After a long day, many of us like to retreat to the peace and quiet of our study and enjoy a relaxing pour of a good tequila. Similarly, when it is time to let the hair down and have a night on the town, few alcohols can hold a candle to the celebratory nature of this agave-based nectar. Whether served neat, with lime and lemon, or mixed into a delicious cocktail, such as a margarita, tequila has been a crowd-pleaser since it was first distilled in the 1500s.
The story of tequila is a fascinating blend of hard work, ingenuity and serendipity.
Because tequila (unlike its relatives sotol and Mezcal) can only be derived from blue agave, its production is limited to the rich, volcanic soils of central-west Mexico, near the town that bears its name. (Interestingly, the city of Tequila was established after the drink was popularized.) Today, this distinction is formally recognized by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s designation of the area as a World Heritage Site: “Agave Landscape and Ancient Industrial Facilities of Tequila.”
However, simply having the proper conditions, does not guarantee success. The hard work of the jimadores — agave farmers whose craft is passed down through the ages — is required; as is their knowledge of the precise time to harvest the ripe piña (juicy core of the plant) which can be anywhere from 8 to 12 years.
But, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. We should respect the history before jumping into production.
Tequila was first produced by the Spanish conquistadors — who looked to create a local spirit after their supply of brandy dwindled. They knew of the local beverage called pulque, which was a simple fermentation of agave, and from there, they added their knowledge of distillation to create a brand new sensation.
A drink this good needs two fathers!
By the 1600s, the popularity of tequila had spread and the first commercial production was begun by Don Pedro Sanchez de Tagle, the Marquis of Alexandria — known as “The Father of Tequila.”
Two centuries later, Don Cenobia Sauza began importing tequila to the United States, leading many to use the same paternal moniker for him.
It was Don Cenobia’s grandson, Don Francisco Javier who cast the ultimate die, however, when he claimed “there cannot be tequila where there are no agaves!”
The making of tequila is fascinating in and of itself, with the jimadores carefully tending the agave plants and determing the exact time to use the purpose-built circular knife (coa) to trim away the leaves and expose the succulent piña. This is as much art as science, and as much mystery as chemistry.
Once harvested, the piña is baked to break its complex sugars into a simple fructose. The piña is then mashed or shredded and the pulp discarded. The juice is allowed to ferment for several days to create what distillers call a wort (or mosto) of low alcohol content. This is then distilled a first time to produce what is called ordinario, and then a second time to produce silver tequila. (Two distillations are required by law for a beverage to be called tequila.) It can be sold at this point or aged. If it is aged, wooden barrels are used, and this produces the rich, amber color of golden tequilas (some producers add coloring to enhance this appearance). Depending on the aging period, tequila is known by one of four classifications:
Blanco: which is silver tequila, aged for less than two months; Reposado, which is aged two months to one year; Anejo, which is aged from 1 to 3 years; and Extra Anejo, which has at least three years of aging.
By law, tequila must be at least 51% agave sugars (those of less than 100% agave are called “mixtos”), and must test between 35% and 70% alcohol (40 percent is the minimum for sale in the US and Canada). Since 2004, flavoring has been allowed for tequilas made from less than 100% agave sugars; but pure agave tequila must remain pure — no added flavors whatsoever.
And what about the worm?
Sorry. No true tequila has a worm. Some mezcals are sold “con gusano” but this is purely a marketing gimmick. In point of fact, the presence of a worm (the larval state of a moth that eats agave) is a terrible thing, as it likely means an infestation of the plants.
So, the next time you are ready to relax in style, or celebrate a milestone, visit us at Santo Taco and raise a glass of one of the world’s great spirits — Mexican tequila!
Today, there are strict rules about what qualifies as tequila. All agave grown for tequila production must be registered with the Tequila Regulatory Council (CRT) – an organization whose purpose is to “promote the culture and quality of this beverage that has gained an important place among the national identity symbols,” according to their website. Tequila is a significant Mexican symbol, recognized and appreciated worldwide.
If this article got you in the mood for some tequila, come by Condesa! We have numerous delicious tequilas waiting for you behind our bar.