Mexico and Agave

Drinking fermented beverages is a longstanding tradition, even within ancient civilisations.   Fermentation occurs naturally and the fermentation of agave juices is no exception to this rule.  It's no surprise that since hundreds of species of the agave plant were (and still are!) abundant in Mexico, pre-Hispanic Aztecs realised that cooked agave could be fermented and so it became a drink of choice:  just like beer!  However when the Spanish conquistadores arrived to what is today known as Mexico, they wanted a drink that reminded them of home.  Since Brandy was non-existent in Mexico and too difficult to bring to the American continent they created their own beverage.

With their Arabic knowledge of distillation, Spanish and Aztecs came together to take this fermented agave juice to its next natural step: Vino Mezcal (or Mezcal Wine, otherwise known as Tequila or another such agave drink!)

Denomination of Origin

Tequila is one of the most highly regulated spirits in the world.  Today, a beverage can only be called Tequila if it is produced in one of the designated zones within Mexico.  This is an official agreement between countries to preserve the heritage, authenticity and quality of the beverage.

The Registry of Tequila at the World Intellectual Property Organization (Geneva, Switzerland) was obtained on April 13th 1978.  Mutual recognition and agreement on the origin of Tequila and other spirits between the European Community and the United Mexican States became official on June 11th 1997.

The agreement covers the designated regions where the plantation of the raw material (agave Tequilana Weber blue variety), the location for processing the agave to produce tequila and the location for the bottling of Tequila can all be carried out. The whole process is strictly monitored by the Tequila Regulatory Council (Consejo Regulador del Tequila, CRT) in Mexico.

Like Champagne in France, Tequila is a place in Mexico where the beverage originates.  However, the designated area to plant the agave and produce Tequila covers far more than this place.  Mexico as a country is politically divided into States and these in turn are divided into Municipalities.  The designation of origin for Tequila includes 181 Municipalities across 5 States (Jalisco, Nayarit, Guanajuato, Michoacán and Tamaulipas).

Each distillery has an agent from the CRT to monitor the authenticity of agave production in order to ensure the sugars actually come from the correct agave and that it hasn’t been modified.  They also check that the distillation is always double and ageing is in the correct container type for the right length of time.  It is a requirement that the label shows NOM, CRT, 100% blue agave.

Look for these signs next time you see a bottle of Tequila.  This will also remind you of the steps that have been taken to maintain the high standards of this drink!

The Making

Learning about the lengthy process of Tequila making and other agave based drinks, really adds to the love and appreciation of the drink.

In the case of Tequila it takes around 7 years for the agave Tequilana Weber blue variety to ripen and be harvested.  The Jimador (the person who harvests the agave) watches for the right moment to harvest and cut the leaves of the agave heart (the piña). 

The best piñas are selected and transported to the distillery where they are chopped in half and put in the oven to cook for up to 48 hrs.  The result is a deliciously sweet and fibrous cooked agave ready to be pressed to obtain all the juices (mosto).  These juices are placed into large containers along with special yeast for fermentation and this lasts for another 48 hrs.  After this process we are left with a beer type substance with around 7% alcohol content. This liquid gets piped to alambiques to begin the double distillation process.

The first distillation produces a slightly cloudy liquid with approximately 25% alcoholic concentration.  The second and final distillation produces a pure crystalline liquid with approximately 50% alcohol concentration: this is called Tequila.

To have a litre of Tequila it takes around 7 kg of cooked agave and a minimum wait of around 7 years to reach you.  For extra aged tequila, the wait could go beyond 20 years!  

The Ageing

There are five different classifications of Tequila: blanco (silver), joven (golden) reposado (rested), añejo (aged) and extra añejo (extra aged). 

Blanco is the Tequila that is produced immediately after distillation and is bottled straight away. 

Joven is a cold mixture of Tequila Blanco and Reposado or Añejo.

Reposado is left to age for a minimum of two months in American or French oak barrels. 

Añejo stays in the barrels for a minimum of one year. 

Finally, Extra Añejo is left in the barrels for a minimum of three years 

The maturation process gives each Tequila type a distinct quality from the fresh flavours of raw agave to woody, sweet, caramelised flavours of cooked agave infused by the continuous contact with the wooden barrel. 

Something fascinating is that the barrels are charred from their inside to give particular signatures to the experience. 

