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) and is related to the century plant. 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.
Agave and Fermentation
Both Tequila and Mezcal are prepared for distillation in similar ways. The agave, also know as maguey (pronounced muh-GAY), is cultivated on plantations for eight to 10 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 sugars. Mixtos that have been shipped in bulk to other countries for bottling (primarily the United States) may have the agave content further reduced to 51% by the foreign bottler. By Mexican law all 100% agave or aged Tequila must be bottled in Mexico. If a Tequila is 100 percent agave it will always say so on the bottle label. If it doesnt say 100% it is a mixto, although that term is seldom used on bottle labels.
Distillation and Aging
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 flavor elements. Some light-colored Tequilas are now being re-distilled in column stills to produce a cleaner, blander spirit.
Color in Tequila and Mezcal comes mostly from the addition of caramel, although barrel aging is a factor in some high-quality brands. Additionally, some distillers add small amounts of natural flavorings such as Sherry, prune concentrate, and coconut to manipulate their products' flavor profile. These added flavors do not stand out themselves, but instead serve to smooth out the often hard-edged palate of agave spirits.
Beyond the two basic designations of Tequila—agave and mixto—there are five categories:
Silver or Blanco/White Tequilas are clear, with little (no more than 60 days in stainless steel tanks) or no aging. 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 colored and flavored 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.
Extra Añejo Tequila is a relatively new category for tequilas aged over 3 years in oak. Aging Tequila for more than four years is a matter of controversy. Many Tequila producers oppose doing so because they feel that "excessive" oak aging will overwhelm the distinctive earthy, fruity and vegetal agave flavor notes, however, we have found many balanced examples that rival the finest well-aged Cognacs and Whiskies.
Mezcal and the Worm
The rules and regulations that govern the production and packaging of Tequila do not apply to agave spirits produced outside of the designated Tequila areas in Mexico. Some Mezcal distilleries are very primitive and very small. The best known mezcal come from the southern state of Oaxaca (wuh-HA-kuh), although it is produced in a number of other states. Eight varieties of agave are approved for Mezcal production, but the chief variety used is the espadin agave (agave angustifolia Haw).
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 fraternity boys. As a rule, top-quality mezcals do not include a worm in the bottle.
History and Origins
Among the pantheon of Aztec gods was Tepoztecatl, the god of alcoholic merriment. 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 (POOL-kay).
In Aztec culture pulque drinking had religious significance. Consumption by the masses was limited to specific holidays when large tubs of pulque were set up in public squares. The ruling elite was not subject to the same restrictions, however, and drank pulque throughout the year-- a privilege shared by captive warriors just before they were sacrificed to the gods.
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 distill 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.
Early Mezcal distilleries in the Spanish colony of Mexico operated in a manner similar to modern-day brewpubs. The distilling plant was usually small, and its production was consumed primarily in the distillery tavern (taberna). As the colony grew, the Mezcal wine industry followed apace and soon became an important source of tax revenue for the Crown. Periodic attempts by Spanish brandy producers to shut down the Mezcal industry were about as unsuccessful as similar efforts by English distillers to inhibit rum production in the British colonies of North America.
The Evolution of Tequila
In 1656 the village of Tequila (named for the local Ticuilas Indians) was granted a charter by the governor of New Galicia. Tax records of the time show that Mezcal was already being produced in the area. This Mezcal, made from the local blue agave, established a reputation for having a superior taste, and barrels of the "Mezcal wine from Tequila" were soon being shipped to nearby Guadalajara and more distant cities such as the silver-mining boomtowns of San Luis Potosi and Aguascalientes.
The oldest of the still-existing distilleries in Tequila dates back to 1795, when the Spanish Crown granted a distiller's license to a local padrone by the name of José Cuervo. In 1805 a distillery was established that would ultimately come under the control of the Sauza family. By the mid 1800s there were dozens of distilleries and millions of agave plants under cultivation around Tequila in what had become the state of Jalisco. Gradually, the locally-produced Mezcal came to be known as Tequila (just as the grape brandy from the Cognac region in France came to be known simply as Cognac).
Mexico achieved independence from Spain in 1821. But until the 1870s it was a politically unstable country that experienced frequent changes in government, revolutions, and a disastrous war with the United States. Marauding bands of soldiers and guerillas extracted "revolutionary taxes" and "voluntary" contributions in kind from the tabernas and distilleries. In 1876 a general named Porfirio Diaz, who was from the Mezcal-producing state of Oaxaca, came to power and ushered in a 35-year period of relative peace and stability known as the Porfiriato.
It was during this period that the Tequila industry became firmly established. Modest exports of Tequila began to the United States and Europe, with Jose Cuervo shipping the first three barrels to El Paso, Texas in 1873. By 1910 the number of agave distilleries in the state of Jalisco had grown to almost 100.
The collapse of the Diaz regime in 1910 led to a decade-long period of revolution that inhibited the Tequila industry. The return of peace in the 1920s led to the expansion of Tequila production in Jalisco beyond the area around the town of Tequila, with growth being particularly noteworthy in the highlands around the village of Arandas. This period also saw the adoption of modern production techniques from the wine industry such as the use of cultivated yeast and microbiological sanitary practices.
In the 1930s the practice of adding non-agave sugars to the aguamiel, or "honey water," was introduced and quickly adopted by many Tequila producers. These mixto (mixed) Tequilas had a less intense taste than 100% blue agave Tequilas, but this relative blandness also made them more appealing to non-native consumers, particularly those in the United States.
From the 1930s through the 1980s, the bulk of the Tequila being produced was of the blended mixto variety. The original 100% agave Tequilas were reduced to a minor specialty product role in the market. But in the late 1980s the rising popularity of single malt Scotch whiskies and expensive Cognacs in the international marketplace did not go unnoticed among Tequila producers. New brands of 100% blue agave Tequilas were introduced and sales began a steady growth curve that continues to this day. This sales growth has resulted in the opening of new distilleries and the expansion of existing operations. Tequila is on an upswing.
What Bing Crosby and Jimmy Buffet Have in Common
Modest amounts of Tequila have been exported into U.S. border towns since the late 19th century. The first major boost to Tequila sales in the rest of the United States came in the late 1940s when the Margarita cocktail, a blend of Tequila, lime juice, orange liqueur, and ice was invented. Its origins are uncertain, but Hollywood actors and cocktail parties in California and Mexican resorts seem to be involved in most of the genesis stories. It is known that crooner and actor Bing Crosby was so taken with one particular brand of Tequila, Herradura, that he teamed up with fellow actor Phil Harris to import the brand into the United States. The Margarita, along with the Tequila Sunrise and the Tequila Sour, have become highly popular in the United States; in fact, it is claimed by many in the liquor industry that the Margarita is the single most popular cocktail in the nation. In the 1970s, when balladeer Jimmy Buffet sang of "Wasting away in Margaritaville," the success of the song enticed millions more Americans to sip from the salt-rimmed Margarita glass.
The Worm Turns
The upgrading and upscaling of Tequila has, in turn, inspired Mezcal producers to undertake similar measures. In the past few years an increasing number of high-end Mezcals, including some intriguing "single village" bottlings, have been introduced to the market. Mezcal now seems to be coming into its own as a distinctive, noteworthy spirit.