Serious Eats: Drinks

The Serious Eats Guide to Tequila

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Our trek through the world of spirits takes us today to Western Mexico, more specifically to the state of Jalisco and the mid-sized town of Tequila. Perhaps for some of you, the very sound of the word tequila makes your stomach churn and your cheeks flush with shame, but there's far more to this beverage than shot after shot at a college bar.

Tequila: A Brief History

The roots of tequila stretch far into history, back before Europeans arrived in the Americas. Agave has been cultivated for centuries, used as both a flavoring and a sweetener, as well as being fermented into mildly alcoholic drinks such as pulque, which dates back at least 2,000 years.

When the Spanish arrived, they brought along the knowledge of distillation; and lucky for them, they found a plant (agave) whose juices they could readily distill. Tequila's ancestor was born. The first mezcals appeared in the 1500s, and the beverage spread throughout Mexico over the following centuries, eventually being exported back into Spain. The first tequila factory was established in 1600, in Jalisco, but no one knows exactly where; no historical records of the location survive. By 1800, tequila makers had taken a cue from aged Spanish brandy and began aging tequila in wood.

Tequila made three significant inroads into the U.S. market before it became the hot item it is today. The first was during Prohibition, when supplies were smuggled into Southwestern states, to help meet the demand for hooch. This first surge in tequila's popularity waned during the Great Depression.

Tequila's next U.S. invasion came during the Second World War. U.S. distilleries had converted to wartime production, making military supplies, leading to a dearth of American spirits. Further, imports from Europe dropped, thanks to production problems in Europe and restrictions on European imports. By 1948, however, the liquor industries in Europe and the U.S. had recovered, leading to another slump in tequila's fortunes.

Tequila finally conquered the U.S. market in the 1980s, during an era of economic growth in the United States that encouraged a surge of American tourists to visit Mexico, bringing back a love for Mexico's native spirit. Premium and ultra-premium brands began to hit the U.S. market, and the tequila category has been healthy ever since.

Agave

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Agave tequiliana [Photograph: Wikimedia Commons]

Tequila, as most know, arises from agave, specifically the blue Weber agave, botanically known as Agave tequiliana. Agave is a perennial, flowering plant, primarily found in Mexico, but some species grow in the southwestern US and parts of South America, and even as far north as Alberta, Canada. Agave is a succulent—a water-retaining plant that stores water in leaves, stems, and roots. Cacti are also succulents, but the agave is not a cactus. The agave is more closely related to the lily family.

The plant used in tequila, the blue Weber agave, is a species native to Jalisco, Mexico. It's also known as blue agave (agave azul), tequila agave, mezcal, or maguey. The blue Weber can reach over two meters in height. The word piña is used to describe the heart of the agave plant, refers to the idea that the heart resembles a pinecone or pineapple.

Regional Differences

Highland agave plants are large and sweet, with piñas of 90 to 125 kilograms. Lowland agaves are more herbaceous and smaller, with piñas of 60 to 80 kilograms. These flavor differences continue on into the tequilas made from the different agaves; a fun way to run a tequila tasting might be to compare lowland tequilas to highland versions—for example, compare Partida (a lowlander) to 7 Leguas (a highlands tequila).

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Pre Hispanic statue of two men drinking mezcal in the National Museum of Tequila [Photograph: Wikimedia Commons]

Tequila Production

By Mexican law, tequila can be made only in the Mexican states of Jalisco, Guanajuato, Michoacán, Nayarit, and Tamaulipas. Most of it, however, is from Jalisco, near the towns of Tequila and Arandas.

Just as cognac is a brandy from the French region of Cognac, tequila is a mezcal from in and around the Mexican town of Tequila.

Agave Cultivation

Agave is grown in cultivated orchards called potreros. The shoots on commercial plants are removed when the plant is young, so that its heart (piña) will grow larger. The shoots are replanted to grow new agave plants, but this practice has led to the creation of a monoculture. The lack of genetic diversity in blue agave has caused certain problems, including diseases and parasites.

Each plant can be used only once, which means agave, unlike grapes and many other crops, needs to be planted anew every year.

