The history and manufacture of Tequila
As the saying in Mexico goes: “For all that is bad, mezcal, and all that is good as well”.
- Just like Champagne comes from Champagne, most real tequila comes from the area around the city of Tequila – the same region as the very first tequila distillery.
- The knife that the jimador uses to strip the plants is called a coa.
- All tequila is mezcal, but not all mezcal is tequila.
- The agave plant typically needs between 6-10 years to reach maturity.
- The agave is harvested by hand, often using tools that have been used for centuries.
- A good, aged tequila is enjoyed neat – and sipped slowly – not knocked back with salt and lemon.
Tequila is a regional distilled beverage and type of alcoholic drink made from the blue agave plant, primarily in the area surrounding the city of Tequila, 65 km northwest of Guadalajara, and in the highlands (Los Altos) of the central western Mexican state of Jalisco.
Aside from differences in region of origin, tequila is a type of mezcal. The distinction is that tequila must use only blue agave plants rather than any type of agave. Tequila is commonly served neat in Mexico and as a shot with salt and lime across the rest of the world.
The red volcanic soil in the region around the city of Tequila is particularly well suited to the growing of blue agave, and more than 300 million of the plants are harvested there each year.
Agave grows differently depending on the region. Blue agaves grown in the highlands Los Altos region are larger in size and sweeter in aroma and taste. Agaves harvested in the lowlands, on the other hand, have a more herbaceous fragrance and flavor.
Mexican laws state that tequila can only be produced in the state of Jalisco and limited municipalities in the states of Guanajuato, Michoacán, Nayarit, and Tamaulipas.
Tequila was first produced in the 16th century near the location of the city of Tequila, which was not officially established until 1666.
A fermented beverage from the agave plant known as pulque was consumed in pre-Columbian central Mexico before European contact.
When the Spanish conquistadors ran out of their own brandy, they began to distill agave to produce one of North America’s first indigenous distilled spirits.
Some 80 years later, around 1600, Don Pedro Sánchez de Tagle, the Marquis of Altamira, began mass-producing tequila at the first factory in the territory of modern-day Jalisco.
By 1608, the colonial governor of Nueva Galicia had begun to tax his products. Spain’s King Carlos IV granted the Cuervo family the first license to commercially make tequila.
Don Cenobio Sauza, founder of Sauza Tequila and Municipal President of the Village of Tequila from 1884–1885, was the first to export tequila to the United States and shortened the name from “Tequila Extract” to just “Tequila” for the American markets.
Don Cenobio’s grandson Don Francisco Javier gained international attention for insisting that “there cannot be tequila where there are no agaves!” His efforts led to the practice that real tequila can come only from the State of Jalisco.
Although some tequilas have remained as family-owned brands, most well-known tequila brands are owned by large multinational corporations.
However, over 100 distilleries make over 900 brands of tequila in Mexico and over 2000 brand names have been registered (2009 statistics). Due to this, each bottle of tequila contains a serial number (NOM) depicting in which distillery the tequila was produced. Because only so many distilleries are used, multiple brands of tequila come from the same location.
In 2003, Mexico issued a proposal that would require all Mexican-made tequila to be bottled in Mexico before being exported to other countries. The Mexican government said that bottling tequila in Mexico would guarantee its quality.
Liquor companies in the United States said Mexico just wanted to create bottling jobs in their own country and also claimed this rule would violate international trade agreements and was in discord with usual exporting practices worldwide.
The proposal might have resulted in the loss of jobs at plants in California, Arkansas, Missouri, and Kentucky because Mexican tequila exported in bulk to the United States is bottled in those plants.
On January 17, 2006, the United States and Mexico signed an agreement allowing the continued bulk import of tequila into the United States. The agreement also created a “tequila bottlers registry” to identify approved bottlers of tequila and created an agency to monitor the registry.
The Tequila Regulatory Council of Mexico originally did not permit flavored tequila to carry the tequila name. In 2004, the Council decided to allow flavored tequila to be called tequila, with the exception of 100% agave tequila, which still cannot be flavored.
A new Norma Oficial Mexicana (NOM) for tequila (NOM-006-SCFI-2005) was issued in 2006, and among other changes, introduced a class of tequila called extra añejo or “ultra-aged” which must be aged a minimum of three years.
A one-liter bottle of limited-edition premium tequila was sold for $225,000 in July 2006 in Tequila, Jalisco. The bottle which contained the tequila was a two-kilo display of platinum and gold. The manufacturer received a certificate from The Guinness World Records for the most expensive bottle of tequila spirit ever sold.
The latest version of the tequila standard (NOM-006-SCFI-2012) also updated the standard to specify that the silver class of tequila cannot contain additives, to allow the aging time for the ultra-aged class to be displayed on the label, to prohibit the commercialization of bulk tequila through vending machines and required registering the agave during the calendar year of its plantation and required annual updates.
Planting, tending, and harvesting the agave plant remains a manual effort, largely unchanged by modern farm machinery and relying on centuries-old know-how. The men who harvest it, the jimadores, have intimate knowledge of how the plants should be cultivated, passed down from generation to generation.
