When National Margarita Day passed through back in February, most of my focus was on the actual cocktail.
This time, I can delve a little deeper and expand on the origins of tequila.
If you travel northwest from Guadalajara for 65 km, you will reach the outskirts of the city of Tequila, originally founded by Franciscan monks in 1530.
Here, the native blue agave plant is grown. It is also grown throughout the state of Jalisco, including the highlands known as Los Altos, where apparently the final product is sweeter and fruitier than what the lowlands produce.
The red volcanic soil surrounding this area provides a wealth of nutrients for the agave.
300 million of these plants are harvested from here alone each year. Agave plants are not cactus, they are a succulent with long fronds resembling aloe vera. Once a plant is harvested, it has given up it’s life for our pure (possibly drunken) entertainment in the end.
The heart of the plant, el pina, is cut out which looks like a pineapple and weighs in anywhere from 60 pounds to a few hundred pounds.
The heart is the part that is steamed, crushed and fermented into liquor. This video shows you a traditional method of steaming agave.
To capture the full, more modern process, this 7 minute video covers all of the stages of production.
First made in the 16th Century near today’s city of Tequila, because Spanish conquistadors ran out of their own brandy.
Don Pedro Sanchez de Tagle, the Marquis of Altamira, began mass producing blue agave into tequila at the first factory near what is now Jalisco. Eight short years later, government found a way to tax his product. Back then it was called Tequila Extract.
The first license was issued to the Cuervo family.
Tequila’s first export to the United States occurred by Don Cenobio Sauza, founder of Sauza Tequila. He shortened the name of the distilled beverage to just Tequila.
Sauza’s grandson, Don Francisco Javier, made the effort to create a quality tequila and stipulated that “there cannot be tequila where there are no agaves!” His work involved creating the law of “real tequila can only come from the state of Jalisco.”
In the same way that Champagne is only Champagne if it is made in the Champagne region, Mexico this same rule for tequila. By 2003, Mexico had ruled that the tequila must be bottled in Mexico to be sure of its authenticity. Each bottle contains a serial number giving you the location of the distillery in which it was made.
There are over 900 brands of tequila in Mexico alone.
Tequila vs Mezcal
They really are the same because they come from agave plants. However, if you refer to a tequila as mezcal, you may be offending someone. Tequila comes from the blue agave plant, or agave tequilana, and mezcal comes from any other agave plant.
According to Mexican law, the production for tequila can only take place in Jalisco, a northern state of Mexico and in 4 other states: Tamaulipas, Nayarit, Michoacán, and Guanajuato.
If you are distilling blue agave and you are outside of any of these places, you cannot call it tequila, you will only be able to call it mezcal, by law.
Most mezcals are made from espadin agave but can be blended with other agave plants to develop differing flavours. There are over 30 varieties of agave plants. Many factors affect taste including whether the agave is grown in the highlands or the lowlands where the final product has a more herbaceous taste.
As far as taste goes, mezcal has a smokier, sweeter, and sometimes richer flavour than tequila which is sharper and stronger.
To make things a little more complicated, tequila’s legal requirement stipulates it must be at least 51% blue agave. Some boast it is 100% but it is not mandatory to be called tequila. As long as it is minimum 51% blue agave and grown and produced in Jalisco, it can legally be labelled as tequila.
The remaining 41% might be sugarcane but it will have to be displayed on the label. Blended tequila such as this is referred to as mixto tequila.
Regulations also state that mezcal producers cannot produce tequila and vice versa.
LCBO carries a huge selection and keep in mind the allergies to the oak barrel if you enjoy red wine as well. You will be sensitive to the gold types: resposado, anejo. Try to stay with the white or silver
The Myth of The Worm
Maquey is the term for agave plants. Gusano de maguey are larvae that feed on agave but not the blue agave. That larvae, or caterpillar, would turn into a mariposa butterfly. If you bought yourself a bottle claiming to be tequila and find a worm in it, return it. It’s not tequila. And what distillery would allow a bug in your final product?
In Terms of Ageing
Abacado/White – 0 to 2 months – Bolder, harsh taste. These may be stored in stainless steel casks but does not age.
Joven/Mixto – 0 to 2 months – The same taste as Blanco; also does not age.
Reposado – 2 months to 1 year – Smoother and more complex. Aged in wooden oak barrels.
Anejo – 1 to 3 years – The same as Reposado. Aged in oak.
Extra Anejo – 3+ years. Also aged in oak.
Distillers purchase their barrels from whisky producers, the ones that will never be used again for certain types of scotch and bourbon, and tends to add a sweeter taste to the liquor than if they used other types of oak barrel such as French Oak or a brand new barrel.
Things To Do In Jalisco
National Festival of Tequila is held every year from November 3 to December 12. Enjoy parades, mariachi bands, cockfights, if you’re so inclined, mexican rodeos and fireworks.
You can follow the Tequila Trail or choose a distillery in or near where you are staying, take a few taste tests to explore the difference of flavours.
Don’t forget to book at least one distillery tour or take the Tequila Express.
Casa Sauza is located in Tequila.
La Rojena, founded in 1812, is still producing Jose Cuervo. It is the oldest distillery still in operation. You’ll notice that Casa Sauza is approximately a block from here as well. Visit both!
Tequila Herradura is a popular choice with its old charm hacienda.
Not too long ago, I visited the Dominican and purchased a bottle of tequila called Bear Hug from the duty free shop. I tried their sample and never looked back. Now, I have tried Patron and other basic tequilas and of course Jose Cuervo but, hands down, Bear Hug is the tastiest, easiest one you can drink alone. No lemon, no lime, no salt. Drop in an ice cube and sip.
Remember the name, Bear Hug. Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately, I would have to go back to get more. It is not available in Canada. Yet. But I’m working on it.
The best thing to do is fly to Guadalajara and take the 2 hour bus ride or book a tour from Guadalajara. Choose carefully. They are not always what they claim to be. Check the reviews.
Posted by Kim Ratcliffe-Doe on July 24, 2017