Every great spirit finds its essence in the raw material from which it is crafted. For brandy, it is grape wine; for rum, sugar cane; and for tequila, the blue agave, also known as agave azul or Agave tequilana. The domesticated variety of blue agave used specifically for tequila production is known as Agave tequilana Weber Azul.

Interestingly, tequila is sometimes mistakenly referred to as “cactus vodka,” but blue agave is in no way related to cacti. The Agave genus belongs to the Asparagaceae family and encompasses 166 species (though the number may vary slightly due to ongoing phylogenetic analyses and reclassification). Of these, 125 species thrive within the borders of Mexico.

This brings us to the concept of geographical identification of spirits. While not all spirits possess this distinction (rum, for instance, does not), tequila holds AOC status. It can only be produced within five Mexican states: Jalisco, Guanajuato, Michoacán, Nayarit, and Tamaulipas. The very name “tequila” originated from the settlement of Tequila, founded in 1530 by Franciscan friars. Situated in the state of Jalisco, this settlement attained city status in the late 19th century and has since become the epicenter of tequila production. The vast plantations of blue agave encompassing the region surround Tequila, truly earning its title as the heart of the tequila world.

An in-depth exploration of agave is essential because tequila owes its existence to this remarkable succulent. Agaves are plants adapted to thrive in semi-desert regions. Picture a typical agave – a cluster of hard, long, fleshy leaves on a sturdy, often short stalk. These plants bloom only once in their lifetime, and the time it takes to do so varies among species. Some of the most long-lived agaves can patiently await blooming for up to 60 years, while the blue agave, depending on its habitat’s elevation, reaches blooming age in 5 to 12 years (for at higher altitudes, patience is paramount). As the agave nears its moment of bloom, it diligently accumulates an abundance of carbohydrates in its stalk (up to 25% of the stalk’s weight). When the time comes, it produces a grand flower spike, blooms, bears seeds, and in its noble sacrifice, expends all accumulated nutrients for its progeny. Indeed, agave is akin to the salmon of the plant world.

Over the ages, agave has served as a vital household resource for local communities. Its utility spans from providing construction materials to ropes and various useful articles crafted from its parts. Additionally, the heart of the agave stalk is a source of nourishment. However, it is the agave’s role in alcohol production that has captured the world’s fascination.

One such traditional alcoholic beverage originating from fermented agave sap is pulque, which has graced American lands for centuries and remains beloved in Mexico. The production of pulque is a unique and specialized craft. The process involves finding an agave that has reached the crucial stage of blooming and has initiated the growth of its flower spike. At this moment, the heart of the stalk is brimming with carbohydrates. To harvest the sap, artisans cut the spike and create a hole approximately 30 cm in diameter. The sap accumulates within the hole, and natural fermentation begins on-site. Over the course of about five months, the sap is collected day by day until it depletes. During this period, the agave meets its demise, yet it generously yields up to 1000 liters of sap. To further the fermentation process, mature pulque is added to vats for a “jump start.” The result is a milk-colored, somewhat viscous liquid with a tangy, yeasty taste, boasting an alcohol content of 2-8% abv. Pulque must be consumed promptly to prevent it from spoiling.

The agave, cultivated on American soil, had long been a source of alcoholic beverages. However, pulque, though traditional, was not synonymous with tequila. The second key element in the genesis of tequila lay in the Spanish Conquista. In 1519, the first Spanish colonialists set foot on Mexican land, eager to reshape it to suit their needs.

Spain, a flourishing vinicultural nation, boasted abundant grape cultivation and excellent wines and brandy. Among sailors, brandy was particularly favored due to its resilience during long sea voyages, faring better than delicate wines. Hence, the Spanish colonists brought wine and brandy from Spain initially. Nevertheless, the high costs of sea transportation, especially in those times, prompted them to establish vineyards with vines from Spain on many Mexican lands, which were indeed conducive to viniculture. Had they continued growing grapes and producing their own wine and brandy, tequila may never have been conceived. However, avarice soon entered the equation.

