If there was ever a more heinous, deliberately intoxicating alcohol…
I bet that’s what many expected me to say. Sure, there are tequilas out there like the gold Jose Cuervo’s of the world that cater to a college crowd with just one intention: getting drunk. Can I drink that stuff? Heck no.
However, there is also a wide range of really impeccable and finely aged tequilas that are really wonderful. Those are the ones we’re going to discuss.
The History of Tequila
Of course it is the city of Tequila where our story begins. Deep in the heart of Tequila, the namesake drink was first created during the mid sixteenth century. The Aztec people used the locally grown agave plants and fermented alcohol from it. Once the Spanish took over in the early 1500s and brandy was of short supply, they began to hijack the agave plants and produced what is now known worldwide as Tequila.
Almost a century later, the Marquis of Altamira, a man named Don Pedro Sanchez de Tagle sought out methods to mass produce is new favorite spirit at the very first factory ever opened in Jalisco. When the Spanish King, Carlos IV began taxing products, he gave the Cuervo family the very first license to commercially produce what was then called tequila extract.
Despite tequila being prominent since the 1500s, it wasn’t until the mid-nineteenth century that tequila transformed into the beverage we know it as today. It was in Guadalajara, Mexico that this first feat was performed, and to this day, has been widely adopted by most tequila producers as the standard operating practice.
When Don Cenobio Sauza, the founder of his namesake brand, was the municipal President of the Village of Tequila in 1884, he decided it was time to export tequila extract to America and shortened the name to just “tequila” for marketing ease. It was Sauza’s family who was responsible for ensuring that tequila would eventually only come from Jalisco as his grandson felt that without the agave plant there could be no such thing as tequila.
Today tequila is a globally recognized spirit and rakes in billions of dollars in revenue each year. Individual companies have been valued at over $800 million and it continues to be one of the most aggressively consumed spirits in America to this very day, with the college crowd being its core demographic.
While many tequila brands are named after, and consider themselves “family brands”, the fact is that today, most tequila producers are owned, in part, by international companies trading on the stock market.
Come 2003, Mexico proposed that Mexican produced tequila must be bottled in Mexico prior to exportation. They determined that by bottling the tequila in Mexico, it would guarantee its quality. US liquor companies strongly opposed this proposal citing that they believed Mexico only proposed this controversial law to create jobs on the local level and that by instituting such regulations would be violate international trade agreements and would be in violation of global exportation practices. The proposal would have guaranteed immediate job loss at tequila bottling facilities throughout much of the United States including California, Arkansas, Kentucky and Missouri. As such, the United States vehemently appealed the proposal and on January 17, 2006, the United States and Mexico signed an agreement that continued to allow the bulk importation of tequila into the United States, in addition to creating a registry called the Tequila Bottlers Registry which would identify and control approved bottling plants.
As we discussed, tequila is not exclusive to the college crowd that uses it as shots. It’s also not just for mixing cocktails. Some bottles are so rarified and expertly crafted that they’ve sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars. In fact, tequila received the Guinness World Record for the most expensive bottle of spirit ever sold in 2006 when a limited edition one liter bottle sold for $225,000.
With the evolution of tequila and the dispensation of new and eclectic styles, scientists determined in mid-2008 that they could actually produce synthetic diamonds from 80 proof tequila. Today, the hope is that these tiny jewels that are just nanometers in size, although not worth much in the form of jewelry, could actually be used to produce computer chips and various industrial cutters.
Regulating Authorities and Laws Surrounding Tequila
The NOM, or Norma Oficial Mexicana, is the regulation that applies to all types of activity relating to the supply of agave, including marketing, bottling, production and any information in relation to the plant. All tequila that is authentic comes with a NOM-identifying market on the bottle and is used to establish authenticity of origin of the tequila, and to confirm that only the Tequilana Weber Blue species is used in its production.
In addition to NOM, there is also the TMA which stands for Tristeza y Muerte de Agave. Unfortunately, this regulation has actually reduced the production of the agave and raised prices on a global scale.
Since it’s a regional drink under heavy regulations by the Mexican government, it can only be produced using the blue agave plant in and around the vicinity of the city of Tequila, in the state of Jalisco and some small regions in Guanajuato, Nayarit, Tamaulipas and Michoacán.
How It’s Made
What’s especially interesting about tequila is that it’s predominantly done through very manual and hard labor, beginning with the harvesting of the blue agave plant. Despite the ability to use modern farm machinery, the process of harvesting the agave is widely known to be a trade secret passed on from generation to generation.
More important than the actual harvesting of the plant, is the maintenance that it requires. Due to the hot climate, the farmers will actively trim what are called quiotes, which are stalks that grow out of the center of the plant. By trimming them on a regular basis, the farmer can prevent the quiotes from flowering and dying, allowing it to ripen under the hot sun. The men who harvest it, also called Jimadores, can tell by eye when each plant is ready for harvest, using a specially designed knife called a Coa, which is really just a circular blade attached to a long pole. They use the coa to cut back the leaves from the core of the plant known as the pina which can weigh up to an astounding 240lbs.
