Tequila, Mexico’s most famous firewater and the cause of oh-so-many regrettable late-night decisions, originated as pulque in pre-Columbian Jalisco but was not distilled as the drink we know today until the mid-16th century. Today the countryside around Guadalajara is covered in a sea of blue agave – the spikey succulent from which tequila is made and which loves the red volcanic soil flecked with black obsidian. There are distilleries at every turn (Jalisco counts up to 180 of Mexico’s 220) ranging from small adobe sheds to huge haciendas. Many of them welcome visitors, whether or not they have official tours. The Jalisco state tourism department has created its own Ruta del Tequila (www.rutadeltequila.org.mx) of suggested tequila-related sights. All are accessible via day trips from Guadalajara.
When imbibing, always remember the wise words of the late American comedian George Carlin: ‘One tequila, two tequila, three tequila, floor’.
It Starts with Blue Agave
Spanish conquistadors began distilling tequila from the blue agave plant (Agave tequilana) in Jalisco as early as the mid-1550s when they ran out of their own brandy. But mass production did not start until 1795, when the Cuervo family was granted a permit from King Carlos IV of Spain to produce tequila commercially. The Sauza family began exporting to the USA in 1885.
Agave plants are cultivated for five to 10, then the jimadores (harvesters) come calling. These tough field hands expertly strip away the spiny foliage until they’ve found its heart – the piña. Weighing between 80kg and 130kg, these are hauled from the fields by burros (donkeys), shipped to the distillery by truck and fed into brick or clay ovens where they cook for between 40 and 70 hours (half that in metal ones). Afterwards the softened pulp is shredded and juiced and the liquid is pumped into vats where it is mixed with yeast and left to ferment for between 15 and 30 days.
Tequila's Five Classes
Your average cantina tequila is tequila mixto (mixed), which can legally contain up to 49% non-agave sugars. The real McCoy, which bears the label ‘100% Agave’, has no glucose or fructose sugars added. Within these two main types, there are five classes of tequila.
- Blanco (white) or plata (silver) tequila is relatively unaged (maximum two months), uncolored and has a distinct agave flavor.
- Joven (young) or oro (gold) tequila is unaged silver tequila that is artificially colored or a blend of 99% silver with 1% aged or extra-aged tequila.
- Tequila reposado (rested) has been aged a minimum of two months in encina (Holm oak) barrels. Tends to taste sharp and peppery.
- Tequila añejo (aged) is kept for between one and three years in small oak barrels. It’s sweet and smooth.
- Tequila extra añejo (vintage) is aged for three to five years and is the pinnacle of the fast-growing premium tequila market.
In Mexico you can buy a decent bottle of tequila for less than M$150, though for something special you’ll need to spend around M$300. Treat the good stuff like a bottle of single malt and sniff it a few times first to prepare your palate for the heat and it won’t taste so harsh. At the sip, allow it swish around in your mouth, swallow and breath out through your mouth. Then feel the warmth.
Mexicans never – ever – drink tequila with salt and lime, as is customary in the USA. And don’t go looking for a gusano (worm) at the bottom of the bottle. Those are placed in bottles of mezcal (an agave spirit similar to tequila but distilled in states outside of Jalisco, especially Oaxaca) as a marketing ploy.