Tequila - History, Harvesting, Enjoying
A Capsule History
The origins of tequila go back to around 250 to 300 AD when the Aztecs produced a fermented juice from the agave plant for their ceremonial wine. Mayahuel, a well-known figure in Aztec mythology, is known as the goddess of maguey, which is known today as the agave plant.
Mayahuel is also known as the goddess of pulque, which is the beverage that she discovered and shared with the Aztec people. Pulque is the ancient predecessor to agave-based liquors like tequila and mezcal.
Enter the Spanish, as they invaded the Aztec civilization in the 1500s. The Spanish are credited with being the first to use the distillation process for the agave plant. By the early 1600s a Spanish nobleman, Marquis of Altamira, built the first major tequila distillery in what has now known as the city of Tequila in Jalisco, Mexico. To this day this is where most of the tequila is produced.
Fast forward to the 1700s when the first of two famous tequila families began distilling tequila. The Cuervo family began in 1758 and the Sauza family established their distillery in 1873. The Sauza family is credited with identifying the blue agave as the best type of agave to make tequila. Both families still produce some of the most popular tequilas on the market today.
By 1974 the term ‘tequila’, was declared as ‘intellectual property’ of the Mexican government.
In 2018, the Mexican Senate approved a proposal to make the third Saturday in March to be Mexico’s National Tequila Day. The reason Saturday was chosen… Saturday is “a more appropriate day for parties.” In the United States, National Tequila Day is July 24th, (unfortunately, not on a Saturday every year).
Tequila Vs. Mezcal; and the ‘WORM’
Before we get deeper into tequila, let's point out the differences between tequila and mezcal. For a product to be called tequila it must contain at least 51% blue agave juice. The higher the percentage of blue agave used in making tequila, the finer the bottle. Mezcals can be grown from a variety of over 250 different types of agave and succulent plants.
Tequila must also come from certain areas in Mexico in order to be considered ‘legitimate tequila’. Jalisco, and four other states in Mexico make up the area where tequila is made. Other types of agaves, and lesser amounts of blue agave grown in other states in Mexico, are used in making Mezcal.
Mezcal is produced by cooking the agave in pits lined with lava rocks and filled with wood and charcoal before distilling in clay pots. As a result. Mezcal has a smokey/earthy flavor. Tequilas steam/bake the agave plant before distilling.
One last difference, the worm!!! A worm is never found in a bottle of tequila! Mexican Standards Authority prohibits it. The “worm” is commonly found in lower-end mezcals. (Yes, I have eaten a mezcal worm!!)
And…it is not a worm!!! It is actually a moth larva that would become a night butterfly called the Mariposa. (You can use this info to win a few wagers with your buddies!)
Growth and Harvest
Two quick things about the growing and harvesting process. The processes used in the making of Mezcal and Tequila are the same. All the techniques for care and harvesting of the agave are an art form that has been passed down from generation to generation and are still done by hand today. (And I thought I had a rough job!!)
The ‘heart’ of the agave plant is called the piña. Piña means “pineapple” in Spanish. It is called piña because it closely resembles the pineapple when harvested. A mature blue agave piña weighs between 80 to 100 pounds and some agave species can weigh up to 300 pounds.
Agave plants take between 7 to 12 years to reach a height and width of around three feet. Some other species of agave can reach up to 16 feet in height.
Agave shoots are planted at approximately the same time. These shoots need to be tended to over the coming years to trim the stalk before flowering. The stalk is not allowed to grow on cultivated agaves because it takes up the nutrients in the plant that are needed by the piña. Instead, it is cut so that the heart (piña) grows larger, fatter, and is rich in sugars. If uncut, the stalk would grow to a size of 15 feet. (See stalk below)
After the agave plant is five or six years old the stalks can grow at a rate of three feet in a week and must be tended to constantly. Every two weeks the stalks are cut by jimadors (harvesters), to keep the nutrients of the plant in the piña.