Once the pinas are ready for harvesting, they’re sent to large ovens where they’re baked low and slow in an effort to break down the starch into sugar. Once they’re baked, they’re shredded and mashed under a large stone wheel called a tahona. The fibrous pulp, called bagazo, is left behind and recycled into other materials. At this point, many producers will opt to add some of the pulp back into the fermentation tank to increase the flavor of the agave plant into the tequila. Once the extracted juice from the agave plant’s pina is taken, it’s poured into large vats made of wood or steel for about a week to ferment into the wort, which tequila producers called the mosto. The mosto is then distilled once to made what’s called the ordinario and then again to make a clear liquid called silver tequila. Some producers will opt for a third distillation, but many contend that by doing this, you lose much of the natural agave flavor profile. From distillation comes the aging process where it’s pumped into wooden casks and left to develop its flavor profile and produce it’s often, amber color. The flavor profile isn’t so much from the way the tequila is made, but more from the region. Similar to that of whisky, Mexico has its lowland and highland areas which greatly determine how sweet or fruit forward the tequila will be. Lowland tequila is considered to be more earthy, whereas the highland tequila is the fruity, sweeter variant.
It’s because of the deep red, volcanic soil that the agave plant is grown in that tequila is so unique. Hundreds of millions of plants are harvested every year and the plant, despite being exclusive to the region, grows differently based on where in the region it is. The highlands tend to produce much larger agave plants, whereas the the lowlands are, well, exactly that – lower and smaller, yet still weighing a hefty amount.
The final result is a roughly-40% alcohol content at anywhere between 76-80 proof, but it is also produced at a much higher volume of up to 110 proof. I said it before – it’s popular with college kids for a reason.
Types of Tequila
There are two primary styles of tequila, being mixtos and 100% agave. Mixtose still use a minimum of 51% agave, but can be blended with other glucose and fructose sugars to make up the remainder of the spirit.
Once it’s fit into it’s specific category, it is then bottled five various styles being Blanco (white), Plata (silver), Joven (young), Oro (gold) and Reposado (rested).
The gold is usually a flavored tequila with caramel coloring and extracts from oak, syrups and sugars. The rested tequila is aged for at least two month, but no more than a year or it’s called Anejo (aged) or Extra Anejo if it’s more than three years in an oak barrel.
For 100% agave tequila, the flavors can be quite harsh in blanco and plata styles, but mellow out into a very complex spirit with the reposado and anejo. One of my favorite bottles is the recently released Hornitos Black Barrel which, despite being labeled as a double wood tequila, is actually a triple wood anejo tequila aged in whisky barrels, first to develop the anejo label, then in deeply charred American oak barrels for four months, before finally being aged in toasted American oak casks for two months to enhance the whiskey-like notes. It results in a sublime oaky-vanilla tequila with a perfect harmony of smoke, pepper and a wonderfully clean and long finish, not often found in tequilas. It truly is a marvel and one I highly recommend trying.
Let’s put the myths to rest. Some people contend that some tequilas contain a worm in the bottle. This isn’t exactly true. Mezcal, which technically tequila fits into, is rarely, but sometimes sold with a worm in the bottle when it’s produced in Oaxaca, Mexico. It won’t kill you, it isn’t stronger and it’s not an instant way to get “drunk”. In fact, it began as a marketing ploy in the mid 1940s and has been used ever since, often featured by bartenders with no regard and little respect for their clientele. Even still, it’s not a real worm. It’s actually just the larval form of a moth that lives on the agave plant, and actually indicates an infestation in the plant. Somehow, the myths continue and the worm has been used to falsely represent the mezcal as a premium bottling.
How to Serve Tequila
Despite the reputation of tequila being a college coed favorite, truly refined tequila should actually be consumed neat, but for the sake of all things good and holy, not as a shot. Rather, enjoy it in a proper tequila glass or a brandy snifter and without the salt and lime. Savor it, respect it and enjoy a premium spirit that’s been around since the 1500s.
Of course, there are many cocktails that call for tequila, from the very famous margarita to the tequila sunrise. Here are a couple videos that should help you along in your journey:
Another traditional drink that isn’t as well known is the Sangrita, a sweet, spicy and sour drink made from orange juice, tomato juice and hot chile peppers. Traditionally, you would alternate between the Sangrita and a neatly poured glass of premium tequila.
If you are a college kid hell bent on a good time, try the Mexican Flag or Bandera as it’s known in Mexico. Take three shot glasses and fill the first with fresh lime juice (for the green), blanco tequila (for the white) in the second glass and sangrita (for the red) in the third. Then down them back in order for a taste experience you won’t soon forget.
Funny enough, the act of finishing a shot of tequila with lime and salt isn’t really done in Mexico. It’s something we invented in America and isn’t really the true way to down a shot. In Mexico it’s called “tequila cruda” and is known as the drink for those on training wheels. The lime is used as a chaser to combat the often crude taste of less expensive tequila and the salt to slow the burning sensation. If you do drink tequila this way, consider trying cinnamon with a slice of orange instead.
Of course, despite my hatred of wasting alcohol on drinking games, tequila is of course synonymous with body shots, stunt shots and group binging. There is no getting away from it. However, it is my hope that rather than spending your money on Jose Cuervo Gold, perhaps you’ll make a worthwhile investment and procure something a little more worthy of your palate, and something you can sip and enjoy neat or in a fruity cocktail.