Words by: Simon Difford
Named after the town of the same name about forty miles west of Guadalajara in the Mexican state of Jalisco, Tequila is a distilled spirit made from the cooked and fermented juice of the agave (pronounced ‘Uh-Gah-Vee’), a spiky Mexican plant which resembles a cactus.
How is tequila made and what from?
Tequila origins & history
Tequila classifications, categories & classes
Where does tequila come from?
Tequila's appellation & regulatory bodies
Tequila - Traditional serves
1. Tequila can only be produced in five Mexican states: Jalisco (the main production area), Nayarit, Michoacán, Guanajuato and Tamaulipas.
2. A jimador is a skilled trained harvester of the ripe agave plants. They use savagely sharp 'coas' for rapidly stripping the leaves (pencas) to expose the centre of the plant, the piña. It's impossibly exhausting work, made to look effortless in what is usually sweltering heat.
3. The spirit was there before Tequila Town. Sort of. In total, there are around 20 distilleries in Tequila, so it's often asked which came first: the town or the spirit? In a roundabout way, it was the spirit, although nameless at that point, that existed first. The small town of Tequila was settled in the 1530s and, as production of the still unnamed spirit started to centre around the valley, it eventually picked up the name of the town.
4. The valley of Tequila is UNESCO heritage listed.
5. Mexicans enjoy fermented agave before it's been distilled into tequila - known as pulque. Consumed in traditional pulquerias, the locals enjoy this beverage in a range of flavours including pineapple, lime, vanilla and guava. It's fleshy, rather milky and slightly fizzy, and something of an acquired taste. But some seem to enjoy its vinegar-esque flavour.
6. Just like in Scotland, Mexico has its highlands and lowlands. But Mexico's lowlands are already high, at 1,200 to 1,600 metres, and the highlands are even higher, at 2,000 metres. Agave grown in Tequila Valley (lowland) is typically smaller with slightly less sugar content than that which is grown in the red soil of the highlands.
7. There are three different sets of processes used to make tequila:
- Traditional - using a masonry oven called a 'horno' to cook the piñas, then shredding with a Tahona stone wheel, fermentation in an open tank with fibres and distillation in copper pots stills.
- Modern - cooking the piñas in an autoclave (basically a huge steam pressure cooker) then shedding with a roller mill, fermentation in stainless steel vats and distillation in stainless steel stills.
- Industrial - using a diffusor to extract starch from the raw agave and distillation in a column stills.
8. To be labelled 'tequila' a bottle only needs to be 51% agave with the balance being fermented from sugar.
9. According to International Wine & Spirit Research (IWSR) there's a dramatic surge in America for premium spirits and 100% agave tequila (distilled from 100% agave) has become the fasting growing category within tequila in both the UK and the US.
10. The world's top three largest markets for tequila are Mexico, the US as a whole and California individually.
Sadly tequila suffers from many misconceptions, some of which originate from previous decades when much of the tequila exported was of dubious quality. This was compounded by its being consumed as a shot, often after licking salt from some part of your body, or preferably, someone else's. Tequila was often marketed and consumed as a party spirit so it's not surprising it was not taken very seriously or given much respect.
Thankfully things have changed and the technical quality of tequila has improved considerably since official standards were laid down and the Tequila Regulatory Council was established in 1993. Consumers increasingly appreciate quality tequila and 2008 marked something of a turning point as this was the first year when sales of '100% agave' tequila outstripped that of 'mixto' tequila (distilled from 51% agave). Suffice to say these statistics illustrate a desire by consumers to pay a premium price for better quality tequila. Tequila is now a respected spirit held in the same reverence as the likes of cognac and scotch whisky, and amongst many bartenders, more so.
A common misconception is that tequila sometimes has a worm in the bottle. This is not true. It is tequila's relation, mezcal, which sometimes comes with a worm. And in any case, this is not a worm but a moth larva. Although mezcal also comes from Mexico, it is a very different spirit, from a different region (mainly Oaxaca), made from several different species of agave by different production methods and has an entirely different flavour.
With some 150 tequila distilleries producing almost ten times as many different brands of tequila there is an incredibly diverse range of tequilas now available.
