Tequila has a rich history dating back to the Aztecs and Mayans, who drank a fermented agave drink called pulque. Pulque was used in religious ceremonies since prehispanic times, including as a sedative before human sacrifice. Pulque combined the spirit-lifting benefits of 8-12% alcohol with vital nutrients and probiotics. Along with these great health benefits pulque also had some downsides as it is an acquired taste and can cause halitosis and flatulence. https://www.ancient.eu/Pulque/ When the Spanish arrived in the Americas in 1521, they preferred drinks made with grapes like wine and brandy. As they began to colonize/pillage the new world, they became frustrated with the high cost and the time it took to receive fresh shipments of their favorite drinks from Spain and began to plant grape vines in the new world. These vines could have provided Mexico with a rich culture of wine dating back almost 500 years but greed and politics intervened and gave birth to a new spirit. The Spanish government meanwhile was taxing its citizens and businesses back in Spain to pay for their global expansion.
When the wine and brandy producers in Spain heard about these new vines and plans for wine and brandy to be produced in New Spain, they became angry and refused to pay any more taxes. To win back their support and revive the flow of taxes, the Spanish monarchy decreed that no more grapes could be cultivated in New Spain and went as far as to tear up recently planted vines, all but ending wine and brandy production. The Spanish colonists were left high and dry and out of desperation turned to agave and a new plan to distill it rather that ferment it as the native people had done for centuries before. Their plan worked, and soon they began producing tequila’s grandparent under a variety of names including mezcal brandy, agave wine, and mezcal wine.
Modern-day mezcal can be made from over 30 different species, varieties, and subvarieties of agaves and is produced in a large growing region of Mexico. Most mezcal is made in Oaxaca, but it can also be made in Durango, Guanajuato, Guerrero, San Luis Potosí, Tamaulipas, Zacatecas, Michoacan, and Puebla. It is still cooked with a wood fire in clay ovens and famous for its smoky notes and wide range of flavor profiles.
Fun Fact: Mezcal was North America’s first distilled drink, predating American bourbon by about 250 years.
America discovers mezcal and names it tequila
Mezcal became a part of New Spain and eventually Mexican culture, but it was not until the 1800s and the settling of the American West by white Europeans that the popularity of agave spirits became an international phenomenon. Mexican mezcal producers began exporting their spirit to the US, often in previously-used American bourbon barrels to transport it. This drink still had many names and was made with a variety of different agave plants but one, in particular, started to gain popularity, and people began to ask for it by name. This mezcal was known as Tequila Mezcal as it came from the town of Tequila. It was unique because it was made with a specific type of agave – the now-famous Weber Blue. It soon became known simply as tequila and, while technically it is still a type of mezcal, it has become more and more unique as it has evolved. Modern-day tequila is distilled using stainless steel and steam to cook the agave, thus eliminating much of the smoky flavor imparted by mezcal’s wood-burning clay ovens.
Fun Fact: All tequilas are mezcal but not all mezcals are tequila!
Tequila production basics
Tequila is produced from the core or “piña” (pineapple) of the agave, so named because after the spines are cut away, the bulbous base looks like a pineapple. The harvested piña can weigh up to 200lbs (90kg)! It takes around seven years before the agave matures and can be harvested. Tequila is a lot more labor intensive than many people know! When the agave is ripe a “jimador” (agave farmer) uses a tool called a “coa” to remove the long spines from the piña of the plant. The piñas are cooked with steam and crushed, allowing the heart of the agave to release aguamiel (honey water). Next, yeast is added to the aguamiel and it’s left to ferment in stainless steel tanks or wooden vats, depending on the distillery. Lastly the spirit is distilled at least twice in either copper or stainless steel.
Fun Fact: Tequila should be sipped not shot. Shooting tequila is a technique to bypass the taste buds and if you are drinking good tequila it is an insult to the tequila maker and a disservice to your senses. Like good wine or scotch a good tequila should be sipped and appreciated.
What’s in a name?
This is very important if you want to taste true tequila: For tequila to be able to be called tequila, it needs to be made with at least 51% blue agave but the other 49% can be an inferior less expensive alcohol (often made with cane sugar). These are called mixtos and while they might be a cost-effective way to make a margarita, they typically do not taste as good straight and can cause a stronger hangover.
If you want to taste a true tequila, (and skip the headache) look for a bottle that also states that it is 100% blue agave. There are several styles of tequila which are mainly based on the age of the tequila and how it was stored. However, by law, all tequila is required to be aged 14-21 days. Tequila must also be made from 100% natural ingredients, and have a minimum of 38% alcohol. Oro or Gold Tequila.
Speaking of hangovers, this style is most likely responsible for more headaches than all other tequilas combined. Most infamously Jose Cuervo Gold, which for many years was Mexico’s most popular export tequila and most North Americans’ first introduction to tequila. They are almost always mixtos (not 100% agave), meaning you are automatically mixing your alcohols with both agave and sugar cane in the mix, and to give you the impression that they have been aged in oak they also have caramel coloring and sometimes other artificial flavors and colors added. Even before these tequilas are made into margaritas with more sugar and possibly more artificial colors and flavors (as appear in Jose Cuervos’ glow-in-the-dark green margarita mix) they might be trouble, but in this cocktail, it would be a miracle if you feel good the next day.
