Tequila and mezcal are both liquors made from the fruit of the agave plant. Tequila, a particular type of mescal, is made specifically from the blue agave and can only be distilled in certain geographic areas, particularly the Mexican state of Jalisco.
Alternately, mezcal is produced all over Mexico and is made from the fruit of other species of agave.
History of Tequila
Tequila dates back about two thousand years when Indian tribes in central Mexico discovered that, if the juice of the agave plant was exposed to air, it would ferment and produce a thick, slightly alcoholic drink. The Aztecs called the fermented agave juice “octilli poliqhui.” The Spanish later called it “pulque.”
Due to its relatively low alcohol content and unsophisticated flavor, pulque wasn”t very popular among the Spanish conquistadors in the early 16th century. Early attempts to distill the pulque failed, resulting only in a harsh and bitter liquor. However, they eventually discovered that heating the agave pulp would result in a sweet juice that they called “Mezcal wine.”
In the mid-1600s, the Mexican village of Tequila began shipping out its local brand of Mezcal, which was made from the blue agave and had a better taste than other forms of Mezcal. The roots of modern-day tequila can be traced back to this village.
In the 1930s, tequila producers began infusing the tequila with additional sugars. This practice contributed to a blander but more widely accepted flavor than the traditional blue agave tequila. This version of tequila became the most widely produced until the late 1980s. Around that time, consumers began requesting higher-end spirits like single-malt Scotch. Tequila producers capitalized on this new market and began promoting 100 percent blue agave tequila. This strong-flavored tequila is widely popular.
Types of Tequila
There are two basic types of tequila: agave and mixto. Agave tequila, the highest quality tequila, is made by distilling agave juice with water. Mixtos have sugar added during the distilling process.
Under these two types, tequilas are usually broken down into four categories:
- aejo (“old”) tequila : Aged in wooden barrels for at least 12 months, aejo tequila can be either 100 percent agave or a mixto, although the type of tequila affects the aging timeline. Agaves can be aged for up to four years, while mixtos should only be aged for 18 months to three years.
- flavored tequila : Less intense than traditional tequila, flavored tequilas are largely popular and frequently bottled in the United States. Gold tequila, one of the most popular flavored tequilas, is a form of silver tequila infused with caramel to enhance the liquor”s color and flavor. It is usually a mixto.
- reposado (“rested”) tequila: Aged in wooden tanks for at least two months, resosado tequila is the most popular tequila in Mexico. While the best brands of reposado tequila are allowed to age for three to nine months, they can be either 100 percent agave or mixto in nature.
- silver tequila: This clear, unaged tequila is used for mixing and blends well into fruit-based cocktails. It can be either 100 percent agave or a mixto.
Popular brands of tequila include Jose Cuervo, Sauza and Patron tequila.
How Tequila is Made
Preparation and distillation of tequila and mezcal is a long, complicated process that proceeds as follows:
- The agave plant grows for eight to ten years.
- When it reaches maturity, it grows a flower stalk, which is cut off by an agave farmer.
- The plant”s growth is redirected into the central stalk, causing it to swell into a large bulb that contains a juicy pulp.
- The agave farmer cuts the plant at the root and removes the leaves, leaving only the bulb (called a pia for its pineapple-like shape).
- At the distillery, the pias are baked in either steam ovens (for tequila) or in underground ovens with wood charcoal (for Mezcal) to convert the starch to sugars.
- After baking is complete, the pias are then crushed and shredded to release their juices.
- The juice is then fermented, bottled and shipped.
Tequila is popular as a standalone shot, but it”s also the base for some common cocktails. Below are a few recipes for tequila drinks.
- 1 1/2 oz. tequila
- 1/2 oz. triple sec
- 1 oz. lime juice
- coarse salt
- lime wedge
- If you”d like, rub the lime wedge around the rim of a cocktail glass and dip the rim in the salt.
- Combine tequila, triple sec and limejuice in a shaker with ice.
- Shake well and strain into the salted glass that is filled with ice.
- Garnish with the lime wedge.
Margaritas can be served on the rocks (pour the tequila and mixers over ice in the salted glass) or frozen (blend the mixed drink with a scoop of ice and pour into a salted glass). Frozen margaritas can also be flavored with fruits such as strawberry and peach. Sugar is often substituted for salt on the rim of the glass in flavored margaritas.
- 1 1/2 oz. tequila
- 4-6 oz. orange juice
- 1/2 oz. grenadine
- Fill a highball glass with ice.
- Add the tequila, then the orange juice.
- Add the grenadine last and allow it to sink to the bottom of the glass, creating the “sunrise” effect. Do not stir.
- Garnish with the cherry.