Tequila, named after the town of the same name in the state of Jalisco, central Mexico, is the national drink of Mexico and can be declared as such due its integral part in the nation's history, ecology and culture.
The Tequila liquor is produced from a fermented and distilled extract of the blue agave plant, a succulent rather than a true cactus. To be a true 100% Agave Tequila, the finest, most sought-after Tequila, the beverage must be produced from a certain species of agave plant and produced according to strict quality control and manufacturing standards. Tequila can only be produced in certain areas authorised by the Mexican registering organisation. These being the towns near Tequila and certain zones in nearby states.
A Brief History of Tequila
Centuries before the Spanish conquest, the native population of Mexico were producing an alcoholic beverage called pulque. Pulque is produced by extracting the juice of ripe agave and fermenting it much like beer. Civilisations such as the Aztecs, who dominated the region that is now modern Mexico City, produced and drank pulque. The plant it derived from was regarded as sacred, being part of the ancient mythology, and, as such, the alcoholic liquor was similarly linked to this mysticism.
After the arrival of the Spanish and their conquest of Mexico, the population altered through marriage and cultural mixing of the Old World with the New. The Spanish Mexicans, familiar with the technology of wine and liquor production, took an extract similar to pulque and distilled it - as a brandy or whisky would be - into Tequila or 'mezcal wine'.
Through the refinement of the process the name 'Tequila' came to mean that liquor produced using these methods and made within the Tequila region.
What is Mezcal and What is Tequila?
Throughout Mexico 'mezcal' is also produced. This liquor is fermented from an agave extract, without having to meet the standards that would make it Tequila. Mezcal can be much like Tequila or somewhat different - it can be made from species that differ from the blue agave and be subject to adulteration.
The so-called 'tequila worm' is sometimes found in bottles of mezcal. This larva lives in agave and in certain regions of Mexico they may add the worm to the bottle - although a worm is never added to fine bottles of '100% Agave Tequila'. Most likely the legendary mind-altering effects of this creature relate to the amount of Tequila that has to be drunk from the bottle to extract the pickled larva at the bottom.
The Making of a Fine Tequila
Tequila production begins with the farming of the blue agave. This large, greenish-blue, spiny, long-leafed plant is left to grow until it reaches about ten years of age. When it is mature, a skilled harvester - the jimador - will chop off the radiating leaves. What is left is known as, and somewhat resembles, a big 'pineapple'. These are then baked and crushed to extract a sugary liquid. Through fermentation and distilling, the white Tequila liquor is produced.
The new, white Tequila is bottled and drunk as such. The lesser brands are rather harsh and often end up in foreign bars as tequila slammers and or as an ingredient in cocktails both of which produce rapid intoxication. However the tastiest 100% Agave Tequila as loved by connoisseurs, is further aged in wooden barrels. Rather like a brandy, tequila acquires character and a slightly darker colour through this ageing process.
The Appreciation of Tequila
A fine, aged Tequila is reposado or anejo meaning 'rested' (for two to 11 months) or 'aged' (for more than a year). The quality will vary from brand to brand, but is drunk alone and sipped to savour the taste. Outside of Mexico, good aged tequila is often hard to find, leading many to think that Tequila is a clear liquor with turpentine-like qualities. Much as a brandy enthusiast would appreciate a fine Cognac or Armagnac, there are those who discover the many Tequilas that can be enjoyed for their fine flavour. However, if this appreciation is not taken in moderation, the drinker may risk seeing visions similar to those experienced by the original inventors of the drink - those who discovered the intoxicating properties of the blue agave.
How to Drink Tequila
Tequila is best drunk in a caballito1, a cylindrical, tall but small, round glass. Usually big enough to hold a couple of fluid ounces. It is drunk as an aperitif, and is a fine prelude to a hearty Mexican meal - a pit barbecue fiesta, or a dinner of northern style goat kid, for example.
Many like to drink the finest Tequilas at room temperature, to enjoy their characteristic flavours. Others prefer it frozen: when served it is slightly syrupy, smooth on the tongue - and may help cool you down. Many drink it alone, or accompanied by a caballito of lime juice and perhaps another of sangrita - a spicy red drink. The three caballitos side by side are sipped alternately. Against a white background, the green lime juice, the pale tequila and the reddish sangrita match the colours of their national home, the flag of Mexico.