Tequila is a regional specific name for a distilled beverage made from the blue agave plant, primarily in the area surrounding the city of Tequila, 65 km northwest of Guadalajara, and in the highlands (Los Altos) of the north western Mexican state of Jalisco. Although tequila is a kind of mezcal, modern tequila differs somewhat in the method of its production, in the use of only blue agave plants, as well as in its regional specificity.
The red volcanic soil in the surrounding region is particularly well suited to the growing of the blue agave, and more than 300 million of the plants are harvested there each year. Agave tequila grows differently depending on the region. Blue agaves grown in the highlands region are larger in size and sweeter in aroma and taste. Agaves harvested in the lowlands, on the other hand, have a more herbaceous fragrance and flavour.
Mexican laws state that tequila can be produced only in the state of Jalisco and limited regions in the states of Guanajuato, Michoacán, Nayarit, and Tamaulipas.
Tequila is most often made at a 38–40% alcohol content (76–80 proof), but can be produced between 31 and 55% alcohol content (62 and 110 proof).
History of Tequila
Tequila was first produced in the 16th century near the location of the city of Tequila, which was not officially established until 1666. The Aztec people had previously made a fermented beverage from the agave plant, which they called octli—later called pulque—long before the Spanish arrived in 1521. When the Spanish conquistadors ran out of their own brandy, they began to distill agave to produce one of North America’s first indigenous distilled spirits.
Some 80 years later, around 1600, Don Pedro Sánchez de Tagle, the Marquis of Altamira, began mass-producing tequila at the first factory in the territory of modern-day Jalisco. By 1608, the colonial governor of Nueva Galicia had begun to tax his products. Spain’s King Carlos IV granted the Cuervo family the first license to commercially make tequila.
The style of tequila popular today was first mass-produced in the early 19th century in Guadalajara, Mexico.
Don Cenobio Sauza, founder of Sauza Tequila and Municipal President of the Village of Tequila from 1884–1885, was the first to export tequila to the United States, and shortened the name from “Tequila Extract” to just “Tequila” for the American markets. Don Cenobio’s grandson Don Francisco Javier gained international attention for insisting that “there cannot be tequila where there are no agaves!” His efforts led to the practice that real tequila can come only from the State of Jalisco.
Recent History of Tequila
Since the late 1990s, the spirit’s worldwide popularity has led to some important developments:
- The purchase of Herradura by Brown-Forman for $776 million in September 2006.
- A new Norma Oficial Mexicana (NOM) for tequila (NOM-006-SCFI-2005) was issued in 2006, and among other changes, introduced a category of tequila called extra añejo or “ultra-aged” which must be aged a minimum of three years.
- The purchase of the Sauza and El Tesoro brands by massive holding company Fortune Brands
Although some tequilas have remained as family-owned brands, most well-known tequila brands are owned by large multinational corporations. However, over 100 distilleries make over 900 brands of tequila in Mexico and over 2,000 brand names have been registered (2009 statistics). Due to this, each bottle of tequila contains a serial number (NOM) depicting in which distillery the tequila was produced. Because only so many distilleries are used, multiple brands of tequila come from the same location.
The Tequila Regulatory Council of Mexico originally did not permit flavoured tequila to carry the tequila name. In 2004, the Council decided to allow flavoured tequila to be called tequila, with the exception of pure agave tequila,which still could not be flavoured.
A one-litre bottle of limited-edition premium tequila was sold for $225,000 in July 2006 in Tequila, Jalisco, by the company Tequila Ley .925. The bottle which contained the tequila was a two-kilo display of platinum and gold. The manufacturer received a certificate from The Guinness World Records for the most expensive bottle of spirit ever sold.
In 2008, Mexican scientists discovered a method to produce tiny, nanometer-sized synthetic diamonds from 80-proof (40% alcohol) tequila, which has the optimal range of water to ethanol for producing synthetic diamonds. This process involves heating the tequila to over 800 °C (1,400 °F) to break its molecular structure and be vaporized into gaseous hydrogen, carbon, and various simple molecules. The carbon molecules are then settled upon steel or silicon trays to form a thin and pure uniform layer. Extremely cheap to produce and far too small for jewels, the results are hoped to have numerous commercial and industrial applications such as in computer chips or cutting instruments.
2006 Tequila Trade Agreement
In 2003, Mexico issued a proposal that would require all Mexican-made tequila be bottled in Mexico before being exported to other countries. The Mexican government said that bottling tequila in Mexico would guarantee its quality. Liquor companies in the United States said Mexico just wanted to create bottling jobs in their own country, and also claimed this rule would violate international trade agreements and was in discord with usual exporting practices worldwide.The proposal might have resulted in the loss of jobs at plants in California, Arkansas, Missouri, and Kentucky, because Mexican tequila exported in bulk to the United States is bottled in those plants. On January 17, 2006, the United States and Mexico signed an agreement allowing the continued bulk import of tequila into the United States. The agreement also created a “tequila bottlers registry” to identify approved bottlers of tequila and created an agency to monitor the registry.
