Dana Bowen on the history, lore, and appeal of Mexico's most popular spirit.
Tequila leads a double life. Most Americans know it as the wild child of the bar scene, the one that
never knows when to stop and ends up staying out a little too late. In a Margarita, or with a lick of salt,
quick toss back of the head, and bite of lime, it's also the one most likely to end up dancing on the table.
But this indigenous Mexican spirit has a serious alter ego, and in recent years Americans have come
around to tequila's sophisticated side. Distilled not from a root, grain, or fruit but from the swollen core
of the agave plant (which is a succulent but not a cactus), tequilas range from crystal-clear blancos,
whose flavors hint at fresh sage and tropical fruit, to toasty long-aged añejos, which can approach the
color and complexity of a fine Scotch. Some restaurants are even breaking out the snifters to encourage sipping and savoring high-end tequilas, which reflect the fastest-growing segment of the tequila market, according to the Distilled Spirits Council. Our prediction for what's next? Tequila sommeliers.
A storied history:
Tequila's saga began almost five centuries ago in the central region of Mexico known as Jalisco,
where a small town, mountain, and valley share the spirit's name. Shortly after the Spanish
conquistadors arrived in the early 16th century, they applied their knowledge of distillation to pulque,
a drink made from fermented agave for thousands of years. The result was an early version of mezcal,
the rough-edged liquor made from a variety of agave species frequently marketed with a worm at
the bottom of the bottle. Note: Just as all Cognacs are technically brandies, all tequilas are a form
of mezcal, but not all mezcals are tequilas.
Mexico's native agave, also known as maguey, is embedded in more than just the county's
drinking habits — its leaves have been used as food, medicine, even building materials and fabric.
Of more than 130 varieties that flourish around the country, the blue agave, or Agave tequiliana
Weber (named for the botanist who classified it in 1902), became the species of choice for tequila.
By law, tequila can only be produced using blue agave grown in certain parts of Mexico, including
Jalisco, areas of Michoacan, Guanajuato, Nayarit, and Tamaulipas.
It was in Jalisco that Jose Maria Guadalupe Cuervo first secured a license for making tequila in 1795,
after a ten-year period when Spain's King Charles III forbade the production of alcoholic beverages
in the Mexican colony. By the 1870s, other tequila companies, such as Sauza, were in operation and
exporting bottles to the United States. Today tequila is one of Mexico's most lucrative exports.
From agave to bottle:
Despite the international popularity of tequila — advanced by that famously refreshing
commingling of tequila, lime juice, orange liquor, and ice, served in a salt-rimmed glass — most
versions of the spirit are still made using old-fashioned methods. Blue-hued and spiky, Weber's
agave takes 8 to 12 years to mature. It's harvested by workers called jimadores, who hack at the
long sturdy leaves with machetes to expose the core. Known as piña, because after the leaves
are removed it resembles a giant pineapple, the core is cooked to extract the juice. It's no wonder
"tequila" is rooted in the Nahuatl (the language of the Aztecs) word tequitl, which refers to the
laborious job of harvesting plants.
The piña is chopped into chunks, crammed — sometimes tens of tons at a time — into huge
concrete or brick ovens, and baked at 125 to 135°F for at least 24 hours. Then the ovens are
shut off, and the agave continues to cook in the residual heat for the next few days. As it cooks,
its starches turn to a sugary mass that gives up a sweet liquid called aguamiel, or honey water.
(Some producers now use stainless-steel autoclaves to cook the agave cores, which do so in just
seven hours, though many connoisseurs feel flavor is compromised.) The cooked piñas are crushed
to extract even more of this liquid, which, after it's fermented and distilled, becomes tequila.
Tequila was made only from aguamiel until an agave shortage in the 1930s led to a change.
From then on, tequila makers could produce so-called mixtos, blends of fermented agave and
other sweeteners and flavorings, particularly sugar cane. Fortunately, these typically inferior
tequilas are easy to identify: If a bottle doesn't read "100 percent agave," it's a mixto.
Types of tequila:
Gold: Fool's gold is more like it, since this type of tequila is usually a mixto. It gets its color from
caramel or other additives, not from aging. This is the flavor most collegiate imbibers are familiar
with, the one that goes into the majority of shots and cocktails.
Silver or Blanco: This is tequila after distillation and before aging, a crystal-clear liquid that
many tequila aficionados prefer over aged versions because it captures the floral and vegetal
flavors of agave. These tequilas can be fruity or spicy, sharp or smooth.
Reposado: Translated as "rested," this tequila ages in wood barrels for at least two months and
up to a year, which rounds out the blanco's edges, making for a smoother sip with an oaky
backbone of flavor.
Añejo: Or "aged" tequila. The spirit sits in wood barrels for at least a year, often more,
acquiring a deep, smoky resonance that's instantly recognizable to whiskey drinkers.
In 2006, Mexico's Tequila Regulatory Council distinguished a new subset called Extra-Añejos
for tequilas that have aged for three years or more. These take on an almost peaty, caramelized
flavor reminiscent of fine brandies. While this new designation has ushered in a new era of
tequila trendiness, and bottles that fetch hundreds of dollars, the distinctive flavor of agave may
be hidden under a heavy veil of wood.
Flavored: Until March 2006, the Tequila Regulatory Council prohibited the addition of flavors,
natural or not, to tequila. The rule relaxation has ushered in a bunch of flavored tequilas from
companies such as Milagro and Jose Cuervo. At their best, these are smooth and slightly sweet;
at their worst, they're cloying and unpleasant.
To sip and savor:
It's not uncommon for bartenders to serve tequila in French-style snifters, though many purists
would rather take theirs neat in a rocks glass with a glass of water on the side. The traditional
vehicle for savoring the spirit is a caballito, a narrow shot glass that flutes open toward the top.
In Mexico, younger drinkers mix tequila with grapefruit soda, and fans of straight tequila chase
each sip with Sangrita, a tangy mixture of tomato and orange juice, among other ingredients.
And while there's no rule stipulating which type of tequila should be used for cocktails,
it would be a crime to pummel a finer bottling with anything more emphatically flavored than ice.