Tequila: Truths and Tales
Blue Agave Margarita
1-1/2 oz. Silver Tequila
1 oz. blue Curaçao
4 oz. sweetened lime juice
Rimmed with salt (optional)
Shake, strain, pour into a salt-rimmed glass, garnish with lime
Tequila, North America's first distilled spirit, has roots deep in the heart of Mexico. In the late 1400's, Spanish Conquistadors encountered the Nahuatl, indigenous people who used ‘pulque’ for medicinal purposes, and in religious ceremonies. The primary ingredient in pulque came from the agave plant, abundant in the volcanic soils in the Sierra Madre region surrounding Guadalajara.
Legend has it that the Spaniards had run out of brandy, and eagerly sought a source of fermentable sugar. They began to experiment with the full-bodied taste of blue agave, or agave azul.
Throughout the following centuries, tequila grew in popularity. In the 1970's, the Norma Oficial Mexicana (NOM) set guidelines that ‘true’ tequila is produced within two hundred kilometers of Guadalajara, and contains at least 51% blue agave. Premium tequilas are usually 100% blue agave, and proudly labeled so. Half the world's tequila is produced near the town of Tequila.
Today, over 90,000 acres of blue agave are under cultivation, in that region. Planted from mecuates, small offshoots growing from the base of adult plants, there are 1,500-2,000 to each acre. A fully grown plant reaches a height of approximately 6 feet.
In the wild, a plant matures after 7-10 years, at which point a central flower-bearing stalk begins to grow, sometimes 9 feet high. Those flowers would then be pollinated by long-nosed bats.
Under cultivation, however, jimadores, or field workers, harvest the the central core of the plant, or pina. The elongated, sharply pointed leaves, surrounding the core, are hacked off with long-handled knives, called coas. A pina resembles a giant pinecone, and can weigh 50-150 pounds.
The pinas are split in half and stacked in ovens and steamed for approximately 72 hours. After a 24 hour cooling period, it is soft, fibrous and caramel-colored, and taste like honey-dipped yams.
Traditionally, cooked pinas would be crushed by a tahona, or large wheel of volcanic rock, slowly drawn round and round, by a mule or horse. Today, the pinas are minced by a machine resembling a wood chipper.
The pulp is strained and the resulting liquid, known as agua miel, the basis of all tequila, is mixed with water, then fermented, in large vats. Agaves have as many as 40 different wild yeasts, though manufacturers sometimes use cane sugar cones to speed fermentation.
After filtering, 3-6 days later, the liquid emerges clear (referred to as 'silver' or 'white.') Some tequila houses add coloring or herbs, endowing a pale golden color, and age it for two more months, resulting in what we call ‘gold’ tequila.
Depending on the aging technique, the tequila takes on different flavors. Reposado, meaning 'rested,' remains in white oak barrels for 3-12 months. The next level of aging, anejo, or ‘vintage,' produces a smoother "sipping tequila." The word, "anejo" only appears on bottles containing tequila aged at least one year. Tequilas aged 5-6 years are called "muy anejo."
Much confusion, and many myths, exist around tequila production. Though some mescals contain a worm, mostly as an intriguing marketing ploy, it is neither hallucinogenic, nor serves any purpose. Also untrue is the belief that tequila is made from cacti. Agave is a succulent and more closely related to amaryllis, and lilies.
Tequila sales have increased over 1500%, from 1975 to 1995. Blue agave is the single-most important crop in western Mexico, due to its role in the tequila industry, providing thousands of Mexicans with a livelihood whose history can be traced back over 300 years. Many workers take pride in producing an export that is purely, and truly, Mexican.