By Nathalie Babineau-Griffiths
The Gentleman dispels myths and beliefs about tequila and gives you a little tequila history lesson.
When listening to a story about a night out, I know that the story is about to get more interesting when I hear the phrase, “And then we started doing tequila shots.” Oh, tequila. Your splendor is much like the tide of the ocean. You rise in, lifting our ships to new heights. Then, just as quickly, ebb away, leaving a disgusting shore full of beached ocean life, decomposing plant matter, and sticky tar stuff that creates a cemented sand cake on your feet that you have to scrap off with a chisel. But no party would be complete without an appearance from our old—actually, very old—friend tequila.
Tequila holds the distinction as North America’s first native spirit. In its infantile form, it was produced as early as the 16th century in the pre-Hispanic—not yet officially named— town of, what else…Tequila in the—not yet officially established—Mexican state of Jalisco from the sap of the maguey, a type of agave plant, into a milky alcoholic beverage known as pulque. It wasn’t until the Spanish conquistadors arrived, drank all their brandy and wine, and employed their knowledge of distillery to the agave plant , which led to Mexico’s more modern incarnation of tequila. In 1758, José Antonio Cuervo was granted rights from the King of Spain to use a parcel of land for the production of tequila, which eventually led him to be the first licensed tequila distillery.
Despite several advancements made in modern farming equipment, tequila is still generally produced using manual labor. Knowledgeable workers, name jimadores, take special care to properly trim away flower budding from the agave throughout the year, lest the plant blooms and dies early, and especially to harvest the piñas, or cores, at the optimal point to ensure that there are enough starches for proper fermentation. If either of these is not done correctly, the eight to ten years needed to mature that agave plant are wasted. Once the piñas are harvested, they are placed in an oven to bake. This helps break down the starches into sugar for the fermentation process. The piñas are then pressed with a stone wheel to extract the agave juices. These juices are then distilled twice to produce silver tequila. If other types of tequila are on the agenda then the tequila is transferred to barrels to age.
Types of Tequila
As you probably know, there are several types of tequila available to the discerning consumer. The most basic is silver, or plata, tequila. There is also reposado, the gold-colored tequila, which has been aged in oak barrels for at least two months but less than a year. Next in the line up is añejo, which has been aged for at least one year but less than three. Anything aged over three years is considered extra añejo—which was only established as a category in 2006. Aside from its age, tequila is also classified by the content of blue agave used in the production.
Most tequilas over $20 a bottle will be 100% blue agave. You will definitely see it printed on the bottle somewhere because manufacturers like to strut that out like it’s a Rolex. But just to be considered tequila, the spirit must contain 51% blue agave and the rest can be a mixture of any number of different agave plants. These are considered mixed tequilas and the price, and usually the quality, will reflect that.
Tequila Myths and Facts
Tequila has a few myths surrounding it and some even more interesting facts.
Just to clear things up, tequila does not have a worm in it. That’s mescal. Though they are both produced from agave plants, the specific species used are different. It’s similar to comparing bourbon and scotch.
Secondly, Agave is not a cactus. Actually Mexico does not produce any spirit made from an actual cactus. It just so happens that agave and cactus share the same arid climates and tend to grow near each other.
Recently it was discovered that tequila can become “a girl’s best friend”…sort of. Synthetic diamonds can be made from tequila if it is heat high enough—like 800 degrees high enough—and allowed to settle on steel or silicon trays. These diamonds are too small for jewelry but are perfect to commercial applications.
Most tragically of all, certain botanical diseases are wreaking havoc on the blue agave plants and have been driving up the price of tequila for several years now. Considering the maturation process for the blue agave, this trend will likely continue through 2020 or later.
The Monogamous Liquor
For me, tequila is a monogamous liquor. Tequila tends to not play well with other liquors on the playground that is my stomach. I usually only partake of añejos as any others tend to give me a terrible stomach ache. I do enjoy tequila and all its agave brilliance, but with caveats. If you find that you have a hard time choking down tequila—or keeping it down—I highly suggest trying an añejo. The taste is much smoother and far more complex than the other varieties. Oddly, using salt and lime with a tequila shot is not practiced in Mexico. Traditionally, tequila is drunk neat.
At some point everyone encounters tequila—some don’t even remember it. But tequila should not be sequestered to being merely a party shot. No. It deserves the respect of all of North America to at least be tried straight and to be sipped and enjoyed to its fullest flavor.