Everyone knows Tequila – or at least they think they do. But there’s so much more to this world-class spirit than headaches and nausea from ill-advised drinking sessions. It’s subtle, distinctive and, in its finest form, as complex and worthy of contemplation as any fine Cognac or single malt.
History of Tequila
The subsequent history of tequila's development from a traditional beverage to the modern spirit of today very much parallels the growth of Mexico herself. In the 400 years following the Spanish Conquest, Tequila has become an icon of Mexican pride and culture. It is recognised worldwide, yet transcends simple definitions. As Carmelita Roman, widow of the late Tequila producer Jesus Lopez Roman observed, "Tequila is Mexico...It's the only product that identifies us as a culture.”
How is Tequila Produced
Tequila is not produced from the typical grains or fruits that most alcoholic beverages are made from. It is distilled from the roasted centre (pina) of the blue agave plant - one of 136 species of agave that grow in Mexico (with 26 sub-species, 29 varieties and 7 types).
The part of the plant that is used for tequila is the heart (root), or pina (also called the head, or cabeza), which looks like a large pineapple or pinecone. It starts underground, but soon pushes its way into the light. A mature pina usually weighs 35 to 140 kgs although most are under 90 kgs. The agave plant takes at least eight years to reach the stage where it is suitable for fermentation and may be left for up to 12 years before harvesting; the more mature, the better its natural sugars.
During this time it is pruned, cutting the points of the leaves with machetes to encourage the pina to grow. Some farmers also use a technique called 'shotgun plowing' to induce premature ripening of plants, but most fields are hand grown and cultivated, using traditional methods. When ready for harvesting, the carbohydrate-rich pina is cut from its stalk. Then the 200 or more spiky and thorn-covered leaves (pencas) that stand out from the agave are cut away from the heart by a jimador (from the Nahuatl word 'jima', meaning ‘harvest').
The agave piña’s distinctive flavours survive a production cycle which includes steam-cooking, crushing, fermentation and distillation – with considerable scope to apply different techniques at every stage of the process.
Types of Tequila
The four types of Tequila: Blanco or Plata (white or silver) - The most common type. It's considered 'un aged' (under 60 days old), and may be bottled fresh from distillation. Gold (‘Joven', 'Joven abocado’) (young and smoothed, also called gold-oro). - Essentially the same as blanco, but with colouring and flavouring ingredients added to make it look aged. Reposado (meaning ‘rested') - This is aged from two months to up to a year in oak barrels. This is where the better tequilas start and the tastes become richer and more complex. Anejo (aged, or vintage) - Aged in government-sealed barrels of no more than 350 liters, for a minimum of a year. They may be matured longer - up to eight to ten years, although most agree tequila is at its best at four or five years. Today, most Tequila is made in Jalisco state around the town of Tequila, with nearly 200 million litres sold worldwide annually. Production remains limited by the availability of Blue Agave, and consequently prices have soared in recent years due to unprecedenteddemand. Despite its popularity, no other drink remains surrounded by as many myths or as much confusion as tequila and its companion, Mezcal.
The Difference Between Tequila and Mezcal
It is important to recognise the distinction between the two spirits. Mezcal is produced from different species of Agave plant, and is also the older form of the name for 'Tequila' - a name only adopted in the late 19th century. Technically, all Tequilas are Mezcals, which were also known as 'mezcal wines' and 'mezcal brandies' before the name Tequila became common.
Unlike tequila, mezcal has remained closer to its origins as a drink of villagers and artisan producers, persisting with tradition, as only mezcal can be made. It differentiates itself from tequila by a countrified approach taken by the distillers in the Oaxaca region (pronounced 'wa-ha-ka') who today produce around 60% of the total Mezcal output. As awareness for mezcal has slowly grown, commercial opportunities have been harnessed. Keeping pace with demand (which remains insignificant in comparison to tequila), it’s now been made on a more industrial scale too. This has led to some bottlers adding cane alcohol, caramel, colour, sulphates, sweetener and even fertiliser, usually in order to speed up output.
Tequila vs. Mezcal Today
Today Mezcal & Tequila are seen as distinct products, differentiated by production processes and taste, in much the same way American Rye Whiskey and Scotch Malt Whisky are cousins rather than brothers. It is important to remember that when you open a bottle of tequila or mezcal you subject its contents to oxidisation, just as you would a bottle of wine. A few weeks to a month can rob tequila of its zesty agave flavours and decrease alcohol due to evaporation. Drinking this stuff is like following cheap tequila down a dirty track towards an unforgettably brutal hangover. Don’t consider a worm in the bottle a sign of authenticity or quality either. Real mezcal is of another dimension, and it’s not easy to come by. Drink it sooner than later. Enjoy.