So here’s the thing about tequila; it’s pretty straightforward right? You make it from the juice of a cactus, it has a worm in it, it gives you a hangover and really it doesn’t taste very nice but that’s ok because you would only ever drink it as a shot anyway, and the wedge of lime washes the taste away…
Ok, maybe that’s an exaggerated version of peoples perception of this spirit, but let’s face it even with good tequila being much more widely available than it was even 5 years ago, it’s not a million miles off the mark of what many consumers think when you mention tequila. It’s a misunderstood spirit with a generally undeservedly bad reputation (although in truth some tequilas may have earned that rep fair and square). So here’s the REAL thing about tequila; it’s a spirit category split in half like no other I can think of, and because of this, good tequila is fantastic, and bad tequila is the worst kind of spirit imaginable.
The reason for tequilas split personality is simple, there are two kinds, governed by a set of rules that is necessarily flexible enough to encompass both types. This flexibility in the rules means there are also two kinds of producers. On one had you have those who want to make and promote lovingly crafted and traditionally made tequila, a spirit that can be complex and elegant, and is deserving of our respect. The other type of producer, unfortunately, wants to make something inexpensive, that only vaguely resembles the agave-based goodness of the other side of the industry.
So below you’ll find 10 things you should know about tequila. Some may seem fairly obvious, while others might be a bit obscure, but hopefully by the end of this blog you will have learnt something new about one of my favourite spirit categories. I know I certainly did in the process of researching it!
Let’s get one of the simple things out of the way early on… agave is not a type of cactus; it’s actually, I’m reliably informed, in the lily family. So there you have it, tequila is not distilled cactus juice after all! I know it’s a spiky plant that grows in the desert, but that doesn’t make agave a cactus! Oh wait… no that’s another common myth, it used to be classified as being in the Lily family, but it isn’t any more!
So now, through testing the plants DNA the agave has found itself moved into the Asparagaceae family, which actually draws it’s name from Asparagus. So next time someone trots out the fact that the agave isn’t a cactus, it is in fact more closely related to a lily, you can tell them that it’s actually a lot closer to an asparagus than a lily!
In fact there are a huge number of varieties of agave (there are generally accepted to be 208 varieties in the world), many of which grow in Mexico, but tequila can only be made from one type, and that’s the tequilana weber, blue variety. Of course things aren’t always as simple as they seem though and as you’ll see below just because you can only use this one variety of agave doesn’t mean that’s the only ingredient allowed, it simply means you can’t use other agave plants or sugars derived from other agaves, and call your product tequila.
The ‘Weber Blue Agave’ is native to Jalisco, Mexico and favours altitudes of more than 1,500 metres. Agave is a type of succulent, and grows spiky, fleshy leaves that can reach in excess of 2 metres. If left to nature they will develop a long flowering stalk, called a ‘quiote’ after about five years, but to make tequila, this stalk is removed to ensure that the heart of the plant grows larger and is rich in starch. It’s these starches that get broken down into sugars, mainly fructose, that form the base ingredient in tequila production.
Right let’s try and make this simple to begin with and describe the ideal production methods used to make a high quality tequila. The Weber Blue Agave, takes between seven and twelve years to grow to maturity, under the careful eye of the jimadores, who tend and harvest the plants. Firstly they cut the stalk, or quiote, that grows from the agave plant to stop it from flowering, and to ensure it puts it’s energy into growing it’s heart and filling it full of natural sugars. The cut stalk is then planted to grow a new agave plant.
Once the agave is mature and ready to harvest, the jimadores will cut away the leaves, minding their spiny tips, with a bladed implement called a coa de jima, or more commonly just a coa, leaving the heart of the plant, which is commonly known as the pina, because it resembles a pineapple. These Pinas, which will generally weigh around 70 kilos (if grown in the lowlands) to 110 kilos (if grown in the highlands) are then roasted or cooked, traditionally in a clay oven although not all producers use the traditional methods. The cooking is very slow and gentle and slowly breaks down the complex starches into simple sugars.