Plants are pruned while they grow, to encourage growth of the piña. The goal is to encourage the agave to concentrate its starches in the heart, rather than using those starches to reproduce.

Growers are not looking for the heart to reach a certain size, specifically; instead, they're looking for a sugar content of at least 24%. The longer the piña matures, though, the riper and more flavorful its sugars become, and yet there's a short window before the agave becomes overripe, so they have to choose just the right time to harvest.

Agave for tequila is usually harvested after 8 to 10 years. Reportedly, some larger distillers are now harvesting immature agave plants, which results in tequilas that lack the flavor and character that arise from mature plants.

Agave cultivation traditionally is highly labor intensive because the plants must be tended and harvested by hand.

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Production of tequila and agave in 2008. Dark green for tequila and light green for agave. [Photograph: Wikimedia Commons]

Harvesting

Agave is harvested by field workers known as jimadors. (The tequila brand El Jimador is named for these workers.) Traditionally, jimadors would harvest the agave according to an intuition bred from centuries of experience, handed down from one generation to another. Today, though, harvesting is more scientific. The jimadors test the piña to achieve a sugar content of at least 24%. The higher the level of fermentable sugar, the more alcohol a harvest will yield.

When a piña is ready for harvest, a jimador separates it from its stalk using a long handled tool called a coa, and then removes the leaves. The piñas are loaded onto a truck and taken to a factory to be baked. Unlike grapes and many other crops, which are harvested in the fall, agave harvesting is a year-round endeavor.

Cooking the Agave

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Workers load agave hearts into ovens at the José Cuervo Distillery in Tequila, Mexico. [Photograph: Wikimedia Commons]

When I discussed Scotch production, I mentioned that barley needs some initial processing to unlock the starches inside it, to make them fermentable. In Scotch production, that process is called malting. Likewise, tequila production needs a first step, one that unlocks the starches. Here, that means cooking the agave piña to transform the carbohydrates into simple sugars that can then be fermented.

Over a century ago, piñas were cooked in pits, dug into the ground, over wood fires. The deforestation of Jalisco, however, forced a change, first to coal- or gas-fired ovens, and then to the steam-powered ovens used today. Some distilleries use traditional ovens made of stone or clay; others use stainless-steel ovens.

Piñas are slow-baked at around 140 to 185º F for about 50 to 72 hours. Slow-baking ensures that the starch molecules break down into sugars, but doesn't allow the sugars to caramelize, which can introduce off notes into the agave flavor. (Some larger distilleries pressure-cook the piñas, at higher temperatures for a shorter period, but aficionados decry this practice, saying it makes for a less flavorful tequila.)

Once the piñas have been cooked and softened, they're mashed to separate the juices from the pulp. Traditionally, they were crushed with large wooden mallets, and then, later, large stone grinding wheels. Some distilleries still use the grinding wheels, but most now use mechanical crushers.

Fermentation and Distillation

The juice (and sometimes some of the pulp as well) is placed into large vats, mixed with water and yeast, and allowed to ferment. Depending on the distillery, the yeasts can be commercial brewer's yeast or cultivated forms of the wild yeasts that grow on and around agave plants. In some cases, the vats are left open to the air, to attract wild yeasts that develop complex flavors in the ferment. In other cases, the vats are closed off, to promote a more efficient fermentation. Closed vats, however, seal out wild yeasts, and many tequila lovers prefer the complex flavors that develop in open vats.

If sugar is added during fermentation, the tequila is a mixto, or a mixture of agave and sugar. I'll talk more about mixto in a bit.

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Copper stills at the José Cuervo Distillery in Tequila, Mexico. [Photograph: Wikimedia Commons]

Once the agave juice is fermented, distillation can begin. Most tequila is made in pot, or alembic, stills. The first distillation produces something called ordinario, which is about 20–25% alcohol by volume. The ordinario is distilled again in a pot still, to about 55% abv.

The second distillate is tequila. All tequila at this point is clear. Color is added later, either during the aging process or by the addition of caramel coloring (this is allowed only in mixto tequila, not in 100% agave tequila.)

