I recently helped out with a fund raising event for the Discovery Museum in Acton. They asked me there to talk about tequila, and it made me realize there are a lot of common misconceptions surrounding this Mexican spirit.
Tequila is made from a dessert plant called Agave. The agave plant stores its food reserves in a way that predators are not attracted to it. It possesses long bayonet-like spikes, and these bayonets make it quite difficult reach. Furthermore, the plant does not produce palatable juices or fruit. So how did anyone develop the idea of making a drink from this plant?
The history of Tequila is quite an intriguing tale. It is believed that a forest fire occurred in the Jalisco region of Mexico and the heat cooked the agave plants. The natives in the area noticed the sweet aroma of caramel coming from the core of the plants that still stood among the ashes. Upon further inspection, the natives found them sweet and pleasant to eat. Initially, to process the agave plant, the natives first removed the pulpy spikes from the plant, leaving just the head, referred to as “piñas.” They then took the heads and placed them in pits covered with the plants’ leaves or bayonets and proceeded to build a fire on top. This process helped to converted the bitter and hard heads into a sweet, flavorful, and meaty product the natives used as candy. They had yet to realize that alcohol could be made from the candy’s sugar.
Legend has it that some time afterwards one native decided to take the meaty pieces and place them in water in order to extract the sugar. The intention was to prepare a delicious and sweet drink. But, to his surprise, the juice started to produce gas bubbles as if it were boiling. This was a result of fermentation. The microscopic yeast particles present in the air converted the sugars into alcohol and carbonic gas. However, the liquid tasted differently than expected; it was no longer sweet, but now possessed more vivid and appealing aromas. The natives also noticed a very different effect on those who drank it.
All of this occurred in the pre-Hispanic land, which is now referred to as the region of Jalisco. When the Spanish arrived, they tasted the “mescal wine” and took it a step further with their knowledge of the process and art of distillation.
Tequila and Mescal were made the same way until the start of the twentieth century, when producers from the town of Tequila in the Jalisco region began to improve the process. They introduced modern and hygienic techniques, which created a unique beverage that would quickly come to be in a class by itself. It was at this point that the beverage was named for its native town of Tequila. Tequila producers claim that the Jalisco region and the nearby Amatitan valley’s “terroir” (soil and climate) imparts special characteristics upon its raw material and “piñas”, thus creating a mezcal like no other.
If you have ever walked down the tequila aisle at any liquor store you will notice several different types of tequila often from the same brands all for different prices. This is because there are two basic categories of tequila: mixtos and 100% agave. Mixtos use no less than 51% agave, with other sugars making up the remainder. Mixtos use both glucose and fructose sugars. The most common mixtos tequila out there is Jose Cuervo Gold. So keep that in mind next time you think about purchasing a bottle of Cuervo; while it’s is fine for margarita’s, I would not recommend drinking it straight.
100% agave tequilas come in four different categories or levels. Blanco or plata is harsher and possesses bolder flavors of the distilled agave, while reposado, añejo, and extra anejo are smoother, subtler, and more complex. The oak aging of the reposado and anejo helps to smooth out the tequila and adds to the complexity of the spirit. As with other spirits that are aged in casks, tequila takes on the flavors of the wood, while the harshness of the alcohol mellows.
Blanco (“white”) or plata (“silver”) is defined as a white spirit un-aged and bottled or stored immediately after distillation, or aged less than two months in stainless steel or neutral oak barrels. Reposado (“rested”) is aged a minimum of two months, but less than a year in oak barrels of any size. Añejo (“aged” or “vintage”) is aged a minimum of one year, but less than three years in small oak barrels. While extra eñejo (“extra aged” or “ultra aged”) is aged a minimum of three years in oak barrels (this last category was established in March 2006).