Mexico’s favourite spirit

Ah Mexico! When one thinks of this semi-tropical destination, what comes to mind are great beaches, zesty flavourful food and, of course, its world-famous spirit, tequila. This imbibe is made from the blue agave plant, grown primarily around the city of Tequila, northwest of Guadalajara in the western state of Jalisco. The plant thrives in the volcanic soil of the region – over 300 million plants are harvested each year. Only Mexico can use the word ‘tequila’, granted by international law.

Planting, maintaining and harvesting the agave plant is labour intensive, without the use of modern machinery. The men who harvest it, the ‘jimadores’, have learned the craft, passed down from generation to generation. To allow the plant to fully ripen, the jimadores regularly trim any ‘quiotes’ (a several-metre-high stalk that grows from the centre of the plant), to prevent the agave from flowering and dying early. Using a special knife called a ‘coa’ (a circular blade on a long pole), the jimadores can tell when each plant is ready to be harvested by cutting away the leaves from the ‘piña’ (the succulent core of the plant). After the piñas have been harvested, they are slowly baked in ovens to break down their complex starches into simple sugars. Then they are either shredded or mashed under a large stone wheel called a ‘tahona’. The pulp fibre or ‘bagazo’ that is left behind is often recycled as compost or animal feed, and sometimes burnt as fuel or processed into paper. Some producers may add a small amount of bagazo back into their fermentation tanks for a stronger agave flavor in the final product. The extracted agave juice is then fermented in large wood or stainless steel vats for several days resulting in a ‘wort’ or ‘mosto’, with low alcohol content. This wort is then distilled once to produce what is called ‘ordinario’, and then a second time to produce clear ‘silver tequila’. Some producers distill the product a third time, but this can strip too much flavour from the tequila. Then it is either bottled as silver tequila, or pumped into wooden barrels to age, where it develops a mellower flavour and amber colour.

Tequila can range in alcohol content from 31 to 55 per cent. There are two basic categories of tequila: ‘mixtos’ and 100 per cent agave. Mixtos use no less than 51 per cent agave, with other sugars making up the remainder. Tequila is usually bottled in one of five categories: Blanco (white) or Plata (silver) – a white spirit, un-aged and bottled or stored immediately after distillation, or aged less than two months in stainless steel or neutral oak barrels. Joven (young) or Oro (gold) – a mixture of blanco tequila and aged tequila. Reposado (rested) – aged a minimum of two months, but less than a year in oak barrels of any size. Añejo (aged or vintage) – aged a minimum of one year, but less than three years in small oak barrels. Extra Añejo (extra aged or ultra aged) – aged a minimum of three years in oak barrels.

Pure agave tequila, whether blanco or plata, tends to be harsher, with the bold flavors of the distilled agave up front (more vegetal), while reposado and añejo are smoother, subtler, and more complex. And like other spirits aged in casks, tequila takes on the flavor of the wood, mellowing the harshness of the alcohol.

As for ways to enjoy tequila, there are many. Straight up shots with salt and lemon or lime are popular. Many cocktails utilize this spirit including the well-known margarita. A number of martini variants involve tequila, as well as many drinks made with fruit juice and soda.

And what of the so-called worm in some tequila? It’s a common misconception. Only certain mezcals, usually from the state of Oaxaca, are ever sold ‘con gusano’ (with worm), and that only began as a marketing gimmick in the 1940s.


Edward Finstein, a.k.a. The Wine Doctor, wine writer, educator, judge and consultant  416-269-7963

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