Deep charring of the barrel typically results in chocolate notes, toasted almonds and hints of smoke.

Moderate charring allows for vanilla notes and sweet hints of honey and toast to evoke the senses.

Light charring gives a sweet oak aroma and some spicy notes to the taste.

Other Agave Spirits

The main differences found in agave-based spirits can be attributed to the various types of agave plants used and the differences in cooking process. 

The generic term for agave-based distilled drinks is Mezcal and Tequila is a type of Mezcal which only uses the agave Tequilana Weber blue variety and is pressure cooked in an oven. 

However, other Mezcals such as the ones based on the Espadin and Tobala agave are cooked in earthen pits, giving it a smoky character.  Sometimes even meat (namely chicken breast) is used during a third distillation process and this Mezcal type is known as Mezcal de Pechuga.

Other distils include Sotol, made from the Dasylirion Wheeleri (Desert Spoon agave); Bacanora, which is from the agave Angustifolia and can be found in the Sonora region of Mexico; and finally, Raicilla which is made from the agaves Lechuguilla and Maximiliano (or Pata de Mula) found in Jalisco.

Pulque is a fermented drink made from the sap of the agave, this is around 5% and is more commonly found in Oaxaca.  Pulque is an ancient drink in Mexico and it was produced in prehispanic times.

Discover your senses

First of all, sip it and don’t down it!  Tequila and other Mezcal drinks are finely produced beverages taking years, skill and patience to reach you.

What to look out for as a result of each step of the process:

Cooking – it can be done in stone ovens giving a cooked agave flavour or autoclaves (big pressure cooks) giving rather a fresh raw agave taste.

Fermentation – slow fermentation can result in yeast, butter and cooked agave flavours whereas fast fermentation tend to give a buttery but rather fresher raw agave notes.

Distillation – this process is more complex and several flavours can be detected because of this.  For example floral aromas such as roses, and spices such as pepper, cinnamon, anis or clove can be discovered.  Moreover, fruit flavours such as banana, cherries or apples; citric flavours such as lime or grapefruit; or even herbal flavours such as mint or spearmint can also be experienced.

Aging – hints of the barrel-aging process can be found in the oak-woodiness, coffee, nut, chocolate, vanilla or even whisky and brandy tastes.

Look out for the aroma, colour, body and maturation of any tequila.  Use your eyes to appreciate the colour, your nose to understand the various aromas, your taste buds to discover the flavour unique to each drink and the touch on your palate to understand the body of the drink.

Finally after sipping, give time to experience the after-taste and let this transport you to the pleasure and sensory appreciation these drinks can evoke.

Tequila Industry

There are over 1320 brands of Tequila recognised by the CRT which are produced by about 140 different distilleries within the designated areas of Mexico.  Be aware that not all of these brands are 100% Blue Agave Tequila.  Some brands are produced with a minimum of 51% blue agave sugars and the rest uses sugars from other sources such as sugar cane.  Only those using 100% agave sugars are labelled as such.  

Tequila can be bottled outside Mexico for exportation purposes; this is done by over 30 distilleries producing a total of around 265 brands.  However, these Tequilas are by regulation never 100% agave-based and contain a maximum of 49% of other sugar sources. 

This industry provides all kinds of jobs to traditional agricultural workers, chemists in the food industry, marketing and creative artists as well as those within the hospitality industry. 

Signs of the beverage are visible all over the country from the striking billboards seen on the roadsides of Mexico to the many traditional and modernised distilleries in and around Jalisco.  Enter bars (cantinas), go to weddings, family gatherings, and festivals where slowly sipped neat tequila and chilli infused, zesty tequila cocktails are seen being drunk by old and young adults alike! 

An interesting aspect in the market is that Tequila biggest export boom was thanks to the USA interest; in particular by Californian expats wanting to bring a piece of home with them.  Luckily this helped to open the gate to expose the world to this mestizo drink.

Art

Tequila and Mezcal drinks have been a source of inspiration for authors, film directors, journalists, artists and singers.  From the Cine de Oro, Golden Age of Mexican cinema, famous actors revealed Tequila as remedy to cure the soul.

The influence of Tequila and Mezcal within Mexico can be found in the traditional artisanal produce, creative advertising campaigns, street art, and fine art which depicts the tequila making process.

Museums display the history and strength of agave association within the Mexican culture.  For example, the goddess Mayahuel has been depicted in various murals: