Although tequila does not come from Baja California, it is an integral part of our local culture. Tourists have been coming here for generations in search of it, so much so that a spring-breaker bar in Rosarito Beach once called itself (fancifully) The Tequila Museum. With the turn of this century, Tijuana has been setting aside a week in October to host an annual Expo Tequila. Similar festivals crop up frequently throughout the peninsula. And so a few words about this quintessentially Mexican spirit are in order.
Surely no other liquor is more misunderstood. Nor is there another that offers as varied or as rewarding a spectrum of flavors, everything from raw vegetal spirit to refinement rivalling cognac. Those who know tequila only from frat parties or chain restaurants will be surprised to discover that Don Julio blanco tastes exactly like raspberry eau-de-vie, that Gran Centenario añejo is reminiscent of a twenty-year-old Demerara rum, or that the flavors of Don Abraham and Herradura Antiguo surpass the descriptive power of words. To appreciate this spectrum, one first must get beyond the misunderstandings.
Tequila does not get you any more drunk than other liquors. Drunkenness is the result of the amount of alcohol entering the bloodstream in any given period, not the type of liquor involved. Ice in a drink, let’s say a frozen margarita, allows the alcohol to pass through the mouth almost unnoticed. Sweetened drinks allow alcohol to pass into the bloodstream more quickly than straight liquor.
No, tequila is not hallucinogenic. The confusion was created by gringos who didn’t understand that the peyote cactus’s nickname, el mezcalero, refers to its habit of growing near mescal plants. (In Spanish, agave, maguey, and mezcal all refer to various forms of the century plant.) No, tequila does not come from a cactus that grows near the town of Tequila. It is not moonshine. There is no worm in its bottle.
Unlike scotch whisky, which needs cooler seasons to be at its best, or rum, which makes tropical heat bearable, tequila is an all-weather friend. In the words of the poet Armando Fuentes Aguirre, Te calienta en invierno; en verano te exalta; / Y en todo tiempo ofrece consuelo y esperanza. (“It warms you in the winter, lifts your spirits in the summer, and at all times offers consolation and hope.”)
Tequila is made from one particular kind of century plant (the Agave tequilensis [Weber 1902] cultivar azul) harvested from the entire state of Jalisco as well as from parts of Guanajuato, Michoacán, Nayarit, and even Tamaulipas. As a commodity, it is strictly regulated in scientifically precise language by a trade association that controls the materials it is made from, the method of manufacture, and the ways in which it is marketed. Within the last decade, the tequila industry has become decidedly sophisticated.
Distilled spirits are made from more than twenty species of Agave throughout Mexico. Here in Baja California, for example, the local mescal has been distilled from A. deserti. These liquors might take their names from the area in which they are made (tonaya, bacanora, huitzila, chichihualco, minero), from their particular species (raicilla, lechuguilla, espadín, sahuayo), or else they’re given the general name, mezcal. The particular mescal of Tequila achieved its distinction the same way that the brandy from Cognac did.
Agave deserti, the source of Baja California’s mescal. Photo courtesy of The Desert Northwest.Occasionally someone learning Spanish asks why the word tequila is masculine only to be unhappy with the usual answer, Pues, ¡así es! We can settle that question now. The full name of the liquor is el aguardiente (or vino) de mezcal de Tequila, that is to say, the firewater made from Tequila’s maguey.
It’s believed that mescal was first distilled around the middle of the sixteenth century; Santiago Matatlán, Oaxaca, claims to be its birthplace. Two centuries later, José Antonio Cuervo received a license in 1758 to serve his own mescal to the customers of his tavern in the Hacienda de la Cofradía de las Ánimas near Santiago de Tequila, Jalisco. The first license to produce this mescal commercially has been credited to both of his sons, either to his younger son, José Prudencio Cuervo, in 1770 or to José María Guadalupe Cuervo, the elder son, in 1795. In any event, the Cuervos soon had three million agaves to their credit and their mescal was so highly regarded that it was being referred to by the town’s name as far away as Aguascalientes, Zacatecas, and San Luis Potosí.
