Tequila - In search of the Blue Agave
by Ian Chadwick
Tequila has an undeservedly bad reputation that comes from a lot of young people having really bad first experiences with cheap (mixto) tequila and the subsequent hangover that everyone wished they would rather be dead than suffer further. Remember kneeling in the bathroom making homage to the ceramic god? Or lying on the lawn desperately holding onto the grass to avoid falling upwards into space? Been there, done that, bought the T-shirt. And the hat, the sandals, the shades.
Okay, before I go any further, let me stick a caveat in here. I'm not a purveyor of hard liquor. I don't like most of it, I detest most mixed drinks (especially those syrupy concoctions made with soft drinks... ugh!) and as a rule we don't even have hard liquor in the house, unless a guest brings it for his or her own use. In case anyone gets the wrong idea, I don't espouse serious drinking or quaffing bottles of tequila. Use your common sense and show restraint. 'Nuff said.
Tequila is not made from the typical grains or fruits most alcoholic beverages are made from. It is distilled from the roasted centre (piña) of the blue agave (maguey) plant - the agave tequilana weber azul - one of 136 species of agave that grow in Mexico (with 26 sub-species, 29 varieties and 7 types). It has a lifespan of 8-14 years, depending on soil, climate and cultivation methods. The blue agave was classified by German botanist F. Weber in 1905. It's commonly - and mistakenly - called a cactus, but it is really a succulent that belongs to the lily (amaryllis) family. It is sometimes known as cabuya, maguey mezcal, mexic, pita and teometl. The agave used in mezcal, although similar, is harvested younger than the tequila agave.
As North America's first distilled drink, and its first commercially-produced alcohol, tequila's history is long and rich. Its roots reach back into pre-Hispanic times when the natives fermented sap from the local maguey plants into a drink called pulque. The history of tequila's development from the traditional beverage to the modern spirit parallel's the often turbulent, chaotic growth of Mexico herself - and is equally obscure to outsiders.
Mezcal wine, tequila's grandparent was first produced only a few decades after the Conquest that brought the Spaniards to the New World in 1521. It was variously called mezcal brandy, agave wine, mezcal tequila and finally simply tequila - appropriately named after Tequila, a small town in a valley in Jalisco state, Mexico.
The word tequila itself is a mystery. It is said to be an ancient Nahuatl term. The Nahuatl were the original people who lived in the area. The word means means (depending on the authority) "the place of harvesting plants," "the place of wild herbs," "place where they cut," "the place of work" or even "the place of tricks." According to Jose Maria Muria, tequila comes form the Nahuatl words tequitl (work, duty, job or task) and tlan (place). Other sources say it means "the rock that cuts." Tequila Cascahuin says the word is a corruption of "tetilla" because the volcano looked like a small woman's breast. Other sources say it is a corruption of the name of the natives - Ticuilas or Tiquilos. All of them are suitable. It is the name of the spirit, the name of the town and the name of the valley.
The "father of tequila" Don Pedro Sanches de Tagle, Marquis of Altamira, established the very first tequila factory in his Hacienda Cuisillos, in 1600, cultivating the local agave for distillation (some sources indicate he was much later, in 1695 or even 1753 and as late as 1755, but this is incorrect - he arrived in Jalisco in 1600, and the early taxation of mezcal wines prove production began very early). In 1608, the governor of New Galicia imposed the first taxes on mezcal wine. By 1621, "wines of mezcal" were being regularly supplied to nearby Guadalajara and the first references to an "abundant" mezcal harvest appeared in local records.
Official designations: The four types of tequila
Blanco or plata (white or silver) is Tipo (type) 1: the most common type. It's considered 'unaged' and is under 60 days old, and may be bottled fresh from distillation. Sometimes this is a harsh, young (joven) drink, but it can also be tastier and more robust than highly refined varieties, if it's marked "100 per cent agave" (see below). Some distillers may 'rest' blanco tequilas in oak barrels for more smoothness - the maximum allowable period is 30 days.
Joven abocado (young and smoothed, also called gold - oro) is Tipo 2: basically the same as blanco, but with colouring and flavouring ingredients added to make it look aged. These are also called suave or oro (gold) because of its colouring (usually through added caramel and sometimes oak essence, up to 1% total weight). In the industry they're known as mixto, or mixed blends. Generally they're not as good as 100% agave, but they are also very popular for export sales. Note that Herradura calls its 100% agave reposado tequila "gold," but it is not to be confused with a gold mixto.
Reposado (means rested) is Tipo 3: This is aged from two months to up to a year in oak casks or barrels. This is where the better tequilas start and the tastes become richer and more complex. The longer the aging, the darker the colour and the more the wood affects the flavour. Reposado accounts for more than 60% of all tequila sales in Mexico. It was the first type of aged tequila.
Añejo (aged, or vintage) is Tipo 4: aged in government-sealed barrels of no more than 350 liters, for a minimum of a year. They may be aged longer - as long as eight to ten years, although many authorities say tequila is at its best at four or five years. It is usually removed from the barrels and racked into stainless steel tanks after four years because evaporation in the barrels reaches 50% or more). Many of the añejos become quite dark and the influence of the wood is more pronounced than in the reposado variety. After three or more years, these añejos may be called "muy añejo" or "tres añejos" by the manufacturers - a term not recognized officially.
Reserva de casa although not an officially recognized "tipo," usually means premium, and may be a limited production variety. Most are also añejo. Other unofficial categories include gran reposado - which should mean it was aged longer than the minimum - and blanco suave. These are attempts by manufacturers to identify their product as unique within the rigid government guidelines for labelling. Both should also be identified as 100 per cent agave.
All images and text above are courtesy of Ian Chadwick.