Tequila 101: A Guide to History, Characteristics, and Flavors
The national spirit of Mexico is tequila, a brandy with a lysergic and very fragrant flavor. It has a rich, crisp, and occasionally balsamic flavor. You won’t want to leave the world of tequila once you’ve entered it. It’s not an easy distillate to approach, it’s not particularly soft, and it might even be one of the strangest and most distinct in flavor.
Everything comes from the agave, a native Mexican plant that can grow up to 2 meters tall and is described as “resembling a cactus” due to the tufts of thorny leaves that emerge from the body of the plant.
Blue agave: the gold of Mexico
Although there are many different varieties of agave in Mexico, only the renowned agave tequilana Weber azul, or blue agave, may be used to make tequila, as opposed to mezcal. As a resource and as a means of generating income, blue agave is to Mexico what sugar cane is to the Caribbean. It can be distilled to make a good spirit drink or turned into sugar to make something sweet.
Before we get into distillation, which isn’t all that important, let’s talk about the cultivation and processing of agave, the substance used to make tequila: every step from agave production to the finished product.
In Mexico, the process of making tequila is still a family affair. The fruits of the agave plant need to be worked on for a long time, and there are many small-scale producers. Even though international companies have bought up a lot of brands, precise manufacturing is still done by hand. This is also a result of distillates having some of the toughest rules, but we’ll get to that.
What does Tequila mean?
The word agave is implied by the fact that Tequila is derived from mexcalli, which in the Nahuatl language of the Aztecs, i.e., the Aztecs, means cooked agave.
Tequila: a terroir issue
Let’s revisit the preparation of blue agave.
First off, it takes an agave at least 8 years and occasionally 12 years to attain proper maturity, especially for plants grown at high altitudes.
The conversation about terroir then resumes. The soils in Jalisco’s terroir are volcanic in origin, rich in minerals like silica, and it is because of these particular soils that the agave is special.
The mythological figure of the jimador is then introduced as a man who cultivates and gathers agave. The coa, a type of halberd with a long handle and sharp edges in the style of a round spade, is a tool used by these hardy farmers.
The jimador, who must first select the ripe plants and then clean the agave heart, which is like a huge pineapple, has the most challenging duty in the making of tequila. However, it is crucial that the pia be clean since the leaves emit undesirable flavors. As a result, it must be carefully shaved, even with the opposite hair, to use a barber’s term.
The piñas are cut in half and cooked for one or two days in the characteristic ovens (hornos) once the agave has been harvested. The goal is to saccharify the starch and convert the inulin to fructose so that the yeasts may start the fermentation process.
After the agave is heated, it is crushed to get the juice, which is called aguamiel, which is a very suggestive name. This is done in the Tahona, which are old mills with huge stone wheels that are still turned by donkeys or by motorized machinery in the most modern distilleries.
Yes, that’s right—exactly like sugar cane. The fermentation process, which can take up to three days, starts when the juice (which corresponds to the whiskey’s “wat”) is collected in cauldrons or cisterns. Some producers only use yeasts that come from agave juice, while others use yeasts that are made in a lab.
And this dichotomy of artisans vs. tequila industries concentrates the whole discourse of quality because all this painstaking, but also pachydermic, manufacturing is now not very sustainable. So the most enterprising companies are modernizing the processes, using autoclaves where the agaves cook in less than 10 hours or by buying the piñas, while others prefer to start from cultivation and take care of each step personally.
The process of distilling aguamiel
All that is left to do at this stage is begin the distillation process to turn a sugar-rich must, like aguamiel, into a concentrated and decadent distillate. Tequila’s distillation can be done in copper stills that are either discontinuous or continuous. The distillery and the type of distillate you wish to produce will determine this.
The head, the initial byproduct of distillation, and the tails are always discarded. The heart is what matters. Typically, there are two distillations; however, there are a very small number of distilleries that perform a third distillation in the Irish style.
What kind of alcohol content does tequila have?
Even if the tequila we find on the market has an alcohol percentage varying from 37 to 55 degrees, the end result is a distillate with a 55 degree alcohol content. It can be filtered with coals, cold filtration, sugar, or caramel, or it can be diluted with distilled water.
How is Tequila Mixto different from pure 100% agave, and what does it mean?
Tequila is made by distilling fermented juice that has to have 51% agave sugar by law in order to be controlled. Ok, fair, but where does the remaining sugar come from? Corn or sugar cane, so long as the alcohol is flavorless… You must conduct some research before making a purchase because the word “mixto” is not required to be mentioned on the bottles.
Because tequila is an AOC, this laxness is maybe the only problematic aspect of the entire specification. There are strict rules about how to grow agave, but colorings, sugar additives, and glycerin are not taken into account, and there is no information about how long joven should be aged. Therefore, search for the phrase “100% pure agave” on the bottle label if you want a high-quality distillate.
Types of tequila
In any case, the tequila is prepared exactly as the Tequila Blanco, also known as silver or plata, which may be matured for up to 60 days if desired in sizable oak barrels, barrels used to age Port or bourbon, or in the traditional pipones, which are sizable vertical barrels made of wood. Since it doesn’t go through any more changes or maturing, many people see this tequila as the actual queen, the purest and most crystallized representation of fermented agave nectar. As soon as it exits the alembic, it is naked.
Tequila Joven, a combination of Blanco and other more mature varieties, is the next stage. The caramel, which isn’t that old, is what gives the food the darker hue.
Tequila reposado is aged for at least 60 days in oak or holm oak barrels. But take care—not all of them have aged equally. The most effective ones are the little ones.
Let’s get serious about Tequila Anejio. For a year, aging is done in barrels with a maximum capacity of 600 liters.
Tequila Extra Anejio has a three-year maturing process in barrels with a maximum capacity of 600 liters.
Tequila’s taste and flavor
The most severe of the traditional distillates is tequila, which combines intensely fruity, floral, and unique herbal scents. Everything has a strong, almost resinous tone but also a cooked, smokey undertone. The smokey undertone is obvious, and what you taste are flavors of salty, peppery, and citrusy with hints of earth and chilli. Tequila is thought to be the most “earthy” and least smooth of all distillates. It has a distinct earthy flavor that reminds some people of anise. It goes without saying that the longer anything is kept in oak, the more rich, rounded flavors and aromas of tannins, wood, and spices it develops.
The origins of tequila
When was this beautiful alcoholic beverage created? The Aztecs had been drinking a type of wine made from fermented agave juice since the first centuries after Christ, but production was not fully developed until the arrival of the Conquistadores. The reason it has this name is because the first distillation was created in the city with the same name.
The main place it is made is in the state of Jalisco, but it can also be made in a few other states, like Tamaulipas, Nayarit, Guanajuato, and Michoacán, which were added later.
How to drink tequila?
Tequila is a distillate that has come a long way in recent years. Thank God, gone are the days of drinking salt and lemon with tequila, which was a crude way to hide the taste of tequila. Shots to get drunk may have been OK when tequila tasted like agricultural diesel, but they are now merely a tremulous reminiscence of a bygone era that should be forgotten. The point is very simple: if it’s a fresh and unpretentious tequila, use it for cocktails, if it’s valuable, drink it neat, served at 6 degrees, especially if it’s a Tequila Extra Anejio.