The mescals of Mexico spent most of the colonial period in the underground economy because Spain expected its colonies to consume Spanish, not local, products. Mexican olive oil, wine, and mescal were either taxed beyond endurance or else outlawed altogether. The product of the Cuervo family must indeed have been exceptional to have prospered in such adversity.
With the advent of Mexican political independence in 1821, tequila was legitimated and began to improve both in quality and in distribution. Vicente Orendain planted his maguey fields in 1840 and opened his distillery in 1879. Herradura began distilling in 1870, then Sauza (which was the first to export to the U.S.) in 1873, and San Matías in 1886. By 1899, there were thirty-nine distilleries of tequila, eighteen of which were located in the town itself. The industry grew even more quickly during the twentieth century: by 2007 there were one hundred thirty-five distilleries marketing more than seven hundred brands. Today annual production fluctuates around three hundred million liters, a little more than half of which is exported.
Toward the latter half of the twentieth century, the tequila industry had become so large that both federal and local regulations were needed to define how it is to be made, where it is to be made, and what may go into it. The geographical boundaries of the tequila-producing regions were formally established in 1974; detailed quality standards known as the Norma Oficial Mexicana del Tequila were first promulgated in 1994 by the federal government and then, in 1997, enforced by the Consejo Regulador del Tequila. These regulations have been evolving ever since and in an ISO9000 manner.
Currently, the NOM defines two categories and five classes of tequila by law. The categories are determined by what the tequila is made from and the classes describe its age.
The lesser category, “tequila”, must be made from a minimum of fifty-one percent A. tequilensis azul sugars; the rest of the sugars are usually from sugarcane although they may be from other sources. This category, commonly used in mixed drinks, is also referred to officially as tequila mixto (mixed) and colloquially as de batalla (workhorse). The better category, “tequila 100% de agave”, is meant to be savored and must be made exclusively from A. tequilensis azul.
There are now five classes that describe the age of the tequila. (There used to be only four.) The first is “blanco”, white, sometimes called silver, which is unaged. The second may be called “joven” or “oro”, often adding “abocado” (mild, smooth): this is white tequila to which has been added as much caramel coloring, natural oak extract, glycerine, and sugar syrup as the distillery sees fit. The third class is “reposado” (laid down), which is aged for a minimum of two months in oak. The fourth is “añejo” (aged), which is aged for a minimum of one year in oak. The fifth, “extra añejo”, is aged for a minimum of three years in oak. As is also the practice with grape brandies the world over, all the aged classes may be dosed with the abocado additives.
The tequilas mixtos are usually marketed in blanco, oro, and reposado while the tequilas 100% de agave are available in blanco, reposado, añejo, and extra añejo.
When the Spaniards arrived in Mexico, they brought with them the knowledge of distillation that they learned from the Arabs. They encountered a native population that was already making an alcoholic beverage out of the maguey, pulque, by a process that was nondestructive albeit very labor-intensive and fairly unhygienic – workers would go daily into the agave fields, insert hollow tubes into the hearts of the plants, and suck out the sap, collecting it so that it might ferment into something similar to mead or wine.
The Spaniards applied their technology to the maguey. They left the plant to mature, at which point it was stripped of its leaves and ripped from the ground. The entire heart of the plant, where most of the fermentable sugars are found, was used to make something similar to the Spanish orujo (pomace brandy) albeit at the expense of the life of the plant.
Now that pulque, a renewable resource, has been lost to history, Mexico has begun to notice that the maguey is polycyclical. It is harvested for distillation about every ten years. Even so, the annual harvests ebb and flow between scarcity and abundance throughout a period of seven years or so. This difference can cause stress within the industry. According to Sir Robert Bruce Lockhart, the same dynamic holds true for pure-malt whisky in Scotland.
During the Expo Tequila of 2006, several distillers admitted that piñas (the fermentable hearts of the maguey) were costing them less than sugarcane, a claim that was borne out because even the tequilas mixtos then and of subsequent years tasted of pure agave. A few years earlier, when agave was very expensive, those same distillers had said that the NOM allows the use of cottonseed in the mixto mash albeit they themselves would never stoop so low.
