Tequila is starting to enter the ranks of venerable liquors, where it rightfully belongs. This traditional Mexican liquor, the favorite of frat parties and margarita drinkers, is now competing with fine wines during cocktail-party chitchat. Many bars are devoted to providing the nearly 900 different blends. If you want to know more about the origins of this ancient beverage, just as many have diligently studied the history of wine grapes - read on.
Low-quality tequilas are known as mixtos, or mescal. You'll know good tequila because the label will state it is made of 100 percent agave. The Mexican government carefully controls the designation.
Agave is a succulent plant indigenous to Mexico. Today, the tequila industry grows a single species for distillation: Agave tequilana. The species name reflects that of the town, Tequila, the center where this industry was born.
Early on, Sauza Tequila producers developed the first large-scale production of the plants using enormous monocultures of this single variety. Formerly, the plants were cultivated on smaller farms resulting in a healthy range of biodiversity, with varieties uniquely suited to their immediate microclimate.
Agave is a rosette of long succulent leaves that rise from an incredibly drought-resistant plant. It will grow in virtually any well-drained soil. All agaves bloom only once after decades of storing starchy energy within the heart of the plant. When the enriched heart, known as the cabeza, is ready to begin its bloom cycle, it is harvested and crushed to yield its sugary juice.
If left alive to flower, the mature agave may be decades old when it sends up its enormous bloom spike. Spikes bear flowers that are held aloft to lure bats, their primary pollinators. After blooming, the mother plant dies.
In Aztec times, farmers did not cut the cabeza. Instead, they dug a hole in the center of the plant, allowing the liquid known as aguamiel to seep into the cavity. From there, it was collected into fermentation vats to yield an ancient and sacred drink, pulque (pronounced "pull-kay").
When the Spanish arrived in Mexico, only the temple priests who carried out the human sacrifices consumed the pulque. With the downfall of the old culture, pulque grew into the affordable alcoholic beverage of poor rural Mexico. It is still sold in establishments known as pulquerias.
After the Conquistadors ran out of European brandy, they began distilling aguamiel. Their early distillations resulted in what is known as aguardiente, which translates into "water burning," to describe its harsh characteristic. Because the process was too slow, the Spanish began cutting agave and burning it to yield more from each plant. This would become mescal, a smoky-flavored single distillation still produced in the Oaxaca region of Mexico. Its biting potency led to the tradition of lime and salt to kill the flavor.
Today's tequilas, produced in just one district of Mexico, around the town of Tequila, are distilled two and three times, the price rising with each distillation. Those considered the smoothest are triple-distilled, well aged and labeled "anejo."
Once there were many small tequila producers, but today the market has become dominated by large growers giving rise to a number of fine tequila producers. However, mescal is still a cottage industry in southern Mexico with many local brands.
Commercial tequilas are aged in casks and blended just like whiskey. Their flavor is much improved. Some say that mixto tequila is made with undocumented additives, reducing the amount of pure agave in the mix. The notorious tequila hangovers are attributed to the effects of such impurities.
If you're tired of the frou-frou wine crowd, order a good anejo steeped in the heritage of Mexico. Demonstrate your knowledge by drinking it straight as you share your newfound appreciation of this ancient agave liquor.