Mexico’s most popular spirit has a long history.
When Spaniards invaded indigenous lands in the 16th century, what is today Mexico, Aztecs were already drinking pulque ( a mildy alcohlic beverage which was consumed sicne pre-Columbian times).
When Spaniards run out of brandy they began distilling pulque. By 1608 the conquistadors had refined the distillation of pulque, and the Cuervo family was granted royal ascent to open a distillery. Sauza, another distiller, was the first to export tequila.
Since then, tequila production has been refined, regulated, and marketed by several distillers.
Tequila must be produced mainly from (51 per cent) blue agave (Tequilana Weber blue) grown in Jalisco, Guanajuato, Michoacan, Nayarit, and Tamalipas according to the law of 1974.
For a distillate to be called tequila, it must contain a minimum of 51 per cent blue agave based distillate, the remainder may be from other sources such as sugar cane, and others.
Tequila contains 100 different components.
Blue agave grows slowly, and matures in seven or more years.
After harvesting, the heart (pina) is cut up and cooked
(either in special ovens at low temperature for at least eight hours, or in autoclaves (much faster), or using enzymes and chemicals for 36 – 48 hours to convert starches to sugar.
Adding natural or cultivated yeasts to start the fermentation follows this.
Fermentation can be initiated in wooden casks, concrete tanks, stainless steel vessels, or ceramic lined containers. When the liquid reaches 4 – 7 per cent ABV it is distilled in alembic – or continues stills to a strength of 40 – 60 ABV.
Following distillation tequila may be bottled as blanco (un-aged), or reposado (4 to 6 months of aging in American oak barrels, or 18 months or longer, to be marketed as anejo. Some distilleries make and market much older tequilas. Jose Cuervo, the oldest of all tequila distillers, markets very old tequilas. There are approximately 100 distilleries. Some fot eh most famous are – casamigos, Patron, Cabo Wabo, Herradura, Hornitos, Olmeca, and Maes de Dobal Tequila.
Blanco tequila taste of anis, raspberries, with cinnamon, and white pepper undertones, finishing with citrusy flavours. Reposados, aged 6 months display vanilla aromas along with caramel, and cooked agave (herbal) notes.
Anjeos, aged 18 months emanate vanilla and orange peel aromas. They taste refined, with a smooth mouth feel and long aftertaste.
Mexicans enjoy tequila at room temperature and straight, although bartender Mexican bartenders happily mix tequila-based cocktails for tourists.
Mezcal, another agave distillate, is produced five species of agave including espadin, and from much wider geographic area – Guanajuato, Michioacan, Tamalipas, Durango, Guerrero, Oaxaca, Puebla, San Luis Potosi, and Zacatecas.
After harvesting, the agave hearts are slow-cooked in sealed pit-ovens with a smothered wood fire to impart a smoked flavour to the end product.
After fermentation, the liquid is distilled either in alembic style or columnar stills.
There are three categories of mescal – blanco (un-aged), reposado (12 months of aging), and anejo (more than one year of aging.
Old agaves ( 15, 20, 25 years) yield more intense mezcals. Mezcals have a sharper taste with distinct smoky smells and invigorating flavours.
Beyond tequila, and mezcal there is Bocanora produced from agave Pacifico in the state Sonora, north west of Mexico city.
Pulque is fermented agave juice contianign three to foru per cent alcohol.
Sotol, another agave-based beverage is produced in Chihuahua, Durango, and Coahuila with its own state regulations using the same techniques as tequila.