After cooking, and once the sugars are caramelized, the pinas are either crushed, traditionally using a large stone wheel, called a tahona, pulled by a mule or donkey, or shredded to release the juices. The resulting liquid is rich in sugars and can be fermented either using naturally occurring yeast or a commercial one (although at this stage additional sugars may be added in some products). There are two differing methods, one is to just ferment the juice, and the other involves leaving some of the fibers from the leaves in with the juice, which can intensify the flavour and aroma of the finished product.
Once fermented the liquid is ready to be distilled, usually twice (although a few producers do a third distillation), to produce a clear, crisp spirit. Traditionally tequila isn’t distilled to too high of an abv, as a minerally metallic flavour tends to develop that is generally unappealing. The liquid will either be cut with water to the bottling strength if it is to become a blanco, or put into oak or Holm oak casks to age.
Sounds almost too simple to be true? Well that’s because it is…
As I’ve hinted above, although the Blue Weber is the only species of agave allowed to be used in tequila production, it is not by any means the only ingredient allowed. Because of this there are two basic families of tequila; the so-called mixto (thus named because it uses a ‘mixture’ of ingredients), and 100% agave tequilas.
Within the rules governing the production of tequila there are allowances for different production methods for mixto tequilas than for 100% agave tequilas, so here we find our first two classifications.
Any product labeled 100% agave must be made purely from sugars derived from the Weber Blue agave plant. These sugars are extracted by cooking or roasting the agave hearts (pinas) and then pressing them to extract the sugar rich juices of the plant. These juices are then fermented and distilled to produce a full flavoured tequila, rich with minerals, spice, citrus aromas and vegetal notes. 100% agave tequilas are generally considered to be superior to mixto, so they’re the ones to drink!
Mixto tequilas must be produced from a minimum of 51% Weber Blue Agave sugars, with ‘other sugars’ making up the remaining 49%. These sugars must be combined before fermentation, and can be derived from all sorts of sources but not from any other variety of agave. In the simplest terms this means that a mixto tequila can and often does use cheaper sugars to supplement the agave that’s used. This means that the liquid will have a different flavour profile that isn’t as rich in the vegetal and spicy characteristics that you find in well-produced 100% agave tequilas.
When it comes to tequila there’s more than the two styles mentioned above to consider. There are different types of mixtos, as well as different classifications of aged tequilas.
Blanco/Silver/Plata – Unaged tequila, which can only be diluted with water to strength and is subject to much smaller allowances of additives than other tequilas.
Joven/Oro/Gold – A product that in addition to dilution may ‘be enhanced by mellowing’ (see section below about ‘mellowing’ and colouring, flavouring and sweetening additives). Any product made by combining unaged and aged tequilas may also be called Gold, Oro or Joven tequila. Most of the time if you see a tequila with one of these names on the label it will be a mixto tequila, and often times the colour, sweetness, aroma and flavour have been either entirely created by, or considerably enhanced by the use of additives. This is often the tequila that gave the category a bad reputation, and is responsible for many a hangover. That being said there are one or two producers who make reasonable products that sit in this sub category.
Reposado – Meaning rested or aged, Reposado tequilas must be allowed to sit in oak, or Holm oak barrels for at least 2 months. Reposados may also be ‘mellowed’ through the use of additives including caramel, glycerin, sugar and oak extract.
Anejo – Referring to ‘Old’ tequilas, these are products that have been aged for a minimum of one year in oak or Holm oak barrels with a maximum capacity of 600 litres. These may also be subject to enhancing by the addition of sweeteners, colour, flavour and glycerin within the legal limits.
Extra anejo – These are the ‘extra old’ tequilas, having spent at least 3 years in barrels no larger than 600 litres (again oak and Holm oak) and once again are allowed to be enhanced with additives.
So you might think with those rules covered, knowing which tequilas have sugars added and which are 100% agave, what sub categories of tequila are, we’re pretty clear on what tequila is. Unfortunately there’s more going on behind the scenes than might meet the eye. You see within the regulations governing tequila production there are also some allowances for other additives, many of which are allowed after distillation and aging.
