Tequila. Whether it conjures images of swarthy, ammo-strapped banditos sidled up to the bar in a captive Mexican border town or fantasies of idyllic hours in hammocks on tropical vacations, the word tequila is perhaps the most evocative in the drinker's lexicon.
Tequila's siren song is mysterious and sexy, with a hypnotic off-key recklessness. She lures you in by seducing your mind, secure in the knowledge that your body - and taste buds - will have no choice but to follow.
While this exotic spirit has tempted drinkers around the world for centuries, few of us who make margaritas a staple of summertime understand or appreciate the journey tequila has taken from Mexico's highlands to the local supermarket shelf. It's not all blender drinks and body shots. Tequila has a long and increasingly turbulent history - one that's almost as complex as the spirit itself.
Once Upon A Time In Mexico...
The tale of tequila is at least as long as the history of Europeans in North America. The spirit's precursor, mezcal wine, was produced shortly after the Spaniards arrived in the New World in 1521. Unaccustomed to drinking plain water (which, in their European homeland was rife with bacteria and bugs, and often a one-way ticket to the plague pit), the Conquistadors were eager to create a new alcoholic beverage. They found the makings at hand in pulque, a nutrient-packed brew derived from the fermented sap of agave plants, which had been a staple of the native diet millennia before the arrival of these thirsty men. The Conquistadors set to work distilling pulque into a drink considerably more potent, and in less than a century they were cultivating local agave and turning pulque into mezcal wine for exportation back to the Old World. Fortunately for generations of drinkers that followed, the Conquistadors never did know how to leave an indigenous people's traditions well enough alone; mezcal wine eventually evolved into the treat we now call tequila.
Though the origin of the word itself remains a mystery, it's believed that tequila was named for the small town of Tequila in the Jalisco state of Mexico. The "Father of Tequila," Don Pedro Sanches de Tagle, Marquis of Altamira, saw the potential for this potent liquor and established the first tequila factory in his hacienda in 1600. Over the next hundred years, tequila was used for everything from generating taxes for public works to curing New World illnesses. It became so popular, in fact, that Spain's king began to worry about the competition tequila was causing, and in 1785 banned production of all spirits in Mexico in order to promote the importation of Spanish wines and spirits. Unwilling to give up their livelihood to a monarch an ocean away, makers of mezcal wines simply continued their trade in secret - at times literally baking agave underground - until the ban was lifted when King Ferdinand IV took the throne the following decade.
The tequila manufacturer who remains perhaps the most famous today, Jose Antonio Cuervo, was the first licensed manufacturer in Mexico in 1758. His family's Casa Cuervo proved very profitable, by the mid-19th century boasting fields of over three million agave plants. Cuervo was the first distiller to put tequila in bottles instead of barrels, selling the first in 1906. Though other tequila distillers rose to compete with Cuervo and continue to join the market today (perhaps the most notable being Sauza), pioneer Cuervo remains the world's largest tequila manufacturer.
Improvements in transportation during the 19th century helped take the fruits of Mexican distillers' tequila labor into North America and beyond. As its popularity increased beyond Mexico's borders, tequila also experienced a growing reputation within the country during the revolution of the early 1900s, when the drink became a symbol of national pride. Caught in a nationalistic fervor, Mexicans quickly cast aside imports in favor of home-grown products of all kinds. Before long, tequila became synonymous with hard-living, fearless gunslingers like Pancho Villa - heroes of the era. In America, the Mexican favorite experienced a surge in popularity during Prohibition, when thirsty drinkers were tempted by tequila smuggled across the border, and again during WWII, when hostilities made European imports scarce.
Legend has it that the drink tequila made famous, the margarita, was first mixed in Mexico or a nearby state sometime between 1930 and 1955. The cocktail made its way into gringo hands, and no lime or Mexican flag on a toothpick has been safe since.
Don't Call It Cactus
Though often confused, mezcal and tequila are not one and the same. Both are distilled from the agave plant, a succulent from the same family as the lily and the amaryllis, but only liquors made from the blue agave are called tequila. Contrary to popular belief, agave is not a cactus. Though agave shares a common habitat with many prickly cacti neighbors, it has a different life cycle, and there are 136 Mexican species in its own unique agave family.