By regularly trimming any quiotes (a several-meter-high stalk that grows from the center of the plant), the jimadores prevent the agave from flowering and dying early, allowing it to fully ripen.
The jimador must be able to tell when each plant is ready to be harvested, and using a special knife called a coa (with a circular blade on a long pole), carefully cut away the leaves from the piña (the succulent core of the plant).
If harvested too late or too early, the piñas, which can average around 70 kg in the lowlands to 110 kg in the highlands, will not have the right amount of carbohydrates for fermentation.
After harvesting, the piñas are transported to ovens where they are slowly baked to break down their complex fructans into simple fructoses. Then, the baked piñas are either shredded or mashed under a large stone wheel called a tahona. The pulp fiber, or bagazo, left behind is often reused as compost or animal feed, but can even be burnt as fuel or processed into paper. Some producers like to add a small amount of bagazo back into their fermentation tanks for a stronger agave flavor in the final product.
The extracted agave juice is then poured into either large wooden or stainless steel vats for several days to ferment, resulting in a wort, or mosto, with low alcohol content. This wort is then distilled once to produce what is called ordinario, and then a second time to produce clear “silver” tequila. Using at least two distillations is required by law. From there, the tequila is either bottled as silver tequila, or it is pumped into wooden barrels to age, where it develops a mellower flavor and amber color.
The differences in taste between tequila made from lowland and highland agave plants can be noticeable. Plants grown in the highlands often yield sweeter and fruitier-tasting tequila, while lowland agaves give the tequila an earthier flavor.
Unlike other tequila production steps, fermentation is one of the few steps out of the control of human beings. Fermentation is the conversion of sugars and carbohydrates to alcohol through yeast in anerobic conditions, meaning that oxygen is not present during the process. Fermentation is also carried out in a non-aseptic environment which increases the bacterial activity of tequila. The participation of microorganisms from the environment (yeasts and bacteria) makes fermentation a spontaneous process which gives rise to many byproducts that contribute to the flavor and aroma of tequila.
During the fermentation process, inoculum is added to the batch to speed the rate of fermentation. When inoculum is added, fermentation can take approximately 20 hours to 3 days. If inoculum is not added, fermentation could take up to 7 days. The rate of fermentation is a key factor in the quality and flavor of tequila produced. Worts fermented slowly are best because the amount of organoleptic compounds produced are greater. The alcohol content at the end of fermentation lies between 4-9%.
Organoleptic compounds are dependent on yeast. The role of yeast is to, through many enzymatic processes, turn sugars and carbohydrates into alcohol. There are two steps, first in aerobic conditions, yeast is doubled in colony size every four hours. This process goes on for 24–48 hours. Next, yeast turns acetaldehyde into ethyl alcohol which is known as one of the organoleptic compounds produced in fermentation.
The two main categories of yeast used in tequila are commercial brewers yeast and yeast that comes from precultivated existing yeast that has been preserved. The use of either type of yeast can result in different end products of tequila.
Tequila comes in an abundant array of colors that ranges from a simple clear distilled beverage to a dark amber brown. The color of the tequila varies greatly on the aging process and the type of wood used for storage. The white version of tequila, known as silver tequila or blanco, is the product obtained without a or with very short aging process. As well, the spirit must contain between 38-55% alcohol content, which is fermented from a wort, which contains no less than 51% sugars from the agave plant. Consuming silver tequila provides for the purest form as little aging has occurred. What is known as gold, joven or oro tequila is usually silver tequila with the addition of grain alcohols and caramel color, however, some higher end gold tequilas may be a blend of silver and reposado. Rested (reposado) or aged tequila (añejo) are aged in wooden containers. The aging process can last between two months and three years and can create or enhance flavors and aromas. The aging process generally imparts a golden color.
The two basic categories of tequila are mixtos and 100% agave. Mixtos use no less than 51% agave, with other sugars making up the remainder. Mixtos use both glucose and fructose sugars.
Tequila is usually bottled in one of four categories:
- Blanco (“white”) or plata (“silver”): white spirit, unaged and bottled or stored immediately after distillation, or aged less than two months in stainless steel or neutral oak barrels.
- Reposado (“rested”): aged a minimum of two months, but less than a year in oak barrels of any size.
- Añejo (“aged” or “vintage”): aged a minimum of one year, but less than three years in small oak barrels.
- Extra Añejo (“extra aged” or “ultra aged”): aged a minimum of three years in oak barrels, this category was established in March 2006.
With 100% agave tequila, blanco or plata is harsher with the bold flavors of the distilled agave up front, while reposado and añejo are smoother, subtler, and more complex. As with other spirits aged in casks, tequila takes on the flavors of the wood, while the harshness of the alcohol mellows. The major flavor distinction with 100% agave tequila is the base ingredient, which is more vegetal than grain spirits (and often more complex).
The Consejo Regulador del Tequila (Tequila Regulatory Council) reported 1377 registered brands from 150 producers for the year 2013.