At this point, the tequila can be diluted to bottling proof (usually 80 proof; 40% ABV) or pumped into barrels for aging. If it's diluted and bottled, it becomes blanco tequila, also known as white, silver, or plata. (I'll talk more about types of tequila later.)

Aging

Blanco tequila is generally unaged, as is joven (young) tequila. Blanco can be immediately bottled after distillation, or it can go into storage for up to two months. Blanco, when it's "aged," is usually stored in stainless-steel vats; this, at most, allows the tequila to mellow out a bit, but obviously it doesn't add the flavors, aromas, and color that wood-aging provides. A small few blanco tequilas are aged in wood, but those are the exception.

Reposado, añejo, and extra añejo are aged in oak casks. Whereas whiskeys such as Scotch and bourbon have specific legal regulations that dictate the type of barrel that must be used, tequila has no such restrictions.

Tequila may be aged in used American oak barrels; Jack Daniels casks are common. It may also be aged in French or Spanish barrels, previously used for cognac or sherry, for example. Tequila may also be aged in brand new barrels. Some distillers use new barrels for a portion of the aging process, before transferring the tequila into older casks.

Most distillers barrel their tequilas at about 110 proof (55% abv), and then dilute with water to about 80 proof just prior to bottling.

Just as Scotches, bourbons, and rums are blended prior to bottling, so too with tequila. Distillers will take barrels of similar age and blend them to create a consistent product from batch to batch.

When shopping for tequila, you'll see certain terms that refer to its age. Here's what those words mean:

Mixto

A good fraction of the tequila brands you'll find at your local are mixto, or mixed, tequilas. Mixto is a blend of 51% agave tequila with the remaining 49% from other sugars, normally cane sugar. The shots you did in college were mixto.

Joven tequila is also sometimes known as gold tequila. Cuervo Gold and Sauza Gold are jovens. With only a couple of exceptions, gold tequilas are mixtos with a little caramel coloring thrown in. Jovens are unaged; don't let the coloring fool you.

The exceptions to this rule mix blanco (unaged) tequila with a bit of reposado tequila. You'll know them; they'll say "100% Agave" on the label.

Snobbery?

Is it snobbery to prefer 100% agave to mixto? Perhaps. Keep in mind, if you order a margarita in most bars, you'll be getting mixto, unless you order a specific tequila or a brand is named on the menu. And if you order a round of shots, you're probably getting mixto—unless you have more money than sense, of course, and you're getting rounds of top-shelf brands to shoot. (If that's the case, invite me along next time.)

For cocktail use, you enter a land of diminishing returns if you go too far upmarket with your tequila choices. For most cocktails, blanco or reposado will be just fine. If you prefer blender margaritas, mixto is probably fine, honestly, because the icy-coldness of the drink will obliterate any subtleties from more upmarket tequilas.

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[Photo: Paul Clarke]

When might you use añejo in a cocktail? A drink called the Nouveau Carre provides a clue. This cocktail is a modification of a New Orleans classic, the Vieux Carre. The original calls for a mix of rye and cognac as the base spirits. Since you want the richness of a well-aged spirit, it makes perfect sense to use añejo in the tequila variant.

Agave Controversy

Tequila is not the only agave-based spirit made in Mexico. Mezcal, of course, has been made there for centuries (and I'll cover mezcal separately, in a future post), but there are yet other liquors made from the plant. Recently, legislation was proposed in Mexico to limit who can use the word agave to describe a spirit. If the regulation passes, the only way a distiller can use agave is to describe tequila, mezcal, or a lesser-known spirit called bacanora. Makers of spirits such as raicilla would have to call them "agavacea aguardiente" or "distilled agavacea." Cumbersome.

Furthermore, raicilla is made almost entirely within Jalisco, the cradle of tequila. This legislation would prevent raicilla and other agave spirits from even being produced in Jalisco, which could cause raicilla to entirely vanish from production.

The Diner's Journal blog at the New York Times covered this controversy in more depth. Proponents of the legislation say they're preventing confusion and fraud. Opponents think the regulation is a tool by which large distilleries are trying to crack down on small companies. For more information, check out Amanda Schuster's article at The Spir.it or visit tequilainterchangeproject.com.

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