In a pivotal moment, King Philip II of Spain decided that the colonies were not generating sufficient profits for the country. In 1595, he prohibited the planting of new vineyards in all Spanish colonies, while preexisting vineyards were handed over to monasteries for their use. This shift dictated that colonists had to purchase alcohol from the motherland, incurring exorbitant expenses for the coveted libation.

The colonists were dismayed, for sobriety was not a tenet of Spanish life. Paying substantial sums to the motherland was untenable. While they had already sampled local pulque, it paled in comparison to wine or brandy. However, it was pulque that revealed to them the potential of agave as a raw material, and this discovery set the wheels in motion.

In 1600, a mere five years after the king’s ban, Don Pedro Sánchez de Tagle, Marquis de Altamira, founded the first mezcal factory and crafted the initial mezcal. Little did he know that history would remember him as The Father of Tequila.

A concise yet essential understanding of the relationship between mezcal and tequila warrants attention. In short, while any tequila can be deemed mezcal, not every mezcal can claim to be tequila. The category of “tequila” is a subset of the broader category of “mezcal.”

Mezcal, an exquisite distilled alcoholic beverage, is crafted from agave. The term “mezcal” originates from the Nahuatl language, where “melt” translates to agave, and “ixcalli” means cooking in the oven—a fitting description for the process. Mezcal can be fashioned from various types of agave (approximately 30 species are utilized, with seven being of utmost importance), whereas tequila solely employs blue agave.

Initially, tequila was not separate from mezcal, and all types of agave were used. However, over time, it became apparent that the product derived from blue agave held unique qualities.

In 1758, Don José Antonio de Cuervo was granted a land concession by King Ferdinand VI of Spain in Tequila, where he established a farm cultivating blue agave. By 1795, the first Vino Mezcal de Tequila de Jose Cuervo was crafted, and simultaneously, Don Jose’s son, Don José María Guadalupe de Cuervo, received a commercial permit from King Carlos IV of Spain to produce tequila. This event marked the birth of tequila. Initially known as Mezcal de Tequila, it retained this name until 1893 when the Mexican government removed the word “mezcal” from its nomenclature. Presently, Jose Cuervo stands as the best-selling tequila brand, accounting for a fifth of global tequila consumption.

In 1902 French botanist Frederic Albert Constantin Weber undertaking a Mexican expedition and subsequently describing and classifying blue agave, thereby defining the source for tequila production.

In 1974, tequila was granted an Appellation of Origin (AOC) designation, cementing its place as a cherished and regulated spirit.

It was the history of tequila’s origin. Now, let us delve into the world of tequila production, which all begins with the agave plant.

In Mexico, around 22,000 farmers cultivate approximately 400 million agave plants. Each agave requires 5 to 12 years to reach maturation, yielding an average of 32 kg of heart, known as “pina.” A liter of tequila is produced from seven kilograms of pina.

To maximize the sugar content in the pina, it is essential to prevent flowering. Flowers and humans compete for the sugars within the pina. As soon as a flower bud emerges, it is promptly cut and replanted to give life to another agave plant. Agave can be propagated through seeds, root layers, or rooting cut flower buds. Because flower buds anyway should be cut, it is only logical to use them for this. As a result, most cultivated agaves now are clones.

Once ripe, specially trained workers, known as “jumador,” cut the agaves down, remove the leaves, and transport the stalks, resembling oversized pineapples, to the processing site.

The next crucial step is thermal treatment, wherein polysaccharides are converted into simple sugars suitable for yeast fermentation. This is achieved using large ovens, technically autoclaves. The pina is thermally treated for 24 to 48 hours and then cooled for an additional 16 to 48 hours. Each distillery chooses specific temperature and time settings according to their preference.

The thermal treatment also marks the distinction between tequila and mezcal. Tequila’s pina is exclusively cooked in autoclaves, utilizing steam. In contrast, mezcal can be cooked in autoclaves or baked in pit ovens, infusing the drink with a smoky taste.

