Tequila is the distilled version of a drink originally made by the Aztecs in Mexico called pulque, which was made with the fermented sap of the maguey plant. Spanish conquistadores didn’t much like pulque, so they introduced the Aztecs to the art of distilling. The first spirit to be produced from the maguey plant was called vino mezcal, and today the over-all category to which tequila belongs is known simply as mezcal.
Early mezcal was most likely a fairly rough spirit, not much better than pulque, just higher in proof. By the late eighteenth century, mezcal production was centered around the town of Tequila, where experimentation with different maguey types eventually led to the selection of the variety classified as Agave Tequilana Weber, known today as Blue Agave. Pulque, by the way, is still made in certain parts of Mexico by the ancestors of the Aztecs. Tequila, however, is produced only in and around the town of Tequila, in Mexico’s Jalisco province. Mexican law decrees that in order to be classified tequila, the spirit must be produced from blue agave plants grown within a delineated region in the five Mexican states of Jalisco, Nayarit, Michoacán, Guanajuato, and Tamaulipas.
The blue agave plant that is the key ingredient in tequila is used only once, and it takes between eight and twelve years to mature. Think that’s slow? It takes the mother plant five years to produce new plants. With its rising popularity, production of tequila has slowed considerably to literally wait for the plants to catch up.
Tequila falls into two main categories: Mixto and 100 percent Blue Agave. Mixto is made from a mash of no less than 51 percent blue agave, with sugars from cane or other sources added during fermentation, and is often shipped in bulk and bottled elsewhere. Tequila designated 100 percent Blue Agave is distilled from the fermented sugars of the blue agave plants only, and it must be aged and bottled in Mexico. According to Mexican law, there are four types of tequila: blanco, joven abocado, reposado, and añejo. Blanco, also known as white, silver, or plata, can be mixto or 100 percent blue agave that is aged less the sixty days in wood and is usually stored in stainless-steel tanks during its resting period; this is the most common style of tequila. Tequila stamped joven abocado, also called gold, is a sort of non-category; it is almost always mixto tequila whose color does not come from aging, but from the addition of color and flavor, usually caramel. Reposado tequila, which means “rested” in Spanish, can also have color and flavor added, and is aged by law at least sixty days and up to a year in wood. Añejo, or aged, tequila is aged in wood for at least a year, more often longer. The best añejos, complex and elegant, are sometimes compared to fine Cognac.
The journey from mere plant to Cognac-like elixir begins with the heart, or piña, of the blue agave plant, which when separated from the outer leaves can weigh between fifty and one hundred pounds. The piñas, full of sweet juice called aguamiel (“honey water”), are taken to the distillery, where they are steamed or roasted in brick or concrete ovens for twenty-four to thirty-six hours (or in modern steel autoclaves that can cook the piña in seven hours) to extract their valuable sugar. The piñas rest and cool for another twenty-four hours, then are ground up or milled and washed to remove the remaining aguamiel for fermentation. During fermentation, the sugar level is tested and the important decision is made whether to add additional sugars to make mixto or to produce a 100 percent blue agave tequila. Distillation then takes place in either a pot still or a column still, depending on the producer, though handmade 100 percent blue agave tequilas are often distilled at lower temperatures in a pot still. Regardless, by law the tequila must pass through the still twice, the product of which results in a spirit with 55 percent alcohol that is ready for aging and subsequent rectifying with pure water to bring it to commercial proof, usually 80 proof.
Mezcal: Tequila's Sibling
It’s impossible to talk about tequila without mentioning mezcal. Mezcal is the Mexican spirit that was bottled with the infamous worm, or gusano, in the bottom of the bottle. Mezcal is produced mainly around the city of Oaxaca. Recently several premium and super-premium mezcals have been introduced to America, including Encantado and the Del Maguey village mezcals. Mezcal is made from a different type of agave than tequila; the primary source is the espadin species. But several other varieties of maguey are also used: pulque maguey and two wild varieties called maguey silvestre and maguey tobala. To confuse you even more: The word mezcal is used to define the over-all category, and tequila is a type of mezcal, but mezcal is not necessarily tequila. Production of mezcal is almost the same as for tequila, with the exception of the cooking of the piñas. In mezcal production, the heat for the cooking comes from wood charcoal. And although the piñas do not come in direct contact with the charcoal, they are impregnated with the smoke during the baking process, which is a flavor that is apparent in the final product.
Value Brands (THE VALUE BRANDS ARE ALL MIXTO TEQUILAS)
* Pepe Lopez
* Cabo Wabo Blanco
* Sauza Conmemorativo 4 year
* Sauza Hornitos (100% Blue Agave)
* Cuervo Gold
* El Tesoro Silver (100% Blue Agave)
* Herradura Silver
* Patron Reposado & Añejo (100% Blue Agave)
* El Tesoro Reposado & Añejo (100% Blue Agave)
* Chinaco (100% Blue Agave)
* Cuervo Tradicional
* Porfidio (100% Blue Agave)
* Sauza Tres Generaciones (100% Blue Agave)
DeGroff, Dale. The Craft of the Cocktail (Kindle Locations 618-675). Potter/Ten Speed/Harmony/Rodale.