Bruxo means ‘wizard’ in Portuguese. Bruxo No.1 mezcal is traditionally distilled from 100% espadin agave by Master Mescalero Lucio Morales. Toasty agave, charcoal/coal dust and black pepper with light smoke and faint white grapes.
Released in May 2016, Olmeca Altos Añejo is made with 100% agave harvested in the highlands of Los Altos and then aged in oak casks for 18 months. Roasted agave, caramel, peppery spice, vanilla and green vegetal odours with faint chocolate orange, apricot and roasted nuts.
This 100% agave tequila was double distilled in stainless-steel pot stills at Casa San Matiás Distillery using agave grown in the highlands Los Altos region near Arandas village. The distillate was then aged for 23 months in American oak barrels previously used to age Old Rip Van Winkle Bourbon. Cinnamon, black pepper, praline, vanilla and nutmeg. Very faint mocha coffee.
This 100% agave tequila was double distilled in stainless-steel pot stills at Casa San Matiás Distillery using agave grown in the highlands Los Altos region near the village of Arandas. The distillate was then aged for 10.5 months in American oak barrels previously used to age Buffalo Trace Bourbon Caramel, soft new leather and vanilla with cinnamon and black pepper.
This 100% agave añejo tequila is aged in small American oak barrels for 18 to 36 months. Meaning ‘the greatest’ in Spanish, El Mayor is made at the Gonzãlez family-owned distillery under the supervision of Rodolfo Gonzãlez. Each bottle of El Mayor is individually numbered. Caramel, lavender, agave, vanilla and white pepper.
This 100% agave reposado tequila is aged in small American oak barrels for up to nine months. Meaning ‘the greatest’ in Spanish, El Mayor is made at the Gonzãlez family-owned distillery under the supervision of Rodolfo Gonzãlez. Each bottle of El Mayor is individually numbered. Cinnamon, cracked black pepper, boiled sweets (hard candy) caramel and toasted agave with toasty coffee beans, vanilla and burnt toast.
Meaning ‘the greatest’ in Spanish, El Mayor is a 100% agave blanco tequila made at the Gonzãlez family-owned distillery under the supervision of Rodolfo Gonzãlez. Each bottle of El Mayor is individually numbered. Earthy agave with faint lime juice and zest, faint honeysuckle blossom and eucalyptus.
A 100% agave reposado tequila made under contract by Destiladora del Valle de Tequila for Nicholas Enterprises. Pungent cream-of-soda vanilla and butterscotch with nutmeg, coffee and freshly baked biscuit (custard cream).
A 100% agave blanco tequila made under contract by Destiladora del Valle de Tequila for Nicholas Enterprises. Grass, green apple and baked agave with charcoal and cracked black pepper with faint white wine vinegar.
Del Maguey Pechuga mezcal is triple distilled, including distilling with wild mountain fruits, almonds, white rice and a whole chicken breast (the Spanish for chicken breast is pechuga de pollo, hence this mezcal being named Pechuga). Wonderfully aromatic, herbal lightly smoky and floral with salami, black pudding, basil, salty sea air, lemon grass, orchard fruit and English parsley sauce.
Launched in 1997, Herencia de Plata Reposado is a 100% agave tequila with a minimum of three months aging. Incidentally, ‘Herencia de Plata’ literally translates from Spanish as ‘heritage of silver’. Buttery vanilla and chamois leather with cinnamon and white pepper spice.
San Luis Del Río is a village that lies two hours’ drive south of Oaxaca on a two-lane, pot holed highway on route to the Gulf of Tehuantepec. It takes another two hours on a dirt road to reach the pueblo where this mezcal is made by Paciano Cruz Nolasco. Pungent, fruity and elegantly smoked with char-grilled pepper, lime zest and cilantro. Faint roasted coffee. Sundried tomato and smoked paprika develop with time.
Part of Del Maguey’s Vino de Mezcal series, this is made exclusively using rare wild Maguey Tepextate (also known as agave Marmorata). This plant has very broad twisted leaves about eight to ten inches wide and grows at high altitude on steep mountain sides. Bubble gum, light smoke, lemon and palm leaves, overripe banana. Faint cilantro and jalapeño pepper.