Tequila: The Essence of Mexico

A shot glass filled to the top, going deep inside your system, here comes the burning feeling, the deep frown, the chaser comes quickly after, a lemon wedge, salt; was that the right order? Who cares – it feels good!

Perhaps this is the most common memory most of the world has about tequila; however, when a person drinks a shot of tequila, they’re probably not aware of the complexity and richness involved in the making process nor the vast quantity of products, tools, and jobs that have been committed to the production of this blue agave wine for hundreds of years. While many have only sampled cheap tequila in the form of shots or margaritas, good tequila is a jewel that should be enjoyed like a fine cognac, scotch, or wine. This zesty drink, and the pride of Mexico, has taken its place in modernized western culture just like wine and whisky. A fact not well known by many is that just as true champagne must hail from France, tequila has “Denomination of Origin,” meaning that it has to be produced in Mexico, primarily in the area surrounding the city of Tequila, state of Jalisco, in order to be called “tequila.”


What is Tequila?
Tequila is made from blue agave, a native plant of Mexico, which flourishes in the silicate-rich volcanic soil of Jalisco and the surrounding areas. There are more than 300 varieties of agave; however, by law, only blue agave can be used to make tequila. Other variations are used to make mezcal, which is a similar drink, confused many times in other countries with tequila (sold sometimes with a worm inside). According to Mexican Official Standard rules and regulations, all agave grown for tequila production must be registered with the Tequila Regulatory Council. Agave reaches maturity between 5 and 12 years. Plants grown in the highlands take longer than those grown on the plains or in valleys.

The harvesting of the agave is all done by hand, using centuries-old techniques by the jimadores, or agave harvesters. Once the plant has reached maturity, the jimadores use a long knife call coa to remove the long, spiky leaves, leaving only the center called piña, which looks similar to a big pineapple. These ripe piñas have an average weight of 32 kilograms. The piñas are then sent to the different distilleries, where they are first cut in half and then fed into ovens, where they are steam-baked to convert the starchy fluids into fermentable sugar. The process of steam heating and later cooling off could take somewhere between 16 and 48 hours.

After cooking, the piñas are shredded and crushed in order to release their sugary juices. These juices can now be converted into alcohol by using yeast. The fermentation process typically lasts 24 to 96 hours, depending on the type of process.

Tequila must be distilled twice. After the first distillation, the product is called ordinario and can’t be called “tequila” yet. This first process produces a spirit of about 20-25% alc./vol. The second distillation produces tequila, and it is usually 55-75% alc./vol. and can be bottled and sold as tequila “blanco” or “silver.” Reposado and Añejo are aged in oak, which gives them a special character, smoothness, and color. Additives such as coloring, glycerine, sugar syrup, and aromatizers (only those permitted by the Mexican Ministry of Health) may also be added to all categories of tequila. However, the total dry matter must be less than 1% of total volume.

Tequila bottled in Mexico by regulations must be between 35% and 55% alc./vol.; the U.S. market stipulates a minimum of 40%, while in South Africa it’s 43%, and in Europe, 37.5%.

Tequila barrels

History and legacy of Cuervo
In the local Nahuatl language, the word tequila means “volcanic rock,” referring to the inactive volcano located in the surroundings of Tequila. By the 17th century, “agave wines” produced in the town of Tequila and its surrounding areas began to gain attention due to their quality. It’s likely that the introduction of copper stills and distillation methods by the Spanish were the cornerstone of the industry. In 1902, finally, tequila acquired its official definition, separating itself from other agave-based spirits, which continued to be referred to as “mezcal.” One of the first pioneers of the industry was Jose Antonio de Cuervo, who bought the first lands to start the plantating and production of tequila. Later on, his son Guadalupe de Cuervo was granted by Spain’s King Carlos IV the first license to commercially make tequila, leading the way for others into the industry, like Don Cenobio Sauza, the founder of Sauza Tequila and the first tequila businessman to export tequila to the United States.

Most well-known tequila brands are owned by large multinational corporations, and only a few are family-owned brands. There are only as few as 100 distilleries in the area, and they are responsible for making over 900 brands of tequila in Mexico. There are over 2,000 brand names registered for tequila; each bottle must contain a serial number, regardless of which distillery it was produced in, to identify its origin. Multiple brands of tequila are likely to come from the same distillery.

Tequila Ettique
The first time I visited Mexico, I was surprised when I was offered tequila in a wine glass. There weren’t any lemons or salt on the table, which according to some, was a practice that originated in the northern part of Mexico by the North Americans who couldn’t handle it straight, as well as a practice promoted by the film industry. And although salt and lemon are used in Mexico as well, the rituals and practices differ in many ways. Tequila can be a fine drink just like a scotch or wine when enjoyed correctly, and it isn’t only for shots. Our host recommended that when drinking good tequila, it should be served in a low-ball glass, or in a caballito, which is a Mexican traditional shot glass, at room temperature and should be sipped slowly. The rich aroma should prevail; therefore, there is no need to shake or sniff the glass, as oppose to wine. High-end tequila should be labeled “100% Agave.” If the label doesn’t specify it, then it’s possible that it is mixto, which means its flavors have been cut by 49% sugar and water. Jose Cuervo Gold, which is the most common kind sold at regular bars, is from the mixto family (the extra sugars added can explain bad Jose Cuervo hangovers).

Tabasco and tomato sauce are also a common way of accompanying tequila in some parts of Mexico; they are served in separate glasses and drunk separately, one after the other, but mixing the content of both in the mouth before swallowing.

These are a few ways to enjoy tequila; however, it is my opinion that the best way is in the company of good people and for the purpose of a good time. Tequila is universal. The richest man can raise his drink to the poorest, and while the tequila flows, all will be well. Even if you’re not Mexican, take a little pride next time you sit down to enjoy the essence of Mexico: Tequila!

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