The process of creating tequila begins when the blue agave plant ripens, usually eight to 12 years after planting. Because the plant must be ripe enough to have sufficient sugars for fermentation, a jimador first performs the crucial task of chopping leaves away from the plant's core to assess its ripeness. If the plant is deemed ready, the core - or piña - is cut away and taken to a distillery for roasting in furnaces called hornos. After roasting, the piñas are shredded, and the juices pressed out and placed in vats or fermenting tanks. Once in the vats, yeast is added to the juices to convert the sugars of the agave to alcohol. These agents are so vital to the process and to creating unique tastes in tequila that distillers keep very tight-lipped about their individual yeasts. The resulting juices then ferment 30 to 48 hours before undergoing distillation twice. The outcome is a rich, potent, colorless liquid between 70 and 110 proof. The color comes later, brought on by wooden barrel aging, or from the addition of caramel or wood essence. In the final step of processing, most tequila is filtered through cellulose filters or activated carbon before bottling.
Protecting a National Treasure
Mexicans are understandably proud and protective of their national alcoholic spirit, and between World Wars I and II, the Mexican government began efforts to closely monitor production and distribution of tequila. In 1944, the government decreed that any product called tequila had to be made by distilling agave in the state of Jalisco. Today, there are only five regions where tequila can be legally made; most are in the semi-arid plateaus and highlands of Jalisco and the adjoining states of Guanajuato, Michoacan and Nayarit, and
the northeastern state of Tamaulipas.
To help guarantee the quality of tequila, in 1978 the Normas Oficial Mexicana (NOM) was established, regulating all agricultural, industrial and commercial processes related to the spirit. Since then, the industry has continued to grow, with more than 50,000 hectares of agave under cultivation and more than 500 brands of tequila available today. To help control the burgeoning industry, the Tequila Regulatory Council (TRC) was founded in 1994 to oversee industry production, quality and standards.
The fundamental standard set by these oversight agencies categorizes tequila based on the percentage of blue agave juice it contains. Tequila 100 percent Agave must be made with solely blue agave juices and bottled in Mexico. Tequila or "ordinary tequila" must be made with at least 51 percent blue agave juices and may be exported in bulk for bottling in other countries according to the NOM standard.
Which tequilas are "best" is primarily a matter of individual taste. With increasing manufacturers pumping cash into spiffy packaging, sexy bottles and glossy ads, a more expensive tequila doesn't necessarily mean a better product. There are numerous quality tequilas available for $20-$50 USD. Most brands available for under $20 are usually mixto (not 100 percent agave) and are mass-produced for local markets. A good and tasty way to find a favorite is to sample a wide variety of brands in the different styles: Blanco for its young, rough edge and rich agave flavor; Reposado, which is sharp and peppery; and the woody, smooth Anejo. Trying to settle on a personal favorite is a good excuse to work one's way across the tequila shelf at the local bar, one bottle at a time.
Tequila's Uncertain Future
While tequila has a good-time reputation as the key ingredient of backyard fiestas and frat parties, there's a dark side to this South-of-the-Border libation. The popularity of Mexico's national treasure has, in some ways, caused tequila more harm than good. Growing demand has led to discontent among agave farmers who, in 1996, organized a protest against exploitation by some producers. Their blockade ultimately cost the industry millions, and the loss was passed on to consumers via price increases.
Another blow struck the tequila industry in 1997, when producer Don Jesus Lopez Roman was killed in a gangland-style execution outside his factory. Roman, whose Tequila San Matias distillery was founded in 1884, had become unpopular after taking a vocal stance in support of bottling all tequilas in Mexico and banning bulk exports to ensure content and quality. His murder remains unsolved.
If labor disputes and murder aren't enough, a recent plague of pests, diseases and impending shortage of agave has led to potential crisis. Faced with spiraling agave costs, several distillers have discontinued their low-end brands to concentrate on their premium, higher-priced tequilas. The buzz among bartenders is that as availability of blue agave declines, the price of tequila will rise and quality may not go along for the ride.
But those who love tequila for its unique, sultry taste and colorful history won't be dissuaded by these natural and man-made dramas. As the Conquistadors discovered, once you've been captivated by this ancient spirit, there's no turning back from tequila.