It has taken me a while to unravel this as the wording was a) in Spanish and some of it didn’t want to be translated, and b) a little bit vague to say the least. Finally after seeking help from tequila authorities greater than myself (thanks Tomas Estes, Jesus Fernandez and especially Julio Bermejo) I managed to find out exactly what additives are acceptable in tequila production.
As well as up to 75 grams per litre of sugars, the regulations actually allow for up to a rather staggering 85g per litre of additives. As well as sugars, you are permitted to add oak essences, caramel colouring and glycerin. There is a restricting guideline that suggests that no more than 1% of the total volume of the tequila can be made up of dry extracts (additives) however this is still a fairly large amount when we’re talking about highly concentrated essences and the like.
To make things more complex the wording around these additives actually refer to this as ‘mellowing’ the tequila, which sounds more like the resting of tequila in oak barrels, or a process designed to naturally take the harsh edge off of the new spirit (such as charcoal filtering). So if a tequila has been ‘mellowed’, it has in fact had colour, flavour, aroma, sweetness and/or mouth feel added to it!
The reason for these additives is, according to the regulations, to ‘provide or intensify their colour, aroma, and/or flavour’. In other words to change the character and appearance of the tequila. The regulations actually do restrict the amounts that can be added to blanco or unaged tequilas, but even here there is an allowance for sugars, glycerin and essence of oak to be added in smaller amounts.
In general, you are more likely to find these additives in the cheaper mixto tequilas than in the more carefully crafted 100% agave products. Generally speaking (and of course there are exceptions to every rule) the people going to the added expense of producing 100% agave tequila, are also passionate about producing quality liquid that showcases the agave’s natural character. That being said it is difficult to tell much about your tequila from looking at, smelling or tasting it, as you just don’t know if the flavour, aroma and colour is natural or has been enhanced. Some producers such as Herradura make it clear on the label that there are no additives, and in fact there is a legal requirement to list any additives by name (in Spanish only) on the label, so if this is important to you then check the small print!
Tequila production has a governing body known as the CRT or Consejo Regulador del Tequila. The CRT is responsible for inspecting and testing tequila production and ensuring all the regulations are followed.
They are also responsible for ensuring that all products are labeled correctly and that the correct steps are followed during bottling as well as during the production process. Their remit is actually to promote good practices and ensure the quality of tequila production.
The breadth of their organization is huge and covers everything from the scientific analysis of samples from all stages of tequila production from all producers, to political lobbying, or even marketing and promoting tequila.
Their website is a vast resource of information for those of you who really want to delve into tequila, and fortunately is in both English and Spanish, if like me you struggle with the national language of Mexico. Make sure to check it out if you finish this article and still have more questions http://www.crt.org.mx/
There are only a few regions allowed to produce tequila within Mexico, these are listed in the Appellation of Origin and consist of 180 municipalities in 5 states in Mexico. Jalisco makes up the majority as tequila may be produced across the entire state and all 124 of its municipalities. Smaller regions of Nayarit, Guanajuato, Michoacán, and Tamaulipas may also produce tequila. The entire list of which municipalities are allowed can be found here http://www.tequila.net/faqs/tequila/what-is-the-appellation-of-origin-for-tequila.html
The interesting thing here is that there are plenty of other places that could make tequila or a very similar product. South Africa has actually attempted it in the past and for a number of years produced a ‘100% blue agave spirit’. The Mexican government in fear of losing sales of tequila in the South African market actually challenged the legality of this production and was successful in putting a stop to it. South Africa still produces a vast amount of agave syrup to this day though.
Through a combination of disease and weather there has been a shortage of blue agave in Mexico, which has driven up the price of tequila over the past couple of decades, and this continues to date. This is at least partly due to the modern farming techniques, which have made the blue Weber agave less and less genetically diverse. Farmed agaves are actually grown by cutting the flowering stem from existing agaves, and planting this in the soil. As such there is less and less natural pollination and cross-pollination of agave plants and as such less genetic diversity. This leaves the Weber blue agave vulnerable to disease, and could in the future lead to a serious shortage or even the loss of this species (it wouldn’t be the first time a base ingredient for a spirit has been wiped out after all!).