Gold tequilas might still be your only option in some markets in North America but there are now so many better options to choose from that if you can give this one a miss you should.
Sometimes confused with Gold tequilas, mixtos can mean a mix of younger (blanco) and older (reposado or anejo) tequilas. Master distillers might do this to create new and unique flavors or simply use one flavor to mask another’s imperfection.
Tequila Blanco (white) / Plata (silver)
This style is for the most part not aged in oak at all and instead transferred directly from the stainless steel conditioning tanks to glass bottles. This makes blancos the youngest and as the name would imply also palest colored tequila. Because blancos skip the oak barrel aging stage they are also the fastest and least expensive to produce. For many, this is the purest form of tequila with no oak to hide its flavors. This can mean more harsh alcohol burn when done badly and a variety of delicious herbal and citrus notes when done well.
Reposado (rested): this style is aged for between 2 months and 1 year in oak containers (of any size) and is the most popular style of tequila in Mexico. The time spent resting in oak imparts a light straw color and adds a little more viscosity than a blanco as the oils are drawn from the oak sharing its flavours and aromas and smoothing the tequila. Tasting notes often include pepper with honey and caramel. Añejo: aged for 1 to 3 years in small oak barrels, añejo tequilas acquire much more oak (and less agave) flavour and aroma. Soft, sweet, and approachable with caramel, vanilla, butterscotch and cooked agave aromas. This is the most expensive style of tequila to produce as it takes the longest time and a larger portion of the original amount is lost to evaporation.
Tequila Extra Añejo
Aged three or more years, this is not a stand alone style but simply an even older (and more expensive) version of Añejo. Look for even more softness and sweetness and a taste rivaling fine cognac.
This is a new style of tequila which has become quite popular. It is made when a tequila aged in oak is filtered (think Brita filter) to remove the golden colours imparted by the wood. If done properly, it leaves the flavours and aromas and some swear that it removes other impurities that might also cause hangovers. Only time will tell whether this is a fad or style that is here to stay, but better safe than sorry – try one today!
Fun Fact: In wine tasting, swirling your wine in the glass and observing legs as droplets of wine cascade down the side of the glass. In tequila tasting, you can do the same thing but these droplets are called tequila tears. More time on oak will typically impart more oil and make the tears more visible and take longer to tear down the side of the glass.
The Agave Legend
The Mesoamerican legend of the agave tells the story of evil goddess Tzintzimitl and her beautiful granddaughter. It’s said that in the earliest human times Tzintzimitl consumed the sun and its light from earth and asked for human sacrifice in exchange for light. Quetzalcoatl (god of redemption) became angered and decided to do something about it. On his mission to find Tzintzimitl in the heavens he found her granddaughter Mayahuel (goddess of fertility) held against her will.
Quetzalcoatl brought the granddaughter to earth to escape her evil grandmother and fell in love with her. Tzintzimitl was of course very angry and began to search for the couple on earth. The couple decided to stop running and disguise themselves as tree branches caressing each other in the wind. They were eventually discovered as Tzintzimitl continued to hunt using her light devouring powers, Mayahuel was punished and killed. Quetzalcoatl, devastated by the loss of his love, buried her remains and returned to the heavens to kill Tzintzimitl which returned light to earth.
Quetzalcoatl returned to his love’s burial site every night watering the ground with his tears. The Gods saw this and wanted to do something to help his pain, they infused the gravesite with special properties causing the first agave azul plant to grow. Quetzalcoatl drank the nectar from the plant and it brought him comfort night after night.
That is how it’s believed the special properties of the blue agave came to be, to bring comfort and joy to the soul of those who lost someone dear to their heart.
Next stop after Sayulita: the town of Tequila
Visiting Sayulita for a while? You may have time to go explore the birthplace of tequila! Tequila was incorporated in 1666, and in 2006 the town and its surrounding agave fields became an official world heritage site. Thanks to some recent improvements to the highway, it is now about a 3-hour drive and definitely worth a visit. That is exactly what Gabriel and a crew of tequila tasters just did! Stay tuned for the next newsletter and an article about that adventure and how you too can visit tequila complete with tips on where to stay, what to taste and what to bring home.
Casa Vecino now has Tequila de la Casa (House Tequila)!
If you have visited Casa Vecino in the past, odds are you have been greeted with a welcome cocktail (made with tequila). This year we will be building on that theme. Not only did Gabriel and friends have a fantastic time in Tequila and taste lots of amazing flavors, but they also brought home Casa Vecino’s very own barrel which is now aging it’s very own house tequila! Stay tuned for information about how you can have a bottle and/or a batch of pre-made cocktails waiting in your unit when you arrive, enjoy a tequila tasting while you are here and maybe even bring some Casa Vecino Tequila home with you. We are excited to host you and to raise a glass of the most interesting, most delicious spirit in the world – tequila!