The Aztecs coaxed liquor out of agave at least 2,000 years ago. Over time, the liquor produced from the agave plant was refined. When Spanish explorers settled in Mexico in the 16th century, they soon consumed their entire store of brandy. Enterprising, but perhaps just thirsty, fearing the Mexican water, or in need of kicks, the Spanish introduced distillation to the fermented native juice, and renamed the local brew after the people they met, the Ticuilas Indians.
Authentic tequila remains made from agave, specifically blue agave. Its region of origin is so well defined it is equivalent to a wine’s appellation of origin. Genuine tequila is almost all made in the Mexican state of Jalisco.
Tequila vs Mezcal
Both tequila and mezcal are both spirits made from agave. Mezcal, produced principally in Oaxaca, comes primarily from maguey, a form of agave, but can be made from a variety of agave types. Tequila, on the other hand, must be made with blue agave, per detailed Mexican federal regulations protecting the entire supply chain of tequila.
Agave destined for tequila grows for at least ten years. When the agave is suitably mature, workers strip the plant, cut the strips of flesh into squares, and cook them in steam ovens, thereby converting plant starch into natural sugars. The clear, sweet juice that emanates forms the base of tequila.
Mezcal is made in much the same way, save for baking the plant in underground ovens heated by wood charcoal, rather than in steam cookers. The charcoal baking imbues mezcal with its smoky flavor.
In both cases, the juice is extracted, fermented and finally distilled.
Pure Tequila, 100% Agave
Following distillation, the liquor is approximately 55% alcohol by volume. Tequila devotees prefer their liquor pure: 100% agave juice. Lesser tequilas known as mixtos are diluted as much as 50%. When a bottle hits the market, its label will definitely note whether the tequila is 100% pure, as purity is a point of pride for the maker and fodder for the marketing department. Pure tequilas derive solely from agave sugars, but mixtos may contain cane and other sugars.
Mixtos or Marketing?
Although connoisseurs insist upon 100% agave tequila, and snub the mixtos, purity and quality are not synonymous. Pure tequila can be bad, and a mixto can be an excellent drink, or be perfectly fine as a mixer. Mixtos, in fact, outsell pure tequilas, although this is likely an indication of better marketing engines backing higher production runs than a true test of quality. Joe Cuervo Gold, for example, is a staple at US bars and restaurants, but is not highly esteemed by experts.
Tequila Peaks Without Aging
The pure spirit is clear, despite the color you see in some bottlings. Virtually all the yellow tones come from some added caramel, although, if the spirit is aged in oak barrels, the wood infuses a slight tint, as well as adding a subtle flavor. Often, tequila makers recycle American Oak barrels that previously held bourbon or sherry, each of which will add a particular note on to the palette and nose of the liquor.
However, unlike bourbon, brandy or wine, mezcal and tequila only receive prolonged aging. Aging does not necessarily produce higher quality tequila. Tequila is almost invariably at its peak soon after its production and is therefore usually bottled within three months. It evolves no further.
The Truth About the Tequila Worm
Oh, and the worm? You won’t find one in a bottle of tequila marketed with an ounce of credibility. If anywhere, the worm belongs in a bottle of mezcal, not tequila, and what you find in some mezcals are not worms, but moth or butterfly larvae. Not only are they safe to eat, they represent no special macho rite of passage, either: you can buy them in Mexican markets, canned. Kids like them fried, and the gross-out group goes for them inside “tequila worm” lollipops. Plunging one into a bottle of mezcal began as a slightly twisted, perhaps cynical marketing gimmick in the middle of the mid twentieth century.