Originally any liquor made from the agave plant was called mezcal, but tequila, made from the blue agave, was called ‘vino de mezcal‘. In the 19th century this ‘mezcal wine’ was officially renamed ‘tequila’, after a town of the region.
On December 4, 2006 we went off to the town of Tequila, a couple hours north of Guadalajara by bus.
This region of the state of Jalisco has fields and fields of agaves azules, the source of the nectar that will become tequila.
The young agaves are planted, and after three years ‘hijuelos‘ or ‘sons’ form around the base of the plant. These are dug up and planted elsewhere.
When an agave is around 10 years old, the ‘jimador’ slices off the leaves and exposes the heart of the agave, often called the ‘piña’ or pineapple.
The ‘piñas’, which weigh from 40 to 100 kilos, are put in giant ovens known as hornos.
The ‘piñas‘ are steamed in the ‘hornos‘ for 36 hours. The resulting core is very sweet and can be eaten like sugar cane.
The piñas are squeezed and the juice put into 18,000 liter containers and allowed to ferment. 90% of this is waste and will be used later as methanol, fertilizer and as fiber for specialized papers. The young juice is very foamy, and becomes redder and clearer over the three days that it sits in the tanks. We weren’t allowed to use flash in the factory – they explained that the air was full of explosive methanol and a single spark could set it off.
After three days the juice is heated to 90°C and distilled two or three times, in ancient copper tanks or modern stainless steel ones. It is then ‘watered down’ from ~60% alcohol to 40%.
Tequila destined to be tequila reposada is put into oak barrels. The flavours that the barricas de robles (oak barrels) impart are further distinguished by various amounts of charring with banana leaves – here I have copied this from the Spanish signs in one of the tequila factories, test your Spanish!
- tostado ligero – provee un aroma a especías y roble dulce (Translation: lightly toasted – provides an aroma of spice and sweet oak)
- tostado medio – presenta notas de vainilla con miel y pan tostado (Translation: medium toasted – presents notes of vanilla with honey and toast)
- tostado fuerte – produce aromas a chocolate, almentras y toques de humo (Translation: strongly toasted – produces aromas of chocolate, almonds and touches of smoke)
A popular saying when drinking a shot of tequila (with accompanying movements): “Arriba… abajo… al centro… adentro…” Translation: up (raise your glass up), down (bring your glass down), to the center (bring your glass inline with your mouth), adentro (in – knock it back!)
By law, tequila can still be called ‘tequila’ even if it only contains 51% agave. Some tequila is 100% agave (and labeled as such), and this is considered the highest quality, and also the least likely to cause hangovers.
‘Blanco‘ or white tequila, is twice-distilled and has a distinct agave (tequila) flavour. There is a famous mariachi song that goes on about ‘tequila blanca con limón y sal’ that relates to this strong ‘macho‘ flavour. This is the tequila to use in cocktails such as Margaritas or Tequila Sunrises.
The golden-coloured ‘Reposado‘ (‘rested’) tequila is aged three to 11 months in oak barrels, and as a result is much smoother.
There is also the dark amber Anejo, aged one to five years in the barrels, even smoother, and meant for sipping on a moonlit Mexican night.