Tequila—the mere mention of the word conjures memories of too many vicious hangovers and aching backs from failed attempts at salsa dancing. However varied and colorful our youthful escapades with tequila were, our knowledge was probably limited to the kind that you “lick, shoot, and suck.” Just like the misconception we had that real tequila comes from a cactus and should come with a worm.
Real tequila is meant to be sipped and is made from 100 percent blue Weber agave, which is classified as coming from the lily family. The worm in the tequila was a marketing gimmick invented in the 1940s to make tequila seem cooler.
Tequila making in itself is an art form that takes years to complete and which took centuries to perfect. The origin of tequila is so old as to be shrouded in mystery and vague tales. What we do know is that thousands of years ago, the agave, also called the maguey plant, as well as pulque, the fermented sap of the plant, was much revered in ancient American civilizations.
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When the Spaniards arrived in the sixteenth century, they brought with them the knowledge of the distillation process which they applied to pulque. The first incarnation of mezcal was then produced and is considered to be the first distilled spirit made in the Americas.
The alcohol is named after the town of Tequila, Jalisco, where Don Pedro Sánchez de Tagle established the first tequila factory in 1600. It wasn’t officially named tequila, however, until 1873 when mezcal producers in the town of Tequila wanted to differentiate their mezcal from those being manufactured in other parts of Mexico, especially the South.
The word tequila itself is said to come from an ancient Nahuatl term that means “the place of the cutting stones,” because the area where the agave was harvested was filled with sharp obsidian stones that cut the harvesters’ feet.
Nowadays, tequila has taken its place as a symbol of Mexico’s rich culture and history. It is highly regulated and can only be produced in certain municipalities of the following Mexican states: Jalisco (which produces 95 percent of all blue agave tequila), Nayarit, Guanajuato, Michoacán, and Tamaulipas. This is called the Appellation of Origin, which defines the standards set for a particular product.
Each bottle of tequila is also required to have the initials NOM (Norma Oficial Mexicana) and a four-digit number unique to each distillery. This way, each distillery is accountable for the quality of their product.
The harvesting of tequila plants is still a very manual and laborious process that has been handed down from generation to generation. The flavor of the tequila is determined by several elements that start with where the agave plant is from. Just like wine, different regions produce different types of agave. Agave from the highland region is larger and tends to be sweeter while agave from the lowland region is smaller and earthier in flavor.
An agave plant can take between eight to 12 years to mature, and only skilled harvesters called jiradores, can determine when a plant is ripe enough to harvest. Once it is harvested, all the leaves are removed, revealing the heart of the plant called the piña. This can weigh anywhere between 40 to 130 kilos. The piñas are then cooked in special ovens until they become soft and juicy. The raw agave juice is extracted from this through shredding and mashing. The resulting liquid is left to ferment for several days in wooden or stainless steel vats which produce mosto.
The mosto then goes through two distillation processes. The first one results in a liquid called ordinario, which is 20 to 28 percent alcohol by volume. This takes around two hours. The second distillation takes twice as long and produces 40 to 45 percent alcohol. This is when the full flavor of the blanco tequila comes out. By this time, around six kilos of piña have already been used to produce one liter of Dm percent blue agave tequila. The distiller can then bottle this straightaway as blanco tequila or place it in different wooden casks to age. Reposado is "rested" tequila and is aged for two months up to less than a year. Melo or "aged" tequila is left in the casks for at least a year up to less than three years. Finally, any tequila that is aged for three years or more is called extra affejo.
Worldwide, the demand for premium tequila has been increasing as more people are shedding the old misconceptions and appreciating tequila for what it is.
This story first appeared on Vault Magazine Issue 14 No 2 2014.