Well it was actually the Spanish who started producing tequila as far back as the 16th century, not far from the location of the city of Tequila (which wasn’t established until much later in the second half of the 17th century). When the Spanish conquistadors ran out of their own brandy, they began to distil agave to produce one of North America’s first distilled spirits.
The first large-scale production started in about 1600 in what is now Jalisco, when Don Pedro Sanchez de Tagle, the Marquis of Altamira, set up a factory. By 1608 the colonial governor had begun to tax this early production, and it was in fact the Cuervo family who received the first license from Spain’s King Carlos IV to commercially produce tequila.
It wasn’t until much later, around the 1880s that tequila was first exported to America on a commercial level, by Don Cenobio Sauza, who later changed the name of the spirit from ‘Tequila Extract’ to ‘Tequila’ for the American market. His Grandson was famous for pioneering the idea that tequila should only be made in Jalisco and is best remembered for his catch phrase ‘there cannot be tequila where there are no agaves!’
If the last couple of names above sound pretty familiar, that’s because their brands are still around today and are two of the largest producers of tequila.
Actually tequila should never have a worm in it, that’s a tradition that comes from mescal, tequilas cousin. Some mescals (and mainly from some of the brands produced in Oaxaca) are sold ‘con gusano’ (with worm) and even this is a tradition that can only trace its roots back to the 1940s as a marketing gimmick.
The ‘worm’ is in fact the larvae of a type of moth that lives on the agave plant, and the discovery of one of these larvae during the production process usually indicates an infestation and correspondingly a lower-quality product will often result.
So there you have it, the answer to the question is actually ‘no tequilas have a worm in them’ (unless you’ve slipped a worm into some ones shot glass, in which case you’re just being mean!).
I’d love to tell you that the belief that tequila gives you hangovers is a myth, but in fact it’s not. The fact of the matter is that all alcoholic beverages can give you a hangover, but some are worse than others.
Tequila has almost certainly gained it’s worse than average reputation for hangovers more due to the way and the time when it is most often consumed than for any other reason. Far too often tequila is the choice for groups of people doing shots later on in the evening, or in the small hours of the morning. This often happens after a lot of other drinking has gone on, and comes at a point where due to a lack of sobriety many people become less discerning about what they are drinking. In other words, a cheap shot, of poorly produced tequila, that is memorable for how bad it tasted more than anything else, after a skin full of beer, wine, and cocktails, probably isn’t going to make you feel better the next morning. That being said, it usually only gets the blame, because it’s the last thing you remember drinking, and it didn’t go down too well at the time.
Here’s the thing of it though, tequila sits right in the middle of the list of what creates a bad hangover. Red wine, beer and dark spirits (in that order) have the highest concentrations of congeners, which lead to a hangover. Because tequila is relatively lightly aged (if at all) compared to say cognac or scotch, it generally has less of these congeners. The problem is the more different congeners you put into your body the worse the hangover. Very few people start their evening with tequila, but far too many end it with shots of tequila, by which time they are probably putting the fourth, fifth or maybe sixth different type of alcohol into their system, and because of this they’re likely to feel terrible the next day, and blame the last thing they drank.
That being said, as we’ve seen above there is huge variance in terms of what you might find in your tequila, a 100% agave, blanco tequila with no additives in it is going to give you much less of a hangover than a gold tequila, made from mixed sugars, with a load of additives in it.
The tequila hangover certainly isn’t a myth, but its reputation is almost certainly a lot worse than the reality. Stop blaming the tequila and start drinking the good stuff.
Don’t even get me started about salt and lime… let’s just say that good tequila doesn’t need anything to mask it’s flavour and can be appreciated by sipping, far more than shooting it!
So I hope that at least a few of the 10 things you should know about tequila were new information for you, and that more importantly you’ll be better informed about finding a good tequila to enjoy soon. Watch out for the next blog from b&t which will be 10 tequilas you should be drinking.