Tequila is, broadly classified, a mezcal. The name Tequila was only applied in the late-1800s to distinguish it from other mezcals. Unlike other mezcals, tequila is made only from one kind of agave plant, the blue agave (aka tequilana weber azul.)
It is a strong, clear alcohol. Some bottles are sold with a worm in them. The worm in is actually a caterpillar. And it’s only put in tequila that as been bottled in the United States, not in Mexico. It’s also found in some brands of mezcal.
Tequila is a protected name under NAFTA. Therefore, in North America, anything called Tequila can’t be called that unless it was distilled in Mexico. The EU has agreed to a denomination of origin status for tequila in Europe, but they haven’t put a lot of effort into enforcing it. Consequently, Mexico is now seeking EU PDO equivalent status for tequila. Under the NAFTA deal, Canadian Whiskey and Tennessee Whiskey also protected names in North America.
Tequila production centres around Tequila, Jalisco, a town of around 35,000 people (2004.) Most of the town’s economic activity centres around the drink. In Mexico, Tequila can only be distilled in state of Jalisco, and a few nearby areas — some parts of Guanajuato, Michoacan, Nayarit and Tamaulipas states. But as of 2000, there are only distilleries outside Jalisco in two of those areas: in Tamaulipas, and in Penjamo, in Guanajuato state.
The Blue agave used can be grown in Jalisco, Guanajuato, Michoacan and Nayarit states.
The plant needs 8 to 14 years to grow before harvesting can start. To make 1 litre (1 US quart) of 100% pure agave tequila, 7 kg (15 1/2 pounds) of piña (a part in the middle of the cactus) is needed. The piña are baked or steamed in ovens for 12 to 36 hours (only 12 hours for modern processing ovens) to convert the starch in the piñas to sugar. The baking is down slowly at a very low temperature in a range of 140 to 185 F (60 to 85 C), because while conversion to sugar is wanted, they don’t want the sugars to subsequently carmelize and become somewhat bitter. If it’s done in steam or pressure cookers, it can be done faster, but baking both releases juices and makes it soft so that more can be easily pressed out.
Then, the piñas are mashed. In the traditional method, the piñas are allowed to cool for a day or a day and a half before being mashed. The mashing used to be done by foot. The mashing reduces the baked piñas to pulp and juice. Most distillers strain out the fibrous pulp at this stage; a few distillers leave it in still to keep it present during the fermenting that will follow. The pulp can be used as a fibre for weaving, upholstering furniture, etc., or as animal food, a fertilizer, filler in making bricks, or it can be dried for packing material.
The juice is called aguamiel (“honey water”, though there is no honey in it.) This is mixed with water to make a “tepache” (a wort.) Yeast next comes into play to cause the fermentation. The yeast used can be a yeast that grows naturally on the leaves of the plant, a purposefully cultivated form of that yeast, or brewer’s yeast or occasionally just yeast from the air or must from a previous batch. At this stage, it’s called a “mosto” (“must.”)
The must is allowed to ferment for around 12 days (though shortcuts can be taken in modern factories by using yeast accelerant additives to reduce time to 2 to 3 days.) The longer it is allowed to ferment, the richer the body will be. After fermentation, the alcohol content is 5 to 7 %. When fermentation is deemed done, the producer may give it up to another 12 hours to allow some sediment to settle.
Then, the liquid is distilled either in copper alambic stills, or in modern column stills, which will be made of stainless steel. The first pass through will take anywhere from 1 to 1 1/2 hours, and increase the alcohol content to 20%. After this first round, it’s called “tequila ordinario.” The second pass is longer, anywhere from 3 to 4 hours, resulting in an alcohol content of 55%. After this second round, it is called “tequila rectificado.”
Premium Tequilas may be distilled 3 times, and have an even higher alcohol content, though some purists feel that with a third distillation you’re losing flavour.
To get the alcohol content down to 40% after the 2nd distillation, water (de-mineralized) is added.
After distillation, all Tequila is filtered through carbon filters to come out clear, though after aging in oak barrels, it may re-assume some colour.
You can’t really determine the quality of a tequila by its coloration, though. Traditional production methods will let more of the agave taste come through; more modern methods will give a cleaner taste. Sometimes the oak barrel taste from aging can overwhelm the agave and make it taste too woody for some people’s tastes.
There are two grades of Tequila:
Over half the sugar in it that is fermented must come from blue agave, but the rest of the sugar in it can include sugar from white or brown cane sugar cones (“piloncillo.”) Using sugar allows you to use fewer pinas, or less mature ones that hadn’t developed enough to provide enough sugar. In the Mixto class, caramel colour might be added to look like it’s been aged in a wood barrel. It can be exported in barrels and bottled abroad (for instance, in America, where they add the worm.)
All sugar in it that is fermented must come from blue agave. The Tequila must be bottled in Mexico. Premium tequilas now often come in vary elaborately decorated boxes and bottles.
