Tequila: what’s in a name

The first thing that comes to mind when hearing the word ‘Tequila’ is Mexico’s national spirit. But not everybody knows that Tequila is actually a town. It’s about 50km northwest of Guadalajara in the highlands of Mexico. Tequila is surrounded by an ocean of blue agave, the gorgeous succulent from which tequila is distilled. The Cuervo family settled here in 1758 to grow agave and distill mezcal. In 1795 José Cuervo introduced the first bottle of what we now know as tequila. Tourists come to tour distilleries (yes, samples are given) and troll the cobbled backstreets looking for good deals on, what else, tequila.


The tequila industry is quite young. Spanish conquistadores first cultivated the blue -agave plant (Agave tequilana weber) as early as the mid-1550’s in the state of Jalisco. But tequila, which is only produced in Jalisco, didn’t become popular until after the Mexican Revolution in 1910 when José Cuervo introduced the first bottle to the public.


It all starts in the agave fields. Plants are cultivated for 8 to 12 years then the jimadores come calling. These tough field hands expertly strip away the spiny foliage until they’ve found its heart, called a piña. The largest weigh up to 150kg, are hauled from the fields by donkeys, shipped to the distillery by truck and fed into the brick or clay ovens where they cook for up to 3 days. Afterwards the softened pulp is shredded and juiced and the liquid is pumped into fermentation vats where it is usually mixed with yeast. In order to bear the 100% agave label, premium tequilas can legally add nothing else. Lesser tequilas, however, add sugar and sometimes flavouring and/or coloring agents. By law the mixture can contain no less than 51% agave if it is to be called tequila.


There are four varieties of tequila. White or silver (blanco or plata) tequila is not aged, no colors or flavours are added (though sugar may be) – it has a distinct agave flavour and is best sipped as an aperitif or mixed in a margarita. The similar gold variety (oro) also is not aged, but color and flavours, usually caramel, are added. Do yourself a favour and avoid the gold.


Aged tequila, a fairly recent phenomenon, can be used in a mixer, but it’s best sipped neat. Tequila reposado, (rested) has been aged from 2 to 11 months in oak barrels and tends to taste sharp and peppery. Tequila añejo (aged) is aged at least one year in oak barrels. It’s sweet and smooth and works best as an after-dinner drink paired with chocolate.


In Mexico you can buy a decent bottle of tequila for 150 Mexican pesos, though for something special you’ll need to spent over 300 Mexican pesos. Treat the good stuff like a bottle of single malt and before you sip it, sniff it a few times to prepare your palate for the heat and it won’t taste so harsh.


And don’t be looking for a ‘special’ worm (gusano) in each bottle. These are placed in bottles of mezcal (an agave spirit similar to tequila but distilled outside of Jalisco state) as a marketing ploy – and even if you slurp the critter, you won’t get any higher. Blue agave’s psychoactive properties will leave you feeling lifted regardless.

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