Only certain mezcals, usually from the state of Oaxaca, are ever sold con gusano (with worm). They are added as a marketing gimmick and are not traditional. The tequila regulatory council does not allow gusanos or scorpions (which are sometimes also added to mezcals) to be included in tequila bottles. The worm is actually the larval form of the moth Hypopta agavis, which lives on the agave plant. Finding one in the plant during processing indicates an infestation and, correspondingly, a lower-quality product. However, this misconception continues, despite effort and marketing to represent tequila as a premium liquor—similar to the way Cognac is viewed in relation to other brandies.
Unlike wine that contains tannins which may change over time, even in a bottle if proper storage conditions are not met, spirituous liquors like tequila do not change much once they are bottled. Since tequila is a distilled liquor, it does not require strict storage conditions like wine does, and the same goes with most other distilled spirits such as whiskey, rum, or vodka.
Furthermore, because the characteristics and certain quality (flavor, aroma, color, etc.) of the tequila are determined during the aging process inside wood barrels, the quality of the tequila should remain relatively constant after they are bottled. To maintain the quality of tequila, at least three conditions should be met: constant and moderate temperature (60 to 65 °F), no exposure to direct sunlight, and maintenance of proper seal of the bottle. Also, storage conditions will have more effect on the taste of aged tequila rather than the un-aged tequila, due to tannins and other compounds introduced into the spirit from the aging barrel. For instance, if stored in improper conditions, the dark and more complex flavors of the añejo tequila are more likely to be tainted than the blanco or the silver tequila.
Once the bottle is opened, the tequila will be subject to oxidation which will continue to happen even if no more oxygen is introduced. In addition, if the bottle has more room for air, the process of oxidation occurs faster on the liquor remaining inside the bottle.
Therefore, it may be the best to consume the tequila within one or two years after opening. For the most part, the change in quality of tequila is due to extreme conditions of improper storage, not due to oxidation.
In Mexico, the most traditional way to drink tequila is neat, without lime and salt. It is popular in some regions to drink fine tequila with a side of sangrita—a sweet, sour, and spicy drink typically made from orange juice, grenadine (or tomato juice), and hot chilli. Equal-sized shots of tequila and sangrita are sipped alternately, without salt or lime. Another popular drink in Mexico is the bandera (flag, in Spanish), named after the Flag of Mexico, it consists of three shot glasses, filled with lime juice (for the green), white tequila, and sangrita (for the red).
Outside Mexico, a single shot of tequila is often served with salt and a slice of lime. This is called tequila cruda and is sometimes referred to as “training wheels”, “lick-sip-suck”, or “lick-shoot-suck” (referring to the way in which the combination of ingredients is imbibed). The drinkers moisten the back of their hands below the index finger (usually by licking) and pour on the salt. Then the salt is licked off the hand, the tequila is drunk, and the fruit slice is quickly bitten. Groups of drinkers often do this simultaneously. Drinking tequila in this way is often erroneously called a Tequila Slammer, which is in fact a mix of tequila and carbonated drink. Though the traditional Mexican shot is tequila by itself, lime is the fruit of choice when a chaser must be used. The salt is believed to lessen the “burn” of the tequila and the sour fruit balances and enhances the flavor. In Germany and some other countries, tequila oro (gold) is often consumed with cinnamon on a slice of orange after, while tequila blanco (white) is consumed with salt and lime. Finally, as with other popular liquors, a number of shot-related drinking games and “stunt” drinks are used, such as body shots.
If the bottle of tequila does not state on the label that it is manufactured from 100% blue agave (no sugars added), then, by default, that tequila is a mixto (manufactured from at least 51% blue agave). Some tequila distilleries label their tequila as “made with blue agave” or “made from blue agave.” However, the Tequila Regulatory Council has stated only tequilas distilled with 100% agave can be designated as “100% agave”.
Some distillers of lower-quality tequila have marketed their product to be served “ice-cold chilled” when used as a shot. Chilling any alcohol can be used to reduce the smell or flavors associated with a lower-quality product. Any alcoholic product, when served as a chilled shot, may be more palatable to the consumer.
Many of the higher-quality, 100% agave tequilas do not impart significant alcohol burn, and drinking them with salt and lime is likely to remove much of the flavor. These tequilas are usually sipped from a snifter glass rather than a shot glass, and savoured instead of quickly gulped. Doing so allows the taster to detect subtler fragrances and flavors that would otherwise be missed.
When served neat (without any additional ingredients), tequila is most often served in a narrow shot glass called a caballito (little horse, in Spanish), but can often be found in anything from a snifter to a tumbler.
The Consejo Regulador del Tequila approved an “official tequila glass” in 2002 called the Ouverture Tequila glass, made by Riedel.
The margarita glass, frequently rimmed with salt or sugar, is a staple for the entire genre of tequila-based mixed drinks, including the margarita.
A variety of cocktails are made with tequila, including the margarita, a cocktail that helped make tequila popular in the United States. The traditional margarita uses tequila, Cointreau, and lime juice, though many variations exist. A popular cocktail in Mexico is the Paloma. Also, a number of martini variants involve tequila, and a large number of tequila drinks are made by adding fruit juice. These include the Tequila Sunrise and the Matador. Sodas and other carbonated drinks are a common mixer, as in the Tequila Slammer.