Made in Mexico

By Hope S. Philbrick

Legend has it that tequila was created when the goddess of agave rode down to earth on a bolt of lightning.

The myth has ties to reality: “What really happened is that a lightening bolt hit an agave plant,” says Anamaria Ceseña, sales manager for Casa Dragones. “That was how people discovered that agave could be cooked and that the juice that came out of it was sweet.”

So Mexicans started cooking agave on purpose and fermenting the juice. Years later when the Spanish invaded Mexico “they brought disease and death,” says Rene Valdez, senior brand manager for Tequila Cazadores, “but they also brought distillation and so we forgive them.” It’s when Spaniards distilled the Mexican’s fermented blue agave juice that tequila was born.

Tequila was first produced commercially in 1795 and many current producers use techniques that have been passed down for generations.

agave fieldTequila is made of blue agave, one of 136 species of agave that grow in Mexico. The plants, which look like cactus but are actually members of the lily family, take up to ten years to mature. Harvesting is done by jimadors using a coa, a razor-sharp disc at the end of a long stick. The entire plant is pried from the ground then the tough, fibrous, thorn-edged leaves are cut away to expose the central piña that weighs between 80 and 200 pounds. A jimador harvests an average of 100 piñas per day, loading them onto donkeys or trucks for transport to the distillery where they are cut in half or quarters (depending on size) and the bitter core is discarded.

“We then put them in old-fashioned brick ovens,” says Javier Orendain Lopez, a fifth-generation tequila producer. “They cook at 200 degrees Fahrenheit for 33 hours. The agave cools for 12 hours then is crushed to extract juice that is then filtered.” To jumpstart fermentation, that lasts 48 to 72 hours, “We use our own yeast, nothing artificial,” he says. The fermented juice is distilled and, as with cognac, the bitter first and last liquids (or heads and tails) are discarded. Tequila is distilled at least twice and, depending on the style desired, is either bottled immediately or aged in wood.

pinas at distilleryMany tequila producers employ the same basic techniques. The Tequila Regulatory Council sets certain requirements and has a representative on site at all tequila distilleries to verify that the guidelines are met, but there is some room for modification. For example, Herradura doesn’t add yeast to speed up the fermentation process of its tequilas. Gran Centenario selects blue agave plants that are 10 to 12 years old. Don Valente harvests blue agave after a couple of rains so plants are moist but not bloated. Other factors that vary by producer and can influence a tequila’s taste include the type of soil where the plant grew; the cooking method; the size, volume and shape of stills used; characteristics of water added; types of barrels used and so on.

How To Taste Tequila

“To get to the richness and sophistication of tequila, I suggest a snifter glass,” says Valdemar Cantu, brand business manager for Tequila Herradura. Pour the tequila into the glass and then “treat it like you would treat wine: swirl it, let it breathe, sip it.”

“Use all of your senses,” says Ceseña, a certified tequila expert. “Check for color and clarity, how it shimmers and sparkles in the glass.” Tequila shouldn’t appear cloudy and should form legs or teardrops on the glass. Hold the glass away from your nose a bit further than you would with wine and sniff its contents with your mouth open to minimize burn. You should detect agave aromas, which are green and herbaceous. If sampling an aged tequila, you may also pick up some smoke or oak notes. Other common aromas include toasted almonds, cinnamon, cloves, vanilla, butterscotch, red apples, chocolate and pepper. The mouthfeel is normally viscous. The finish should be warm and soothing, not bitter. “Never judge by the first sip,” says Ceseña. “It can be a bit of a shock. With the second sip, you can judge.”

“Tequila has been misunderstood for some time,” says Cantu. “People have a perception that it’s a rough drink. It is as noble as other fine spirits.”

Tequila Labels Decoded

As determined by the Tequila Regulatory Council, only spirit made in five states in Mexico qualifies as tequila: Guanajuato, Jalisco, Michohacán, Nayarit and Tamaulipas.

Tequila must be made of blue agave. Mezcal is not tequila; it is also made of agave, but can be made of any one or blend of five types of agave. Mezcal is sometimes bottled with a larvae or scorpion, a gimmick often mistakenly associated with tequila.

There are two types of tequila: 100 percent blue agave and mixto. Mixto is made from 51 percent blue agave sugars and 49 percent less expensive sugars such as sugar cane. These two types are then divided into five categories:

• Tequila bottled immediately after distillation is a clear spirit referred to as Silver, Blanco or Plata. “It is the purest expression of the agave,” says Lopez.

Gold or Oro has colors and flavors, such as caramel or oak tree extracts, added prior to bottling.

Reposado has matured or rested at least two months in barrels.

Añejo or aged tequila has spent at least 12 months in wood containers (typically used bourbon barrels) no larger than 600 liters.

Extra Añejo is a new classification recently created to distinguish tequila that has been aged in wood at least three years.

Which type is best? They’re equal in quality, insists Lopez. The difference is how the agave is expressed, so determining which tequila to drink is ultimately a matter of personal preference and your mood.

Price is very often a reflection of quality, “but not in every case,” says Bill Peryer, international sales and marketing director of Tequilera la Candelaria that produces Don Valente Tequila. “Generally, the higher the price the better the quality. But one distiller may have ten brands, which can be like comparing apples to apples.” Each producer is assigned a numerical code that will appear on all its labels no matter the brand name.

tequila barrels

-Photos Courtesy Brown-Forman

Research was conducted while on assignment for Wine Report magazine, where the article was first published. Featured products, services and/or travel arrangements may have been complimentary in part or in full; this affords the research opportunity but does not sway opinion.

HopeP_144Hope S. Philbrick is founder and editor-in-chief of Getaways for Grownups. She became a freelance writer and editor because she believes that work and fun should not be mutually exclusive. Her work has appeared in dozens of publications nationwide. When not writing, she can usually be found on the road or savoring something tasty.

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