What is Tequila?
Tequila is a Blue Agave-based spirit made primarily in the area surrounding the city of Tequila, 40 miles northwest of Guadalajara, and in the highlands (Los Altos) of the western Mexican state of Jalisco.
Tequila is most often made at a 38–40% alcohol content (76–80 proof), but can be produced between 35–55% alcohol content (70–110 proof). Though most tequilas are 80 proof, many distillers will distil to 100 proof and then dilute it with water to reduce its harshness. Some of the more well-respected brands distil the alcohol to 80 proof without using additional water as a diluter.
The origins of Tequila date back to 250-300 AD when Aztec Indians first fermented the juice of Agave plants to make ceremonial wines. This original wine was called ‘pulque’ and was made by fermenting the sap (aguamiel – honey water) from the heart of the Agave. The yeasts used originally were naturally found in the air and produced a wine of 8-12% abv. In 1519, the Spanish conquered Mexico and brought the technology of distillation with them, which they had learned from the Moors. Within ten years of being in Mexico, they had probably started to make the first rough Agave spirits known as Mezcal or Mescal wine. Over the following years, the techniques were improved and modernized with new laws governing the production and labeling of Tequila to protect the national spirit of Mexico.
Mescal is the name for any spirit made from the Agave plant. There are over 200 different types of Agave in Mexico. Only one specific type is allowed if it is to be called Tequila – Agave tequilana Weber azul (the Blue Agave). The Agave is a member of the lily (Amaryllis) family, although it is often mistaken for a cactus. Mezcal can use any type of Agave from wild to farmed varieties. Bacanora must use the Agave Yaquina and be made in Sonora in the north of Mexico. Sotol must use the Agave dasylirion wheeleri and is made in the northern states of Chihuahua and Durango. Tequila must be made in clearly defined and specific areas – the entire state of Jalisco and areas in the states of Guanajuato, Michoacan, Nayarit and Tamaulipas.
Each distillery that adheres to production regulations is given a NOM number (Norma Oficial Mexicana de Calidad). The regulatory body known as ‘The Consejo Regulador del Tequila’ awards this NOM. It was established in 1978 and is made up of Agave growers, Tequila producers and representatives of the federal government. All brands of 100% blue Agave Tequila will have a NOM on the label. It is not a guarantee of quality, only of authenticity.
Blue Agave is grown in orchards called potreros, campos de agave or huertas and are planted in long rows like grapevines. The Blue Agave takes between eight and twelve years to reach maturity. Between the third and sixth year of growth, shoots (mecuates or hijuleos) are removed from the ‘mother’ plant to propagate new plants. At maturity, a tall flower stalk begins to grow from the middle of the Agave. This growth is cut off, which forces the sap to remain in the heart of the plant (or the piña). This piña then swells to an un-natural size ripening ready for harvest. Most ripe piñas weigh between 70 and 200lb at the time of harvest, although some specimens have been recorded as heavy as 400lb. At harvesting (jima), the long, sharp, spiky leaves (pencas) are removed (barbeo) by the harvesters (jimadores) using long handled knives (coas). This exposes the piña, which looks a lot like a giant pineapple and one can tell it is mature and ready when red, bloodlike spots start to appear on the pina.
The harvested piñas are sliced into sections before being steam baked traditionally in a stone oven (‘horno’) or more recently in a stainless steel container (autoclave). The baking takes between 24 and 72 hours in a hornos and 8-14 hours in an autoclave.. The baking process converts the starchy sap in the piña into sugars such as fructose and glucose that can be fermented. Many believe that the real taste of the tequila is only imparted when the traditional method is used. The piñas are left to cool for 24- hours and are then crushed in a traditional stone mill called a ‘Chilean Mill’ or ‘tahona’. This mill is made from a circular stone pit with a stone wheel pulled around the pit by an ox or donkey. Modern distilleries now use industrial crushing machines to do the job, as they are quicker and more consistent.
The Agave sugary sap is then transferred with some Agave fibres (bagazo) to white oak vats or stainless steel tanks where water is added. Fermentation juice from the previous batch is mixed in to give a consistency and continuity of flavour. After mixing the previous juice, some is taken out ready for the next batch. The older methods of fermentation use natural yeasts present in the air to start the chemical processes. The modern methods use cultivated yeast strains as they, again, give a greater continuity to the product. The fermentation takes between 36 and 72 hours. At this stage of Tequila production, the liquid is known as ‘mosto’ and is roughly 5-7% alcohol.
The ‘mosto’ is then double distilled in copper pot stills. The first distillation (or destrozameinto) makes a product called ‘ordinario’ which is roughly 20% abv. Only after the second distillation can it be called Tequila. A handful of distillers distill a third time (e.g. Corralejo). The Tequila leaves the still after the second distillation at around 40-55% abv. As with most other spirits, the heads (cabeza) and tails (cola) of the distillate are cut from the heart and re-distilled with the mosto while the heart ( el corazon) is used for . It takes roughly 8kg of agave to make 1 litre of 100% tequila
Tequila is categorized according to percentage of Agave spirit and the length of time it has spent in wood.
Mixto – A spirit that is a blend of no less than 51% blue Agave. The other 49% can be molasses, brown sugar or any other sugar type.
Blanco – Also known as ‘silver’, ‘plata’, ‘blanco’ or ‘white’ Tequila. It is clear but can be aged in oak for up to 60 days.
Gold – Also known as ‘oro’ or ‘joven abocado’ (‘young and corrupted’), gold Tequila is made in the same way as Blanco tequila only with the addition of caramel flavour and colour tho it can also have a blend of aged tequilas within it.. This colour is added to suggest age and add smoothness..
Reposado – This term literally means ‘rested’. A Reposado Tequila is aged for between 60 days and one year in wooden barrels or larger tanks (‘pipons’)
Anejo – Mexican law states that if a Tequila bears this title, it must be aged in government (CRT) sealed oak barrels for over one year. The barrels must be no larger than 600 litres. The most popular type of barrels are old Bourbon casks.
Sangrita & Verdita
Sangrita (meaning “little blood”), whose origin dates back to the 1920s, is a customary partner to a shot of straight tequila blanco; a non-alcoholic accompaniment that highlights tequila’s crisp acidity and cleanses the palate between each peppery sip. The basic conception of sangrita is to complement the flavour of 100% agave tequila, which is also peppery and citrusy in taste.
Traditionally, sangrita is served with tequila blanco, but it can also accompany tequila reposado. The tequila and sangrita are each poured into a separate shot glass (or caballito) and the two are alternately sipped, not chased. Sangrita is used in a drink known as “The Mexican Flag“, where three separate double shot glasses are filled with lime juice, tequila and sangrita.
Real sangrita from the Lake Chapala region of Jalisco is made with Seville orange, lime and pomegranate juices, with chili powder or hot sauce added for heat. However, many popularized modern sangrita recipes have included a good amount of tomato juice in the mix. There is no set rule on what sangrita should contain, but it can feature a blend of orange, lime, tomato and/or pomegranate juices, or pomegranate-based grenadine with the addition of something spicy (hot sauce or fresh/dried chili), and sometimes white onion and salt
(Mezcal is also made from the blue agave plant – but it doesn’t have to have to be from a specified region. Mezcal also has the worm in it – not tequila) a bit like how Prossecco is champagne but because it’s not from the champagne region of France it is called sparkling wine.