezcal is obscure. But one story, that at least
has the appeal of logic to back it up, is that the worm serves as proof of high proof,
which is to say that if the worm remains intact in the bottle, the percentage of
alcohol in the spirit is high enough to preserve the pickled worm. Consuming the
worm, which can be done without harm, has served as a rite of passage for generations
of American fraternity boys. As a rule, top-quality mezcals do not include a worm
in the bottle.
There are many brands of tequila; the best known include:
In Mexico, tequila is drunk straight, without salt and lime. It is popular in some
regions to drink fine tequila with a side of sangrita—a sweet, sour and spicy drink
typically made from orange juice, grenadine (or tomato juice) and hot chilies. Equal-sized
shots of tequila and sangrita are sipped alternately, without salt or lime.
Outside Mexico, a single shot of tequila is often served with salt and a slice of
lime. This is called "tequila cruda" and is sometimes referred to as "training wheels,"
"lick-sip-suck," or "lick-shoot-suck" (referring to the way in which the combination
of ingredients is imbibed). The drinker moistens the back of their hand below the
index finger (usually by licking) and pours on the salt. Then the salt is licked
off the hand, tequila is drunk and the fruit slice is quickly bitten. It is common
for groups of drinkers to do this simultaneously. Drinking tequila in this way is
often erroneously called a Tequila Slammer, however this is a mixed tequila and carbonated
drink. Though the traditional Mexican shot is straight tequila, lime is the fruit
of choice when a chaser must be used. It is believed that the salt lessens the "burn"
of the tequila and the sour fruit balances and enhances the flavour. In Germany and
some other countries, tequila oro (gold) is often consumed with cinnamon before and
slices of orange after, while tequila blanco (silver) is consumed with salt and lime.
Finally, as with other popular liquors, there exist a number of shot-related drinking
games and "stunt" drinks such as body shots and the tequila stuntman.
It should be noted that drinking higher-quality, 100% agave tequila with salt and
lime is likely to remove much of the flavour.
A Margarita glass
When served neat (without any additional ingredients), tequila is most often served
in a narrow shot glass called a caballito ("Little Horse" in Spanish), but can often
be found in anything from a snifter to a tumbler.
The Consejo Regulador del Tequila (Tequila Regulatory Council) approved an "official
tequila glass" in 2002 called the Ouverture Tequila glass, made by Riedel.
The Margarita glass, rimmed with salt, sugar, or plain, is a staple for the entire
tequila/fruit mixed drink genre, including the Margarita itself.
There are an endless variety of drinks that involve tequila, relying only on the
imagination of the preparer. As with most of the hard liquors, there is a martini
variant that involves tequila as well as a large number of tequila drinks made by
adding a fruit juice such as the Tequila Sunrise and Matador. Sodas and other carbonated
drinks are a common mixer, as in the Tequila Slammer.