Tequila is a liquor distilled from the fermented juices obtained from the hearts of blue agave plants grown in the Tequila Region of Mexico. The liquor gets its name from the town of Tequila located in the state of Jalisco where production started more than 200 years ago.
It begins with ‘pulque’. Pulque is the fermented juice of the ‘blue’ agave plant. This juice is then distilled… to become tequila. It is said that the ancient Aztecs enjoyed pulque, in everyday life and in their rituals & ceremonies.
The blue agave (agave azul tequilana weber) has long bluish green spiny leaves with sharp points and a large heart, called the piña or pineapple, from which the juices are extracted and then distilled at least twice. One liter of distilled tequila requires between 6 and 8 kilos of agave pulp. Tequila is not distilled from pulque nor is it produced from any cactus.
Tequila is famous around the world for its unique taste and bouquet, often enjoyed by itself, but is also used in Margaritas and with many other mixers. It has become one of the most spirits ever.
All liquors distilled from the agave plant are refered to as “mezcal”, but only those made from the ‘blue’ agave are branded as Tequila, all the others are mezcal. The most famous mezcal is distilled from a variety of agave grown in the state of Oaxaca in southern Mexico, and the finest comes from the wild agave known as “papalomé” that it is so potent that two shots can really take their toll on you.
Just as Cognac is a special type of brandy produced from specific grapes grown in a select region of France not all brandy has the distinction of being Cognac.
The language of tequila can be very confusing. To begin with, Tequila is the name of the town where production originally began, and it is also the name of the volcano overlooking this town. Locals in the Tequila Region refer to the blue agave plant as “mezcal”, and the fields where this plant is harvested are known as “mezcaleras”. Many distillers call to the distilled liquor mezcal and is only called tequila when finally bottled. Before tequila became known as it is today, it was called “vino mezcal” or mezcal wine.
The official Mexican standard or NOM defines Tequila as the product of fermentation and distillation of the blue agave juices (mostos) obtained at the distillery from agave cores or piñas grown in the Tequila Region and allows for the addition of up to 49% sugars from sources other than the agave plant. However the NOM defines as Tequila 100% Agave as the one containing sugars exclusively from the blue agave plant and it must be bottled at the distillery. Alcohol content must be between to 35º and 55º (70 to 110 Proof).
HOW TEQUILA IS MADE
The process of tequila begins when a blue agave plant is ripe, usually 8 to 12 years after it is planted. Leaves are chopped away from its core by a “jimador” who assesses the plants ripeness. If the plant is harvested too soon, there won’t be enough sugars to do the job. Too late and the agave’s sugars will have already been used to form a once-in-a-lifetime stem “quiote” that springs 25 to 40 feet high so that the seeds grown at the top of the stem can scatter with the wind. The jimador’s task is a crucial one; once he decides that the plant is ready, he wields a special long knife known as a “coa” to clear the core. The cores or piñas (Spanish for pineapple) weight an average of 40 to 70 pounds, and can weight up to 200 pounds. The photo shows a ripe agave, at least 8 year old) that is being harvested. The “piña” in the photograph (third at right) will be visible when all the leaves (pencas) have been cleared.
Piñas are hauled to the distillery where they are cut in half or chopped and put to roast. Starches turn to sugar as the piñas are roasted in furnaces called “hornos”. Modern distilleries use huge steam ovens to increase output and save on energy. Roughly speaking, seven kilos (15 lb.) of agave piña are needed to produce one liter (one quart U.S.) of tequila.
Different agaves and processes produce mezcal with different names throughout Mexico: stotol in Chihuanhua, mezcal in Oaxaca, and bacanora in Sonora.
The roasted piñas are then shredded, their juices pressed out and placed in fermenting tanks or vats. Some distilleries use the traditional method to produce tequila. In this method –artesian tequila– the cores are crushed with a stone wheel at a grinding mill called “tahona” and the fibers are dumped into the wooden vat to enhance fermentation and to provide extra flavor. Once the juices are in the vats yeast is added. Every distiller keeps its own yeast as a closely guarded secret. During fermenting, the yeast acts upon the sugars of the agave plant converting them into alcohol.
Juices ferment for 30 to 48 hours then they are distilled twice in traditional copper stills or more modern ones made of stainless steel or in continuous distillation towers. The first distillation produces a low-grade alcohol and the second a fiery colorless liquid that is later blended before being bottled. Alcohol content may be between 70 and 110 Proof. At this moment the liquor is no longer mezcal but tequila.
All types of tequila start with this colorless distilled spirit. Each type will be called depending on its aging.
MYTHS ABOUT TEQUILA
Tequila comes from the distillation of «pulque».
WRONG. Pulque comes from the fermentation of the sugary sap «aguamiel» obtained from the maguey or Century Plant (which is botanically related to the agave plant). Pulque is fine but it has nothing to do with tequila.
Tequila and mezcal are made from a cactus.
WRONG. Cactus plants grow in the desert and are of a different genus than the agave. There is no known liquor obtained from any cactus.
Mezcal contains mescaline.
WRONG. Neither tequila nor mezcal contains any mescaline or alkaloids at all. However, peyote (a variety of Cactus) contains mescaline, an alkaloid that produces hallucinations.
The worm is part of the tequila or mezcal process.
This is a nice legend, but not true. The worm is placed in some mezcal bottles as a marketing ploy. However the maguey society grows worms that are a delicacy in many parts of Mexico fetching astronomical prices at luxury restaurants. The best known are “Gusanos de Maguey” and “Chinicuiles”.
Tequila has medicinal properties.
There is no scientific evidence about any medicinal properties of either the agave plant, mescal nor tequila.
TYPES OF TEQUILAS
Tequila can only be produced in Mexico, in the Tequila Region, and must comply with strict Mexican government regulations. In order to satisfy an ever-growing demand and a multitude of consumer’s preferences and tastes, tequila is produced in two general categories and four different types in three of those categories. The two categories are defined by the percentage of juices coming from the blue agave:
Tequila 100% Agave. Must be made with 100% blue agave juices and must be bottled at the distillery in Mexico. It may be Blanco, Reposado, or Añejo.
Tequila. Must be made with at least 51% blue agave juices. This tequila may be exported in bulk to be bottled in other countries following the NOM standard. It may be Blanco, Gold, Reposado, or Añejo
The NOM standard defines four types of tequila:
Blanco or Silver
This is the traditional tequila that started it all. Clear and transparent, fresh from the still tequila is called Blanco (white or silver) and must be bottled immediately after the distillation process. It has the true bouquet and flavor of the blue agave. It is usually strong and is traditionally enjoyed in a “caballito” (2 oz small glass).
Oro or Gold
Is tequila Blanco mellowed by the addition of colorants and flavorings, caramel being the most common. It is the tequila of choice for frozen Margaritas.
Reposado or Rested
It is Blanco that has been kept (or rested) in white oak casks or vats called “pipones” for more than two months and up to one year. The oak barrels give Reposado a mellowed taste, pleasing bouquet, and its pale color. Reposado keeps the blue agave taste and is gentler to the palate. These tequilas have experienced exponential demand and high prices.
Añejo or Aged
It is Blanco tequila aged in white oak casks for more than a year. Maximum capacity of the casks should not exceed 600 liters (159 gallons). The amber color and woody flavor are picked up from the oak, and the oxidation that takes place through the porous wood develops the unique bouquet and taste.
Although not a category in itself, it is a special Añejo that certain distillers keep in oak casks for up to 8 years. Reserva enters the big leagues of liquor both in taste and in price.
Tequila is full flavored, fine & satisfying. A unique and complex spirit worthy of it’s long heritage.