Art of Enjoying Cocktails
Undoubtedly, one of the world’s most popular and misunderstood spirits is tequila. In order to truly understand it, we first need to dispel some common misconceptions by taking a look at a few tequila facts.
Conquistadors likely produced tequila’s predecessor, Mezcal, shortly after arriving in Mexico from Spain. The variety of tequila we know today didn’t come to prominence until after the Mexican Revolution in 1821, when imported products fell out of favor because they became harder to come by.
Margaritas and shots of tequila have always been popular, but recently tequila cocktails, like the delicious and beautiful Tequila Sunrise, have been making a popular comeback.
Today, a new generation is appreciating this spirit in a new way. Gone are many of the tequila shot glasses and giant bowls rimmed with salt, replaced by rocks glasses with two-finger measures intended to be sipped and savored. Modern tequila distillers have taken a page from whiskey and bourbon makers and are infusing more wood and flavor characteristics by aging their expressions for longer periods.
And, like anything with a long and storied history, tequila remains steeped in mystique, and myths still abound.
What is tequila made from? One long held tequila misconception is that it comes from a cactus. While it is true that it comes from a desert plant, it’s actually made from the agave plant, which has for centuries been revered by the people of Mexico.
Legend has it that the ancient Aztec’s recognized it as the earthly incarnation of the Mayahuel, the Goddess of the Agave and Fertility. The fermented agave sap was believed to have therapeutic properties and as such was employed in religious rites and ceremonies. Although agave live alongside cacti, they’re actually members of the lily family.
When the Conquistador’s travelled to Mexico, they brought brandy and wine from Spain. The supplies were far from limitless and when these exhausted, the Spanish employed distillation techniques originating in Europe to distill fermented agave sap. The Spanish called this Vino de Mezcal.
All tequila is mezcal, but not all mezcal is tequila. Mezcal is a collective name for alcoholic spirits derived from the agave plant. Tequila is recognized as the national alcoholic beverage of Mexico and can be produced from only one varietal of 136 species of Mexican Agave; The Tequilana Weber Blue Agave, grown in the Jalisco state of Mexico. The red volcanic soil of Jalisco provides a particularly rich growing environment. Even agave grown in the same region can have a different flavor based on whether they are grown in the highlands or the lowlands.
Mezcal is produced by cooking piña’s, the hearts of the agave plants, in earthen pits lined with stone and covered with earth to retain the heat in the pit. It is this process that gives mezcal its signature earthy and smoky characteristics. Unlike mezcal, the Weber Blue Agave used to produce tequila is steamed in stone ovens known as hornos or in large stainless steel vessels known as autoclaves. This steaming process produces a spirit that is free from the smoky notes often associated with mezcal.
The cooked piña’s are then cooled, shredded and pressed. The juice from the pressing is allowed to ferment before distillation takes place. The first distillate taken is called the Ordinario and the second distillation is collected as Tequila.
To be recognized as tequila the distillate must contain a minimum 51% sugars from the agave. Tequilas between 51% and 99% are called ‘Mixtos’ as they may contain up to 49% non-agave sugars. 100% agave tequila uses 100% agave sugars, and will be labeled as such on the bottle. If the label only says ‘Tequila’, it is likely a Mixto.
No, that’s not tequila. That’s its older cousin mezcal. And that’s not a worm; it’s actually the larva of Hypopta agavis, or a moth, which makes its home in the agave plant. Despite being dispelled for years, the worm myth is still going strong due to marketing. If you find a worm in a bottle of mezcal, it’s been added to sell more bottles, not to follow a Mexican tradition or add any flavor. It won’t hurt you to eat it, but it won’t cause hallucinations either (another long-standing myth).
The first tequila was likely produced in Jalisco the 16th century but it was not until 1608 that King Carlos IV of Spain allowed it to be commercially made. And it was not until around 1885 that tequila was exported to the United States by Don Cenobio Sauza, the founder of Sauza distillery.
He had a great passion to perfect the tequila making process with innovations such as using steam heat to cook the agaves versus an open fire. Don Cenobio introduced a regulated cooking process that reduced overcooking, undercooking and burning the agave, while allowing for more consistent results and a less smoky, purer agave taste.
By shortening the name on the labels of his agave elixir from “vino tequila” to “tequila” Don Cenobio established the identity this fine liquor carries to this day. And by being the first to export tequila to the United States, for a spirits competition, he elevated this distilled beverage such that it stood on the same platform as the other great spirits of the world.
Blanco / Silver
Blanco, also known as Silver, tequila is clear tequila that is not aged. Its fresh flavor is the purest expression of agave flavor – a great choice for mixed drinks. Blancos are the base for all other tequilas, so comparing the Blanco tequilas of different distillers is a good way to compare “house styles.”
Oro / Gold
Gold tequila is an unaged tequila, to which caramels or oak extract are added to create a rich, tawny color. It typically tastes sweeter than Blanco and may have caramel or oaky aromas.
Reposado / Rested
Reposado or “rested” tequilas are aged in wood barrels or tanks for at least 2 months. Often a pale straw color, Reposado tequila is usually mellower than Blanco or Gold – perfect for more sophisticated cocktails or straight.
Añejo / Aged
Añejo tequila must be aged in oak barrels for at least 12 months. Gold to amber in color, Añejo usually has a soft, smooth, complex flavor, the result of its interaction with the aromatic wood. Añejo is often sipped slowly, as you would a fine cognac.
Extra Añejo tequila must be aged in oak barrels for at least 3 years. Darker in color, extra Añejo tequila is the smoothest, most complex, and most aromatic of all the tequilas.
With its deep tradition and rich history, tequila is truly a spirit like no other, and worthy of its mysterious reputation.