August 20, 2019

Don’t Eat the Worm

In honor of Cinco de Mayo and all other great things Mexican, this month I’m going to talk about that exotic spirit from south of the border – tequila.

Agave

Tequila is the end product of fermenting and distilling the agave plant. All distillates produced from agave are actually known as mezcals (which is a whole other topic for future discussion), of which tequila is a special class. It’s like making the distinction between brandy and cognac. For a mezcal to qualify as tequila, it must come from a defined geographic area, which is mostly in the Mexican state of Jalisco, but also includes small regions of Guanajuato, Nayarit, Michoacán, and Tamaulipas.

Tequila must also use only the blue Weber agave, where as other mezcals can use different varieties. There are two major centers for tequila production. The first is the towns west of Guadalajara, which center around the small town of Tequila where the beverage gets its name, as well as the towns of El Arenal and Amatitán. The other is east of Guadalajara in the highlands of Jalisco, primarily around the towns of Arandas, Atotonilco, and Tepetitlán. The towns of Tesistán, and Capilla de Guadalupe in Jalisco, and Corralejo in the state of Guanajuato also are involved in production.

Harvesting

Tequila begins in the fields, when the jimadors harvest the mature agave plants somewhere between 8 to 12 years after planting. They chop the leaves from the plant using a sharp spade-like tool called a coa, and then collect the large heart of the plant known as a piña (because it looks like a large pineapple). The piñas are taken to the production factory where they are baked or steamed in large ovens known as hornos. This process is necessary as the piñas are very dense and fibrous and require some cooking to break them down and release their juices.

Once cooked, the juices are then extracted from the piñas. Traditionally, this was done in a tahona, which is an open stone pit with a large stone wheel that was dragged by donkeys. Some distilleries still use the traditional method for production, but many producers have switched over to modern hammer mills for their juice extraction. The fresh juice, known as mosto or aguamiel (honey water), is then inoculated with yeast and fermented. The fermented product is then given two or three distillations using old-fashioned pot stills. The end result is the young tequila spirit.

Tequila Classes

There are two basic classes of tequila. The first is 100% agave. The other class is called mixto, which is allowed to contain up to 49% of a sugar source other than agave (usually cane sugar). Tequila is also broken down into several grades depending on how it’s aged and processed. The fresh young distillate is often packaged without further processing, and in both classes of tequila is referred to as silver or blanco. Some mixtos have colorants and flavorings added (usually caramel) and produce what are called golden or oro tequilas. The 100% agave tequilas are often aged in white oak barrels or oak vats called pipones.

Tequila Grades

The first grade of aged tequila is known as reposado (rested). It receives anywhere from 2 to 12 months aging. The second grade is known as añejo (aged), which receives one year or more of aging in casks preferably no larger than 600 liters. The aging allows the tequila to mellow in flavor and darken in color as it interacts with the wood. Some distillers even produce extensive aged tequilas, holding the product in barrel for several years. Although these have no official designation beyond añejo, many are often called reserva tequilas.

As for enjoying tequila, the tourists will typically clamor for shots of mixto with salt and lime, or a large frozen margarita with salt around the rim. My preferences for enjoying tequila though are 100% agave, either served neat to enjoy the character of the spirit while I slowly sip on it, or using silvers in a traditional margarita that is on the rocks, no salt, with fresh lime juice and a splash of Grand Marnier.

Enjoy it whatever way you prefer though, as tequila is a classic spirit that reflects the essence of old Mexican heritage. As always, just remember to enjoy responsibly.

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