In the old days it used to be that aguardiente de mezcal was made from mescal and aguardiente de caña was made from the more neutral-flavored sugarcane. Distillers had experimented with mixtures of the two perhaps as early as the 1930s but the distinction changed definitively in 1970. Gringos were consuming an unprecedented amount of tequila … the mescal crop found itself in one of its shortages … and yet there was plenty of sugarcane. What to do? The president of Mexico, a tequila aficionado himself, issued a decree raising the amount of cane sugars in tequila mixto from thirty percent to forty-nine percent – and by so doing saved the strawberry margarita from an early demise.
In recent years this same creativity has been applied by the distillers themselves in developing even cheaper liquors. Trading on the name of the superior category of tequila and despite that the mashes involved have only a most passing acquaintance with the maguey, these distillers are now marketing underproof products called licor de agave, destilado de agave, even elixir de agave. People who buy these products tend to serve them at parties mixed with citrus-flavored soft drinks. Sipping them straight can be a disappointing experience.
On the other end of the quality spectrum are the tequilas identified as artesanal. This term does not have a specific meaning under the law; it is a term of art for tequilas that have been made by the traditional, more labor-intensive methods. The piñas would be baked in masonry ovens rather than steamed in huge pressure-cookers and they might be crushed with a millstone rather than triturated by steel blades. Fermentation is performed in small batches. Distillation would be in an alembic rather than in a Coffey still. Aging would be done in small barrels. The quality of “artesanal” tequilas varies somewhat but tends to be quite high, as are their prices.
Restaurants in Mexico are loathe to serve straight tequila without some sort of fanfare. Most commonly you will receive sliced limes and a salt shaker or else a chaser of sangrita (something like Bloody Mary mix) or mineral water. They are also prone to serve white tequila en bandera, in which case it will show up in a caballito accompanied by two other caballitos, one of lime juice and the other of sangrita – the idea is that you down one caballito after another in the sequence of the colors of the Mexican flag.
The Academia Mexicana del Tequila points out that the drinking of tequila in conjunction with salt and lime was popularized in the early days, when distillation was closer to alchemy than technology. In those days many tequilas suffered from off-flavors and undesirable congeners. “To make such tequilas more palatable,” says the Academia, “a pinch of salt in the mouth increased salivation and softened the intensity of the liquor. Sucking on a lime just as the liquor was being swallowed lessened the burning sensation in the throat.” In other words, this is not a good thing to do with sipping tequilas.
According to the Academia, the same holds true for sangrita, the invention of which is credited to the wife (later the widow) of Edmundo Sánchez, a restaurateur in Chapala, Jalisco. “Don Mundo, as he was called, served a tequila that he produced using a small stone oven. Being that his tequila was homemade, it was strong and had a harsh bouquet, so Mrs Sánchez used to serve sliced oranges, salt, and powdered chile to mask its defects. These additions were received so well that the visionary Mr Sánchez asked his wife to prepare those same ingredients as a juice.”
Proper tequila really does need to be sipped straight in order to appreciate its subtle flavors. A few mixtos qualify for this consideration as do all of the 100% de agave tequilas. A first-rate white tequila makes a pleasant aperitif and a good añejo or fine reposado can serve as dessert. In some quarters, and nowadays less so than formerly, men will drink tequila throughout the meal; there is a danger in this practice, however, in that hard liquor increases the piquancy of chiles considerably.
Tequila is traditionally served in caballitos, straight-sided shot glasses that hold about fifty milliliters. These are available both as handmade glassware from Tlaquepaque, Jalisco, and in elegant, modern forms. Many aficionados feel that fifty milliliters is a bit too limiting and prefer what the Scots call a whisky glass (known in the United States, for some reason, as a juice glass). The finer restaurants tend to serve their sipping tequilas in coñaqueros, that is, snifters. And Vicente Fernández has been known to drink directly from the bottle during his performances. Whatever works for you.