The Norma Oficial Mexicana (NOM) applies to all processes and activities related to the supply of agave, production, bottling, marketing, information, and business practices linked to the distilled alcoholic beverage known as tequila. Tequila must be produced using agave of the species Tequilana Weber Blue variety, grown in the federal states and municipalities indicated in the Declaration.
Furthermore, the NOM establishes the technical specifications and legal requirements for the protection of the Appellation of Origin of “Tequila” in accordance with the current General Declaration of Protection of the Appellation of Origin of “Tequila”, the Law, the Industrial Property Law, the Federal Consumer Protection Law and other related legal provisions.
All authentic, regulated tequilas will have a NOM identifier on the bottle. The important laws since 1990 were NOM-006-SCFI-1993, the later update NOM-006-SCFI-1994, and the most recent revision in late 2005, NOM-006-SCFI-2005.
The number after NOM is the distillery number, assigned by the government. NOM does not indicate the location of the distillery, merely the parent company or, in the case where a company leases space in a plant, the physical plant where the tequila was manufactured.
TMA (tristeza y muerte de agave) blight has reduced the production of the agave grown to produce tequila. This has resulted in lower production and higher prices throughout the early 21st century, and due to the long maturation of the plant, will likely continue to affect prices for years to come.
Planting, tending, and harvesting the agave plant remains a manual effort, largely unchanged by modern farm machinery and relying on centuries-old know-how. The men who harvest it, the jimadores, have intimate knowledge of how the plants should be cultivated, passed down from generation to generation.
By regularly trimming any quiotes (a several-metre high stalk that grows from the centre of the plant), the jimadores prevent the agave from flowering and dying early, allowing it to fully ripen. The jimadores must be able to tell when each plant is ready to be harvested, and using a special knife called a coa (with a circular blade on a long pole), carefully cut away the leaves from the piña (the succulent core of the plant). If harvested too late or too early, the piñas, which can average around 70 kg (150 lb) in the lowlands to 110 kg (240 lb) in the highlands, will not have the right amount of carbohydrates for fermentation.
After harvesting, the piñas are transported to ovens where they are slowly baked to break down their complex starches into simple sugars. Then, the baked piñas are either shredded or mashed under a large stone wheel called a tahona. The pulp fibre, or bagazo, left behind is often reused as compost or animal feed, but can even be burnt as fuel or processed into paper. Some producers like to add a small amount of bagazo back into their fermentation tanks for a stronger agave flavour in the final product.
The extracted agave juice is then poured into either large wooden or stainless steel vats for several days to ferment, resulting in a wort, or mosto, with low alcohol content.This wort is then distilled once to produce what is called “ordinario, and then a second time to produce clear “silver” tequila. A few producers distill the product a third time, but several connoisseurs consider this third distillation a mistake because it removes too much flavuor from the tequila. From there, the tequila is either bottled as silver tequila, or it is pumped into wooden barrels to age, where it develops a mellower flavour and amber colour.
Usually, the differences in taste between tequila made from lowland and highland agave plants is noticeable. Plants grown in the highlands often yield sweeter and fruitier-tasting tequila, while lowland agaves give the tequila an earthier flavour.
According to an interview with local growers, climate change may be degrading the quality of agave in tequla’s traditional growing areas. “The summer gets hotter and hotter every year. Traditionally for the blue agave, it took eight to 10 years to grow and mature. And now we are looking at the agaves maturing 5, 6, 7-years-old. Less sugar content because the plant is forced to grow and mature faster. And everybody’s talking about it – Calentamiento global – global warming.”
Types of Tequila
The two basic categories of tequila are mixtos and 100% agave. Mixtos use no less than 51% agave, with other sugars making up the remainder. Mixtos use both glucose and fructose sugars.
Tequila is usually bottled in one of five categories:
- Blanco – (“white”) or plata (“silver”): white spirit, unaged and bottled or stored immediately after distillation, or aged less than two months in stainless steel or neutral oak barrels
- Joven [ˈxoβen] (“young”) or oro [ˈoɾo] (“gold”): unaged Blanco tequila that is coloured and flavoured with caramel
- Reposado [repoˈsaðo] (“rested”): aged a minimum of two months, but less than a year in oak barrels of any size
- Añejo [aˈɲexo] (“aged” or “vintage”): aged a minimum of one year, but less than three years in small oak barrels
- Extra Añejo (“extra aged” or “ultra aged”): aged a minimum of three years in oak barrels, this category was established in March 2006.
With 100% agave tequila, blanco or plata is harsher with the bold flavours of the distilled agave up front, while reposado and añejo are smoother, subtler, and more complex. As with other spirits aged in casks, tequila takes on the flavours of the wood, while the harshness of the alcohol mellows. The major flavour distinction with 100% agave tequila is the base ingredient, which is more vegetal than grain spirits (and often more complex).