Any coloration that a pure Tequila might have comes from being aged in oak barrels. New oak barrels will give a sharp flavour, but old, already used ones are preferred. Producers will even buy them from makers of other alcohol such as whiskey, sherry, cognac, etc.
There are four classifications of aged Tequila:
|blanco||A younger Tequila. Younger ones retain more of their agave flavour, but are a bit rougher. If it’s not being bottled right away, it will be stored in stainless steel barrels.|
|reposado||Means “rested.” These Tequilas have a sharper flavour, somewhat peppery. Aged in wood barrels, usually oak, for 3 to 12 months. Used to always be 100% agave tequila, but now some mixes are appearing.|
|añejo||Aged at least 1 year. Used to always be 100% agave tequila, but now some mixes are appearing.|
|muy agejo||Anything aged for 5 or 6 years.|
Whether aged or young, before bottling, Tequila is usually mixed with Tequila of a similar category in order to even out any discrepancies and create a consistent product. In the premium range, however, a few “single barrel” ones are available. After the blending, it is then bottled, or put into tanks to be shipped to be bottled elsewhere.
Numbered bottles aren’t traditional; it’s a marketing innovation that came in around 2000.
Market Issues for Tequila
As of 2004, 50% of all Tequila produced is consumed internally, 40% is exported to the United States, and the final 10% is shipped elsewhere in the world. The second largest importer in the world is the EU.
The Tequila Regulatory Council (Consejo Regulado de Tequila) supervises production and controls who can call what Tequila.
Two of the largest distillers are also the oldest, Sauza and Cuervo.
Many of the Mexican Tequila distillers were targets of foreign takeovers by 2000. Foreign companies such as Allied Domecq (UK), Vintners (America) and Seagrams (Canada) own parts or all of some companies. One, Herradura, refused a buy-out from the Canadian company Seagrams, because the Canadians wanted to use Herradura to produce a lower-grade tequila.
In the late 1900s, there was a shortage of agave owing to disease, while demand increased at the same time. And just before this, demand had plummeted, so farmers had switched to planting something else other than agave. When farmers replant agave, it can take at least 8 years before it’s ready to harvest. Consequently, producers have started buying agave from the Oaxaca region, outside the authorized area for sourcing it, even though this appears to violate the standards that they themselves asked to be enforced. Companies are not making it publicly, known, however, that there has been a change in practice.
Before European conquest, natives were brewing a drink called “pulque” made from agave. Pulque is fermented but not distilled; before the Europeans, they didn’t have the knowledge of how to distill.
The Cuervo company was started by a Jose Antonio Cuervo. He was granted some land rights from the King of Spain in 1758, and in 1795, his son Jose Maria Cuervo (died 1812) was given the permission to make mezcal.
In the 1890s, Tequila was being sold in the United States as “mezcal brandy.” It won an award in 1893 at the Chicago World’s Fair. At the same time, producers in Jalisco were slowly switching from calling their product “mezcal from Tequila” to just “Tequila”, perhaps in response to popular usage, in the same way that wine from Bordeaux wines just got called “Bordeaux.”
Cuervo first sold Tequila in bottles in 1906 (they had previously sold it in barrels.) Others followed suit; this helped improve sales further.
Revolutionary turmoil at the start of the 1900s gutted the prospering industry in Jalisco. By 1929, only eight distillers had survived and were in business, from over 100.
In the 1930s, though, American prohibition helped the industry, as people smuggled booze back across the border. The addition of non-agave sugars started in the 1930s (what did it matter, since most of it was being sold across the border to the gringos who were so desperate for a drink they were lapping up stuff made in bathtubs.)
In 1944, the industry was protected by a government decision that Tequila had to be made in Jalisco.
By 1964, producers will allowed to use up to 49% non-agave sugars.
Tequila underwent a big boost in the 1980s, as Mexico opened tourist resorts and people returned home having experienced premium brands of Tequila. It was the Margarita cocktail that created international demand for Tequila.
In the first half of the 1990s, Mexico was in a minor economic crisis, and the peso plunged in value, so the Mexican middle-class couldn’t afford imported alcohol. They turned back to Tequila and helped to re-invigorate the market at home.
The agave sugar requirement was raised to 60% in 1995.
In 1997, agave was hit by fungal and bacteria infection, and 1/4 of the crop was lost. They call the disease “marchitez”; it’s caused by largely by a fungus called “fusarium oxisporum” and a bacteria called “erwinia caratavora.” By June 1999, the disease was quite widespread. Production of agave fell by 1/3 from 1997 to 2000. By 2004, though, there were signs of the shortage ending.
In Nahautl, the Aztec language, some think Tequila means “the rock that cuts.” Other interpretations of the Nahuatl word are “place where they cut” or “the place of work” — no one knows for certain.
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James, Josh. Tequila: Trade, Culture, & Environment. In Trade and Environment Database, #629. June 2001. Retrieved September 2005 from http://www.american.edu/TED/tequila.htm.
Day, Peter. Tequila’s new sunrise. BBC News. 10 February 2001.
Greste, Peter. Tequila’s time of crisis. BBC News. 12 January 2001.