Christmas is coming (even if we still have some days at 30°C…) and it means one thing: family, posada and…tequila. And yes, in Mexico instead of having champagne we party with tequila! This is the opportunity for me to talk to you about this alcohol that worldwide evokes the famous Margarita, but which is so much more and actually more complex that what we could think.
WHAT IS TEQUILA?
Tequila is a distilled beverage made from the blue agave plant. It is not to confound with the Mezcal, which is another Mexican distilled beverage, but made from any type of agave.
Tequila has also a different production method as well as a regional specificity. As an example, this is like the Champagne in France: the “champagne” denomination can only be attributed to the Champagne produced in the Champagne region, even if the production technique may be the same in some other regions (and where we will speak of “crémant” instead of “champagne”). This is the same thing for the tequila, that can only have the “tequila” denomination in specific areas (181 municipalities in total). The main production States are:
Jalisco where we find 80% of all blue agave and where almost all tequila distilleries are located.
You also can find some small productions in the State of Tamaulipas.
A BIT OF HISTORY
Tequila was first produced in the 16th century near the city of Tequila, but which at this time was not established as a city. Before Spanish conquistadors Aztec already made a fermented beverage from the agave.
This is the Spain’s King Carlos IV who gave the first commercial license to the Cuervo family. And it’s only in 1885 that tequila was exported to the US for the first time.
Today, even if some tequilas are still family-owned brands, big corporations now own the majority
We can divide the tequila production in 7 distinct steps:
1 – Harvesting
The operation is executed by the harvester (or “jimador”) who removes the agave leaves with a “coa” (sharp curve tool): the goal is to extract the heart of the agave called “piña” and used to make the tequila. Almost 7 kilos of “piña” are needed to produce 1L of tequila. To give you an idea, mature “piñas” weigh approximately 36 kilos. So it technically means that one agave head will produce 5,14 bottles of tequila.
2 – Cooking
Then, within traditional brick ovens or stainless steel autoclaves, the “piña” of the agave is cooked with steam injections. This chemical process will convert the carbohydrates into fermentable sugars.
3 – Extraction
After cooking, agave heads are transported to a milling area to extract their sugar. They are crushed to release the juice (or “aguamiel”) that will be fermented.
In traditional method, we use a “tahona” (giant grinding wheel operated by mules or tractors within a circular pit) to crush agave heads. But now, modern distilleries use a mechanical crusher to separate the fiber from the juice. As soon as “piñas” are minced, they are washed with water and strained to remove the juice.
4 – Fermentation
Sugars are transformed into alcohol within a large wooden vat or a stainless steel tank. Sometimes, yeast is added to accelerate the fermentation process which takes between 7 and 12 days according to the method.
5 – Distillation
At this time, ferments are separated by heat and steam pressure within stainless steel pot stills or distillation towers. Most tequilas are traditionally distilled twice, but some can be distilled 3 times (the premium ones).
The first distillation takes a couple hours and yields a liquid with an alcohol level about 20% (known as ordinary). The second distillation is the “rectification” and takes between 3 and 4 hours: it yields a liquid with a stronger alcohol level near to 55%.
At this stage, we talk about tequila silver or blanco.
6 – Aging
The tequila can be sold silver or can be conserved in oak barrels. Longer the tequila will age, more color and tannins it will have. The condition of the barrels (interior burnt or toasted, age, previous use) will also have an impact on tequila’s taste. Barrels cannot exceed 600 liters.
7 – Bottling
The tequila is conditioned in bottles and ready to be sent to distribution places.
TYPES OF TEQUILA
It exists different type of tequila, according to the amount of aging and conservation.
Personally, I am used to drink the Reposado and I especially like the Añejo and the Extra Añejo. I don’t like the Blanco and the Añejo Cristalino (which is really sweet). But it’s really individual and personal. It’s just a question of taste!
It exists an infinite variety of tequila brands and it’s a real brainteaser when we don’t know anything about tequila.
