The Story of Tequila

Tequila, the first distilled spirit on the North American continent, is known to most Norte Americanos as a fiery beverage to be dutifully downed during adolescent rites of passage. Today, tequila and its rustic cousin, mezcal, are fast becoming the newest discovery by sophisticates of the international dining and drinking scene. Not a newcomer, Tequila has existed south of the border since the early 1700’s, often fueling the fires of revolutions when victories and food were scarce.

Tequila is truly the «essence of Mexico», reflecting its people’s warmth, strength, and passion. Tequila is not for the faint hearted, but is well-suited for men and women who are enraptured by the gusto of drinking, eating and living. The varying flavors of tequila are interesting without becoming complicated and do not require the myriad of adjective that wine drinkers seem compelled to use. This is a beverage to be savored with spicy foods or thoughtfully sipped while enjoying the company of friends.

Centuries ago the Mayans produced a fermented beverage called pulque that was primarily used in medicinal and ritualistic ceremonies. The source of sugar in the fermentive process was the agave or maguey, a member of the botanical family Agavaceae, which includes over 400 species. Growing mostly in the dry, warm regions of the western hemisphere and closely resembling a cactus, agave is actually related to the families Amaryllidaceae and Liliceae which include amaryllis and lillies. As the early Spaniards searched for a source of fermentable sugar for the production of distilled spirits, they naturally looked to the agave, which grew in abundance in the rich volcanic soils of the high valleys around Guadalajara. Trial and error led them to one particular species that always seemed to produce the most full-bodied taste. This special plant was the Agave Tequilana Weber, the legendary blue agave or agave azul.

Today, over 90,000 acres of blue agave are under cultivation in the tequila growing region of Mexico with the greatest concentration near the town of Tequila. This small city, about 45 miles northwest of Guadalajara, was once the home to over 90 distilleries. Today, although their numbers have shrunk to fewer than 20, these and the region’s other remaining «fabricas» produce over 55 million liters of tequila each year.

Commercial fields of agave are planted from mecuates, small off-shoots growing from the base of adult plants. Usually 1,500-2,000 mecuates are planted to each acre and require 7-10 years of growth to reach maturity. When fully grown, the plant will reach a height of five to six feet. At this stage, the agave will have begun its final build-up of sugar-loaded sap which it uses to propel the central flower-bearing stalk as much as 15 feet skyward. This penultimate burst of growth usually marks the death knell of the plant, which has sacrificed its last energy to the reproductive process. Just before the stalk emerges, jimadores, the field workers who harvest the agave, remove the elongated, sharp pointed leaves with long-handled knives called coas, leaving the central core of the plant exposed. This core, which weighs from 50-150 pounds, resembles a pineapple and is called a pina. The pinas are carried from the field by burro or truck to the fabrica where they are split in half with axes and stacked like cordwood in large stone or brick ovens called hornos. There they are steamed for about 24 hours. After cooling another 24 hours, the pina is soft, fibrous and carmel-colored with a taste resembling that of honey-dipped yams.

The cooking of the agave transforms the complex natural carbohydrates in to simple sugars necessary for fermentation. The plant is then crushed by steel rollers or by an tahona, a large wheel of volcanic rock slowly drawn round and round by a mule or horse. The extricated juice, called agua miel, constitutes the basic building block of all tequila.

In order to closely control the production, aging and labeling of tequila, the Norma Oficial Mexicana (NOM) was established in 1978. The NOM regulates the production of tequila in a manner similar to the French «Apellation Controller» that governs the production of cognac. In order to wear the tequila label, the agave must be grown and processed in the state of Jalisco or a narrow region carved from the surrounding states of Guanajuato, Tamaulipas, Michoacan and Nayarit, and must be fermented from at least 51% blue agave juice, with the aging process taking place in this defined area.

Most top-of-the-line tequilas are made from 100% blue agave, a fact that is always proudly pronounced on the label. Those tequilas which are not 100% blue agave usually make up the balance of the sugar needed by the addition of piloncillos, the small brown cones of cane sugar often seen in Mexican grocery stores.

After agua miel is strained, it is mixed with water and placed in large vats where fermentation is started by the natural yeasts found in the agave. Some agaves have as many as 40 different wild yeasts present. After fermenting for 72 to 150 hours, the liquid is filtered and placed in large copper or stainless steel stills called alambiques. The distillation process is carried out twice with the final distillate reaching 100-120 proof. This clear white tequila is then diluted with distilled water to bring it to the proper proof range of 76-90 proof.

When the clear white tequila drips from the cooling coils of the alambique, it is correctly called silver or plata, but is more commonly called white or blanco. Most platas pass directly to the bottling plant, however, some producers allow the tequila to settle and finish for a few weeks in the tanks before bottling. Some add coloring or herbs which impart a pale golden color and then age for one or two more months. These tequilas are often called suave, joven, gold, or abocado, implying youth and smoothness.

It is during the aging process that tequilas begin to develop their own distinctive taste, aroma and color.

The first definitive level of aging is termed reposado or rested and madates that the tequila remain in wood for a period of three to 12 months. Each company has its own preference for the type of barrel used in aging. Some of the most common are made from french oak or white oak. The type of barrel used and the resins and tannins exuded have a dramatic impact on the finished product and produce the subtle nuances that distinguish one tequila from another.

The next level of aging is the anejo tequilas. Anejo, which means «vintage», can only appear on bottles that contain tequila aged a minimum of one year. A year of resting in a cool bodega produces a smoother and more sophisticated taste. Some aficionados of the liquor feel that these «sipping tequilas» are too refined and have lost some of the «heart» of tequila. These individuals will generally prefer the reposados. In comparison to the aging of scotch and cognac, it would seem that tequila has barely begun to rest. However, tequila ages rapidly and fine varieties are rarely found beyond the 5-6 year range. These tequilas are often called «muy anejo.»

Every ounce of tequila found in the world is produced within 100 miles of Guadalajara, so it may seem odd that the world’s largest collection of tequlas would be found tucked away in a restaurant at the tip of Baja California. A visit to Pancho’s in Cabo San Lucas will most likely bring you face to face with the proprietors, John and Mary Bragg, transplanted Californians and full-time residents for the past six years. Panchos is well-known for its authentic Mexican food, music and friendly ambiance, but many visitors come specifically to see John’s collection of 189 different tequilas (as of writing), The collection took over five years to assemble and required many trips to the tequila region on the mainland of Mexico. For those who have more than a casual interest in tequila, mezcal and pulque, John conducts nightly tequila tastings that provide you with historic facts, fables and details on the production and aging of Tequila, punctuated with personal experiences and four different shots of fine tequila guaranteed not available in the U.S. If you are looking for a challenge, Pancho’s has a standing offer to anyone bringing an unopened bottle of tequila that is not in the collection: they will buy the bottle and your dinner. On your next trip to Los Cabos, be sure to stop at Pancho’s and sample «the essence of Mexico». Ole!