Tequila, the national drink of Mexico, is as complex a subject as wine or single-malt whiskey. It has remained an essential part of Mexico’s complex history and culture, from the Spanish colonial period to our modern era. And tequila is not just famous in Mexico; it has become a staple liquor in bars and clubs and as an essential mixer in ubiquitous cocktails such as the Margarita, the Paloma, and the Tequila Sunrise. And thanks to modern technology, you can now order your favorite bottle of tequila from an online liquor delivery service and have it delivered, right to your door.
Here is everything you need to know about tequila, from sprout to shot glass:
1. What Is Tequila?
Tequila is a liquor derived from the blue agave plant, a plant that indelibly marks the Mexican countryside. Agave is also used as a natural sweetener for many other recipes.
2. What Is Blue Agave?
Agave tequilana Webera blue variety of agave, is one of the 136 species of agave that grow in Mexico. Its distribution around the country is likely due to the migrations of ethnic groups that domesticated it over the centuries. Blue agave is used to produce tequila and is distinguished by the blue tinge of its leaves. It grows mainly in the municipalities of Amatitlan, Arenal, Tequila, and Hostotipaquillo; in the northeastern part of the Ameca region; and in Los Altos of Jalisco, in towns such as Atotonilco, Zapotlanejo, Totolan, Arandas, Jesus Maria, and Tepatitlan.
3. How Are Agaves Grown?
Cultivation of agave requires clay-rich soil in a semi-arid climate with a temperature that remains 66 degrees Fahrenheit. Agave is grown at some 5,000 feet above sea level. At the beginning of the rainy season, agave sprouts or babies are removed from the parent and planted in the tilled land.
4. How Is Tequila Manufactured?
To obtain the juice that tequila is distilled from, the agave heart is harvested from the plant after the leaves are cut off. Tequila hearts harvested from the field are cut into halves or quarters and then loaded into the ovens to cook, which will convert their starches into sugars. Once the agave hearts are cooked, they are placed in crushing mills to get the juice, which is then fermented in special tanks. Fermentation converts the sugar into ethyl alcohol. The fermented juices then pass into stills, where they are heated to a high temperature. The juices evaporate and then condense back into a liquid that can already be called tequila.
5. What Kinds of Tequila Are There?
There are three basic varieties of tequila: blanco, reposado, and añejo.
Blanco, or white tequila, is as clear as water and is considered a finished product following the second distillation. Many Tequila connoisseurs prefer blanco because of its pure flavors.
Reposado, or “rested” tequila, the most widely consumed of the three, is the result of storing white tequila in oak or holm oak barrels for at least two months. It tends to have a somewhat woody color and is slightly smoother-tasting than blanco tequila.
Añejo, or aged tequila, is matured for at least a year and is darker than reposado. This type of tequila has a woody flavor that is more pronounced. Añejo is the most-recommended for first-time drinkers.
6. What Does 100% Agave Mean?
Pure tequila is made entirely from agave. When the label does not specify “100% agave,” the tequila is mixto, or mixed. This means that the proportion of the sugar extracted from the agave has been combined with other sugars during the manufacturing process. The tequila most commonly consumed, especially in the US, is mixto. For many years Mexican standards permitted tequilas to contain a minimum of 51% agave and up to 49% other sugars. However, now industry standards have stipulated that the drink must be at least 60% agave to be called tequila. Some factories, Herradura for example, pride themselves on producing 100% agave tequila.
7. Does Tequila Come with a Worm in the Bottle?
The maguey worm inside some bottles is characteristic of certain mezcals, never of tequila. Mezcal producers maintain that because the worm feeds on the agave plant, it contains a concentrated essence of the plant and thus serves to enhance the flavor of the bottled liquor. Worms are collected and bred on mezcal plantations but in agave fields for tequila production they are regarded as pests. The white worms are the most highly valued.
8. What Is the Difference Between Tequila and Mezcal?
Mezcal is made from several different varieties of agave. Tequila is made only from the blue agave. Mezcal is considered to be ready for consumption after a single distillation, while tequila requires at least two and is carefully filtered to eliminate impurities and to mellow its taste. Mezcal tends to have a more concentrated color and a more potent flavor from the outset. Mezcal often tastes smoky as a result of the custom of baking the agave heart underground in a pit kiln. This flavor is in fact considered to be one of its desirable traits.
9. When and Where Were the First Tequila Distilleries Established?
In 1758, the Cuervo y Montaño family founded a distillery on the Arriba Hacienda. Then, in 1795, José Maria Guadalupe de Cuervo set up a distillery which was later to be called La Taberna de Cuervo. This was the origin of the company now known as Casa Cuervo or Jose Cuervo. The Tequila Sauza company dates back to 1873 and Tequila Herradura to 1870.
10. When Did the Exportation of Tequila Begin?
Beginning in the sixteenth century, distilleries in the region of Jalisco sent their product to the major cities and mining areas of what is now Mexico. It was transported overland to fairs in other regions and also to seaports, in particular that of San Blas, Jalisco, founded in 1768. Around 1870, tequila began to arrive in the United States by cart. The railroad sped up the growth of the tequila market, and the industrial modernization of the major distilleries affected the level of exportation. Today, tequila is one of Mexico’s main commodities sold abroad.
Do you feel more familiar with tequila now? What did we miss? Tell us your favorite tequila facts in the comment section below!