First of all, always looking for a 100% of agave, otherwise you risk to have a serious headache the next day. Then, don’t necessarily look for the most expensive bottle. For instance, the tequila Patron (which is highly distributed and popular in the US) is very expensive within Mexico but is far to be exceptional.
Here are the brands that I would recommend: Don Julio, Herradura and 1800. The 1800 is cheaper than the Don Julio and the Herradura (which are more premium) and presents a real good value for money. In each of those brands you will find the different types of tequila: Blanco, Reposado, Añejo Añejo Cristalino and Extra Añejo.
Another alternative is the Maestro Tequilero: I heard that it was also a good value but I never really consumed it. At last, the José Cuervo Tradicional (not the Reserva de la Familia!!!) does the job for parties if you want to mix it with sodas. Be careful with the José Cuervo Especial: it is one of the most distributed in France for instance but it’s even not a 100% agave…It is a mixed one.
After one year in Mexico, I realize that it’s a shame to produce such low-quality tequilas…Abroad, it doesn’t give credit to Mexico. How many times did I hear from European that tequila was a bad alcohol?...I understand now that it’s simply because they have never tasted the real tequila.
I also learnt that there’s not enough agave (so it’s a production issue) to export worldwide and that therefore there are so many “mixed bad” tequilas exported.
Here are some classifications of the brands which I talk about (well it sounds a bit publicity but believe me, when you arrive to the super and that you face all of this, you are a bit lost, and it’s just few brands…)
1800 (good value for money)
Don Julio (my favorite one! The Reposado is perfect)
Herradura (I really like it also)
Masetro Tequilero (I should explore it)
José Cuervo (from the worst to the best)
HOW TO DRINK TEQUILA?
Tequila for Mexican is what wine is for French (even if the tequila is stronger; it’s just a question of habit). You have different ways to consume tequila: pure, on ice, with a “clamato preparado” (a tomato juice where you add condiments and spices), in “bandera”, in cocktails or mixed with sodas. When you buy a tequila you need to think how you will drink it: it is useless to pick a Don Julio 1942 if you plan to add Joya (=popular soda in Mexico).
*The young ones
-Vampiro: it’s a cocktail with tequila, refreso de toronja (grapefruit soda) and sangrita which is a juice usually made with orange, lime, pomegranate, and chili powder (and sometimes tomato juice).
-Paloma: it’s a cocktail where tequila is mixed with grapefruit soda and a lime wedge. However, when I was in hotel in Punta Mita they were making palomas with fresh lime juice instead of grapefruit soda.
*The most international
-Margarita: this is the most known tequila-based cocktail and you surely know it. The Margarita is made with tequila, triple sec and lime juice. In Mexico the most common way to do it is frozen, so if you want the traditional version you need to specify it.
*The Mexican ones
-Pure: tequila, tequila and…tequila! The simplest way to enjoy it. Generally, the tequila is conserved in the freezer so really fresh and this is how it must be drinking. If the tequila was not in the freezer you can enjoy it on the rocks.
-Con sangrita: you have two glasses in this case, one of tequila and one of sangrita which will turn the tequila smoother and more easy to drink. You switch between tequila and sangrita.
-Con clamato (tomato juice): same thing as the previous one but with clamato instead of sangrita. The clamato is usually prepared: it means that we add different condiments and spices. Everybody prepares it in a different way. My Mexican family and I add jugo Maggi, salsa Inglesa, Tabasco and a bit of chile en polvo (chili powder).
-La Bandera: in this case, you have three elements which represent the Mexican flag (this is why we call it a “bandera”). So you have the lime juice, the tequila and the clamato (o sangrita). You drink it progressively alternating each glass. This is my favorite one!
-Con cerveza: it doesn’t mean that we mix the tequila with a beer. It simply means that we drink the beer at the same time.
And the shot with salt and lemon? Well if it’s known worldwide it is not that Mexican!
But finally the ultimate goal is to appreciate the tequila, so accommodate it as you want and…let’s enjoy tequila!