Reposado may be rested in oak barrels or casks as large as 20,000 litres, allowing for richer and more complex flavours. The preferred oak comes from the US, France, or Canada, and is usually white oak. Some companies char the wood to impart a smoky flavour, or use barrels previously used with different kinds of alcohol (e.g. whiskey or wine). Some reposados can also be aged in new wood barrels to achieve the same woody flavour and smoothness, but in less time.
Añejos are often rested in barrels previously used to rest reposados. The barrels cannot be more than 600 litres, and most are in the 200-litre range. Many of the barrels used are from whiskey distilleries in the US or Canada, and Jack Daniels barrels are especially popular. This treatment creates many of the aspects of the dark colour and more complex flavours of the añejo tequila. After aging of at least one year, the añejo can be removed from the wood barrels and placed in stainless steel tanks to reduce the amount of evaporation that can occur in the barrels.
“Tequila worm” misconception
It is a common misconception that some tequilas contain a ‘worm’ in the bottle. Only certain mezcals, usually from the state of Oaxaca, are ever sold con gusano (with worm), and that only began as a marketing gimmick in the 1940s. The worm is actually the larval form of the moth Hypopta agavis, which lives on the agave plant. Finding one in the plant during processing indicates an infestation and, correspondingly, a lower-quality product. However, this misconception continues, despite effort and marketing to represent tequila as a premium liquor – similar to the way Cognac is viewed in relation to other brandies.
Brands of Tequila
The Consejo Regulador del Tequila (Tequila Regulatory Council) reported 1377 registered brands from 150 producers for the year 2013.
Ways to drink Tequila
In Mexico, the most traditional way to drink tequila is neat, without lime and salt. It is popular in some regions to drink fine tequila with a side of sangrita – a sweet, sour, and spicy drink typically made from orange juice, grenadine (or tomato juice), and hot chillies. Equal-sized shots of tequila and sangrita are sipped alternately, without salt or lime. Another popular drink in Mexico is the bandera (flag, in Spanish), named after the Flag of Mexico, it consists of three shot glasses, filled with lime juice (for the green), white tequila, and sangrita (for the red).Outside Mexico, a single shot of tequila is often served with salt and a slice of lime. This is called tequila cruda and is sometimes referred to as “training wheels”, “lick-sip-suck”, or “lick-shoot-suck” (referring to the way in which the combination of ingredients is imbibed).
The drinkers moisten the back of their hands below the index finger (usually by licking) and pour on the salt. Then the salt is licked off the hand, the tequila is drunk, and the fruit slice is quickly bitten. Groups of drinkers often do this simultaneously. Drinking tequila in this way is often erroneously called a Tequila Slammer, which is in fact a mix of tequila and carbonated drink. Though the traditional Mexican shot is tequila by itself, lime is the fruit of choice when a chaser must be used. The salt is believed to lessen the “burn” of the tequila and the sour fruit balances and enhances the flavour. In Germany and some other countries, tequila oro (gold) is often consumed with cinnamon on a slice of orange after, while tequila blanco (white) is consumed with salt and lime. Finally, as with other popular liquors, a number of shot-related drinking games and “stunt” drinks are used, such as body shots.
If the bottle of tequila does not state on the label that it is manufactured from 100% blue agave (no sugars added), then, by default, that tequila is a mixto (manufactured from 51% blue agave). Some tequila distilleries label their tequila as “made with blue agave” or “made from blue agave.” However, the Tequila Regulatory Council has stated only tequilas distilled with 100% agave can be designated as “100% agave”.
Some distillers of lower-quality tequila have marketed their product to be served “ice-cold chilled” when used as a shot. Chilling any alcohol can be used to reduce the smell or flavours associated with a lower-quality product. Any alcoholic product, when served as a chilled shot, may be more palatable to the consumer.
Many of the higher-quality, 100% agave tequilas do not impart significant alcohol burn and drinking them with salt and lime is likely to remove much of the flavour. These tequilas are usually sipped from a snifter glass rather than a shot glass, and savoured instead of quickly gulped. Doing so allows the taster to detect subtler fragrances and flavours that would otherwise be missed.
When served neat (without any additional ingredients), tequila is most often served in a narrow shot glass called a caballito (little horse, in Spanish),but can often be found in anything from a snifter to a tumbler.
The Consejo Regulador del Tequila approved an “official tequila glass” in 2002 called the Ouverture Tequila glass, made by Riedel.
The margarita glass, frequently rimmed with salt or sugar, is a staple for the entire genre of tequila mixed drinks, including the margarita.
A variety of cocktails are made with tequila, including the margarita, a cocktail that helped make tequila popular . The traditional margarita uses tequila, Cointreau, and lime juice,though many variations exist. Most popular in Mexico is a drink called the Paloma. Also, a number of martini variants involve tequila, as well as a large number of tequila drinks made by adding a fruit juice. These include the Tequila Sunrise and the Matador. Sodas and other carbonated drinks are a common mixer, as in the Tequila Slammer.