Tequila! All about Mexico's most iconic drink
- What defines a tequila, how is it made and how do I drink it properly?
Tequila is probably the first thing that comes to people’s mind when they hear Mexico. This alcoholic beverage made from fermented agave syrup is the most famous Mexican drink. Could you imagine a Mexican party without tequila or mezcal? Probably not. Speaking of which: What is the difference between tequila and mezcal? And how are they made? To explore those questions, we visited the place where it all began: The little village of Tequila in Jalisco.
The origins of tequila
Even in pre-Columbian times, agave juice was fermented and consumed as pulque, which is still popular in modern-day Mexico and often referred to as the “drink of the gods”. But only the Spanish introduced the process of distillation. Spanish settlers were used to drinking wine, sherry and brandy but the year-round hot climate in Jalisco was unfavourable for grapes. Therefore, apparently, they used what was growing locally to make their spirits: blue agave.
In 1795, Jose María Guadalupe de Cuervo was issued a permit by the King of Spain to produce tequila commercially. The family business turned into one of the most renowned tequila brands Jose Cuervo. The headquarters of the brand are still in the old tavern building where the first tequila was commercially produced and can be visited today. Over time, more and more tequila factories opened up in the village of Tequila and neighbouring villages. Other large renowned brands are Don Julio and Herradura, but there are many more.
The differences between tequila and mezcal
At first, the beverage was called Vino Mezcal de Tequila. Here you see the words tequila and mezcal right next to each other. So what is the difference? First of all, real tequila can only be made with the blue agave native to the region around Tequila, Jalisco. Mezcal, on the other hand, can be made from any type of agave, or even a mixture of several types. Therefore, every tequila is a mezcal, but not all that is mezcal is tequila. Secondly, since the 1990s, “Tequila” is also a protected designation of origin. Alcoholic beverages called “Tequila” must come from the village of Tequila or certain adjacent regions. Mezcal, on the other hand, is produced in many parts of Mexico, most famously in Oaxaca.
Tequila and mezcal also differ in taste. While (good) tequila is mostly smooth and does not have a strong agave flavour, mezcal can taste strongly of agave, be smoky or even fruity. As a laywoman in this field, I would say that mezcales can have a larger variety of flavours, since the production is not reglemented.
How tequila is made
So we know that tequila is made from the beautiful blue agaves that grow all around the quaint little village. But what are the next steps? My husband and I visited the Herradura factory for a tequila tour, but there are many different tours and options. At La Herradura, they have beautiful gated compounds and the old factory which is no longer used due to technology updates is part of the tour. Therefore, we were happy with our choice. Also, we had the very friendly guide all to ourselves as we were the only ones on the Spanish tour. Jose Cuervo offers a whole day-tour starting in Guadalajara and including lots of free tastings and even food, but it only run on Saturdays. During the week, they run normal tours of the factory.
On our tour, we were shown how the leaves are cut off from the agave pine, which is a lot bigger than I had expected and obviously very heavy. An agave takes between 5 and 10 years to be ready for harvest. The pines are then parted to extract the bitter centre. After compiling the harvest, the cut pines are shoved into large ovens and slow-cooked for several hours until soft. Then, they are milled to extract a sugary syrup. This agave syrup thereafter is fermented and then distilled.
We were explained that the surroundings during the fermentation process influence the flavour of the tequila and can speed up the fermentation. Therefore, La Herradura grow citrus trees close to the fermentation basins.
Plata, reposado, añejo or extra añejo - what's the difference?
The real distinction in taste, however, comes from the way the tequila is treated after distilling. Tequila silver – or plata– is the result you get right away after the second distillation process. Filtered water may be added to adjust the alcohol content and other properties of the tequila. The modern distilleries use precise measurement processes to ensure a consistent level of quality. For the other, more expensive types, the tequila is transferred to wooden barrels. Tequila reposado stays in the barrel for 2 months until bottled. To deserve the name “añejo”, the tequila has to stay in the barrel for at least 12 months, and at least 3 years for “extra añejo”. This also explains the differences in colour and flavour: the longer the spirit stays in the barrel, the more it takes on colour and flavour from the wood.
How to drink tequila properly
Last but not least, how do you drink tequila properly? The salt and lime procedure which is the standard way to drink tequila in Europe is also popular in Mexico. But it is only apt for the crystal clear tequila plata. The barrel aged types are softer and sometimes even smoky in taste. Lime juice would kill this taste. Our tour guide recommended to just enjoy the aged tequilas on their own. She served us our tastings in Champagne glasses. Tequila is not just a party shot – at least if it is a good brand – but can be enjoyed just like a good whiskey or gin. But if the pure taste is too strong for you, preparing a margarita is an excellent option.