Since I am sick this week, and today is Cinco de Mayo, I will not be consuming Coronas, margaritas, or any tacos. However, I thought I would write up a post on Mexico’s most well known spirit, Tequila.
Tequila was first produced in the 16th century near the location of the city of Tequila, which was not officially established until 1656. The Aztec people had previously made a fermented beverage from the agave plant, which they called octli (later, and more popularly called pulque), long before the Spanish arrived in 1521. When the Spanish conquistadors ran out of their own brandy, they began to distill this agave drink to produce North America’s first indigenous distilled spirit.
Some 80 years later, around 1600, Don Pedro Sánchez de Tagle, the Marquis of Altamira, began mass-producing tequila at the first factory in the territory of modern-day Jalisco. By 1608, the colonial governor of Nueva Galicia had begun to tax his products, however the tequila that is popular today was not mass-produced until the early 1800s in Guadalaljara.
Don Cenobio Sauza, founder of Sauza Tequila and Municipal President of the Village of Tequila from 1884-1885, was the first to export tequila to the United States. Don Cenobio’s grandson Don Francisco Javier gained international attention for insisting that “there cannot be tequila where there are no agaves!” His efforts led to the practice that real tequila can only come from the State of Jalisco.
Since 2002, sales of high priced tequilas, called “ultra-premium” and “super-premium” by marketeers, have increased 28 percent. That is an average growth rate of 8.6 percent per year, as reported by the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States. Sales exceeded expectations by reaching well over 10 million cases as shown in the 2007 report by IWSR based on Adams Liquor Handbook. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, increasing worldwide popularity of tequila drove corporate interest in the drink. Notable developments as a result included:
* The purchase of Herradura by Brown-Forman for $776 million in September 2006.
* A new NOM (Norma Oficial Mexicana) for tequila (NOM-006-SCFI-2005) was issued in 2006, and
among other changes, introduced a category of tequila called “extra añejo” or “ultra-aged” which
must be aged a minimum of 3 years.
* The purchase of the Sauza and El Tesoro brands by massive holding company Fortune Brands.
Although some tequilas have remained as family owned brands, most well-known tequila brands are owned by large multinational corporations. However, there are over 100 distilleries making over six hundred brands of tequila in Mexico and over 2,000 brand names have been registered. Due to this, each bottle of tequila contains a serial number depicting which distillery the tequila was brewed and bottled in. Because there are only so many distilleries, multiple brands of tequila come from the same place.
Harvesting the agave plant remains a manual effort, unchanged by modern farming technologies, and stretching back hundreds of years. The agave is planted, tended, and harvested by hand. The men who harvest it, the “jimadors”, contain generations of knowledge about the plants and the ways in which they need to be harvested. The Jimadors must be able to work swiftly in the tight rows, pull out the pups without damaging the mother plant, clear the piñas, and decide when and if each plant is ready to be harvested . Too soon and there are not enough sugars, too late and the plant will have used its sugars to grow a quiote (20-40 foot high stem), with seeds on the top that are then scattered by the wind . The piñas, weighing 40 to 70 pounds, are cut away with a special knife called a coa. They are then shredded, their juices pressed out and put into fermentation tanks and vats. Some tequila companies still use the traditional method (artesian tequila) in which the pinas are crushed with a stone wheel. The final process is to add a yeast to the vats to convert the sugars into alcohol. Each company keeps their own yeast a tight secret.
There is a clear difference in taste between tequila that is made from lowland or highland agave plants. Agave plants that are grown in the highlands often have more fruit tastes due to the growing process. The plants are grown on the western side of the hills, allowing the plants to receive the most amount of sunlight throughout the day. These plants are taller, wider, and juicier. Agave that are grown in the lowlands have more earth tastes, and are typically on the smaller side.
Types of Tequila
There are two basic categories of tequila: mixtos and 100% Agave. Mixtos use up to 49% of other sugars in the fermentation process, with Agave taking up the remainder. Mixtos use both glucose and fructose sugars. With 100% agave tequila, blanco or plata is harsher with the bold flavors of the distilled agave up front, while reposado and añejo are smoother, subtler, and more complex. As with other spirits that are aged in casks, tequila takes on the flavors of the wood, while the harshness of the alcohol mellows. The major flavor distinction with 100% agave tequila is the base ingredient, which is more vegetal than grain spirits and as a result more complex.
Tequila is usually bottled in one of five categories:
* Blanco (white or silver) – white spirit, un-aged and bottled or stored immediately after distillation, or
aged less than two months in oak barrels;
* Oro (gold) – un-aged blanco tequila, blended with caramel coloring, sugar-based syrup, glycerin,
and/or oak extract added so as to resemble aged tequila;
* Reposado (rested) – aged a minimum of two months, but less than a year in oak barrels;
* Añejo (aged) – aged a minimum of one year, but less than 3 years in oak barrels;
* Extra Añejo (extra aged) – aged a minimum of three years in oak barrels. This category was established
in March 2006.
Reposado may be rested in barrels or casks as large as 20,000 litres, allowing for richer and more complex flavors. The preferred oak comes from US, France or Canada, and while they are usually white oak, some companies choose to char the wood for a smokey flavor, or use barrels that were previously used to hold a different kind of alcohol ( i.e. whiskey, scotch, or wine in the case of Asombroso). Some reposados can also be aged in new wood barrels to achieve the same wood flavor and smoothness, but in less time.
Añejos are often rested in barrels that have been previously used to rest reposados. The barrels cannot be more than 600 liters, although most are stored in barrels of about 200 liters. Many of the barrels used are from whiskey or bourbon distilleries in America, France, or Canada, resulting in the dark color and more complex flavors of the añejo tequila.
By far the most common (and most mismade) tequila cocktail is the Margarita. The origins of the drink have been claimed by several, and the drink has gone through many versions through the years.
The margarita cocktail was the “Drink of the Month” in Esquire magazine, December 1953,
1 ounce tequila
Dash of Triple Sec
Juice of 1/2 lime or lemon
I usually make my margaritas along the classic 3:2:1 formula.
1.5oz silver tequila
1 oz cointreau
.5 oz lime