Following the thermal treatment, the baked pina is shredded to extract the juice, setting the stage for fermentation.

It is essential to note that all tequila can be categorized into two main types based on agave juice content:
1. 100% agave tequila: Made solely from agave juice, without any additives. Such tequilas state “Tequila 100% agave” on the label.
2. Mixto: Combines agave juice with other sugars, commonly cane or corn. The agave juice must constitute at least 51% of the blend.
Superior-quality tequila invariably falls under the first category.

Next, the agave juice is diluted to the desired sugar concentration (if necessary), or additional sugars are added (for mixto). Yeast is then introduced, and fermentation occurs in large open tanks, made of wood, stone, or steel, for 34 to 96 hours, yielding a “mosto” with an alcohol by volume (abv) of 4-6%.

The “mosto” is distilled at least twice, employing copper still pots or a combination of still pots with rectification columns (read the distillation history in the Introduction to Spirit). The result is a distillate ranging from 55% to 75% abv. The finest producers often opt for 55% abv to preserve the agave’s captivating aroma.

Subsequent stages involve aging (for certain products), blending, the addition of specific compounds (in select cases), filtration, dilution to achieve the desired final concentration (ranging from 35% to 55% abv), and bottling.

All in all, tequila is divided into the following categories.
Blanco (Plata or Silver) – «white» – unaged or aged in stainless steel or neutral oak less than two months.
Joven (Oro or Gold) – best, but rare examples are mix of aged and unaged tequila. More often, it is unaged tequila (often mixto) coloured with caramel to looks like as aged.
Reposado – «rested» – aged in oak barrels of any size from 2 to 12 months.
Anejo – aged in small (<600 liters) oak barrels for 1-3 years.
Muy (Extra) Anejo – aged in small oak barrel for at least 3 years.
Curados – flavoured with different ingredients (misto).
Cristalino – aged tequila that has charcoal filtered or re-distilled to remove colour.

Let us shed light on the misconception of the infamous “tequila with worm” which is misleading from start to finish. Firstly, it is crucial to note that it is not a worm but rather a larva. Specifically, it is the larva of the moth Comadia redtenbacheri, which inhabits agave plants. However, it is essential to clarify that this larva is never added into tequila; it is prohibited by law. While it might occasionally be added into mezcal, it is nothing more than a commercial gimmick. In the past, some mezcal producers incorporated the larva to demonstrate that their beverage was not diluted. At low alcohol content, the larva would change its appearance, serving as an indicator of authenticity. Nonetheless, in contemporary times, this practice is purely a marketing ploy. Thus, there is no such thing, a “tequila with worm”.

How is tequila served? There are a couple of ways to enjoy this fine spirit.

Firstly, tequila can be served neat, especially when it’s aged.

In many parts of the world, it is customary to have tequila with a dash of salt and a slice of lime. In more formal settings, the glass rim is often adorned with salt, while in casual settings, the salt is placed on the consumer’s hand. In a playful spirit, some may even place salt on other body parts, preferably someone else’s. The classic routine involves licking the salt, taking the tequila shot, and then biting into the lime. The ritual can be repeated as desired.

However, in Mexico, tequila is often enjoyed without salt and lime. Sometimes, it is accompanied by a side of sangrita, not to be confused with sangria. Sangrita is a delightful blend of orange, lime, and pomegranate juices, with a hint of hot pepper sauce. Tequila and sangrita are served in small glasses at room temperature, allowing the flavors to shine.

Secondly, tequila is an exceptional base for cocktails, with an array of possibilities that seems endless. The most famous of these is the Margarita, which has now evolved into a diverse family of cocktails. It was the Margarita that truly popularized tequila in the USA.

On July 24th, the world celebrates Tequila Day – a perfect occasion to explore tequila or raise a toast to its rich heritage and exquisite taste. Whether you enjoy it neat, with a classic salt and lime twist, or as the foundation for your favorite cocktail, tequila promises an unforgettable experience. Cheers to Tequila Day!

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