Initially, the piña of the agave is underground, but it will push its top out of the soil. One indication the plant is ripe is when the piña starts to shrink and it begins to turn slightly maroon in color.
When ready for harvesting, the piña is cut away from the stalk and more than 200 spiked, thorny leaves, each about six or seven feet in length. The jimadors use a sharp, long-handled tool called a coa, to trim off the stalks and spiked leaves from the piña.
Every two weeks the stalks are cut by jimadors to keep as much of the nutrients of the plant in the piñas. A jimador can produce about a ton of the resulting ‘pineapple-looking’ piñas in a day. (UNREAL!!!)
Today trucks are used to take the agave hearts from the fields, but in some small plantations, donkeys are still used to transport the piñas back to the factory.
Once back at the factory, the juice needs to be extracted from the heart of the agave.
When making tequila this is done by baking the heart in large ovens, or in large vats called autoclaves.Typically, this process takes 24 to 72 hours depending on the number of piñas, and the cooking method. Once cooking is completed the agave heart is crushed and fermented with yeast and water. then distilled two or three times in copper pots to create tequila.
Types of Tequila
There are five different types of tequila.
Blanco (Silver) – This type of tequila is aged for up to two months. In fact, it may not be aged at all. It is also bottled within 60 days of being distilled. It has a clear color, and because there was no aging process, it shows the skill of the distiller. This type of tequila works well in margaritas and other citrus drinks.
Joven (Young) – This tequila is the result of blending an unaged ‘Blanco’ tequila with a small amount of aged tequila. Its color is amber and works well in bolder mixed drinks like a Mexican mule.
Reposados (Rested) – Tequila that has been aged in oak barrels for more than 60 days but less than a year. The oak-barrel-aging provides a slightly darker amber color than the Joven, and has a flavor of vanilla, or cinnamon. Beverage masters say reposados can be used as a substitute for whiskey in old-fashioned.
Añejo (Old) – Aged for one to three years, añejo tequila has a full more complex flavor and due to the aging process, a darker color. This type of tequila is often recommended as a sipping tequila with a creamy vanilla flavor.
Extra Añejo (Extra Old) – This is a relatively new classification of tequila. This is tequila that has been barrel aged for more than three years. Once again this type of tequila is recommended for sipping on the rocks or neat. It has the darkest color and the ‘richest’ flavor and is the most like a whiskey.
We have two recipes for making the ‘classic’ margarita. While making your margarita or any tequila drink, here is a link to a song that will surely put you in the mood. Tequila - YouTube
If you are REALLY into the song Tequila, here is a one-hour version The Champs- Tequila (1h version) - YouTube
The Classic Margarita - Just making one?
- One and a half ounces of Tequila Blanco (or reposado)
- One ounce Cointreau or Triple Sec
- ¾ ounce of fresh lime juice (fresh is best)
- Kosher Salt or Sea Salt for the glass rim (if desired)
- A lime wedge for garnish
- Put tequila, Cointreau (or Triple Sec), and lime juice in a cocktail shaker with ice (shake vigorously until cold.)
- If a salt-rimmed glass is desired…Cut a notch in the lime wedge and run the lime around the rim of the glass. Place salt on a plate and put the rim of the glass into the salt.
- Strain the margarita into the glass, add a few ice cubes, and serve
The Classic Margarita - Having a party?
Here is a quick way to make a pitcher of margaritas (serves 8)
- One and a half cups of Tequila Blanco (or reposado)
- One cup of Cointreau or Triple Sec
- ¾ cup of fresh lime juice (fresh is best)
- Kosher Salt or Sea Salt for the glass rim (if desired) on a plate
- Lime wedges for garnish
- Put tequila, Cointreau (or Triple Sec), and lime juice in a pitcher with ice (stir until cold).
- For those who want salted rim glass have them rim their glass as described above
- Serve margaritas in equal portions into glasses and toast. Then…let the party begin!!!
Tequila is truly a delicious refreshing distilled beverage to be enjoyed whether sipped, taken as a shot, or slowly savored.