What is Tequila?Tequila is possibly the most notorious of all spirits. Seldom can the subject be raised without rolling eyes, gasps of painful memories, and competing claims of horror at the prospect of ever drinking tequila a second time. Too bad! Tequila, like rum, can have very sophisticated flavors and appeal to highly refined palates if care is taken. Because it's made from the Blue Weber agave plant, it has a highly specialized aroma and flavor that has broad appeal.
Where does tequila come from?According to Anthony Dias Blue's The Complete Book of Spirits, the beginning of tequila was actually close to 1000 AD when someone figured out that the juice from the metl plant would ferment if left around for a little while. This made pulque, which figured prominently in Native American cultures in the modern-day Mexico region of pre-Columbus North America. The Spanish ended up taking this pulque - which had an evil reputation among the Spanish who called it vino mescal - in a fit of desperation when brandy supplies ran low and began drinking it pulquerias until it became distilled beginning in 1530. The Spanish called the metl plant maguey only because it reminded them of a similar plant back in Europe. Eventually, this became mescal or mezcal and ultimately "tequila" after the province where the mezcal was made.
How is tequila made?All tequila must be made from the Blue Weber agave - a particular kind of agave - and made only in Mexico in the state of Tequila. The agave takes about 8-9 years to mature. Then the heart or pina is cut out by jimadors (field workers) and cooked - this pulls out the sweet nectar or miel, which is collected in the bottom of the oven. The pinas are often milled and pulped to get as much of the juice out of it as possible. The miel is fermented and then, just like any other spirit, becomes the concentrated alcohol we all know and love. Mixto tequilas can then be blended with a lesser amount of other alcohol. 100% agave tequilas will use only Blue Weber agave spirits. The consumer will often see three types of tequila sitting on the shelf under the same label: Blanco, Reposado, and Anejo. "Blanco" tequilas are immediately bottled and sold - these will have the most intense agave flavor. "Reposado" tequilas are the same blanco tequila given a brief aging or "resting" in oak barrels (more than 2 months but less than 12 months), which impart a little color and softening of the flavor. These are often preferred as the best representation of tequila but are slightly more expensive due to the extra process. "Anejo" or "aged" tequilas are aged for at least one year (and sometimes longer) in oak. These are the most expensive tequilas and are preferred by those who like highly complex aged elements in their spirits. Purists will complain that anejo tequilas taste too much like whiskey. Occasionally, one will see an "extra-anejo" tequila, which generally means more than 2 years in a barrel.
If you look on a bottle of tequila, it will have a "NOM" followed by a number, which indicates the actual source of the tequila in Mexico - notwithstanding that lots of tequila is "private labeled" or hired-out by consortiums in the United States. It is customary for a company to decide to make a tequila, import it, and then bottle it under their own label… but it will always have NOM, which helps track down the source.
Who should drink tequila?Blanco tequila - like rum or vodka - is an excellent candidate for mixing in cocktails. The agave gives a great, new characteristic to many tropical cocktails. Indeed, the only thing separating a classic Margarita from a classic Daiquiri is whether you use rum or tequila. Fruit juice, sugar, and tequila mixed in just about any proportion makes for an instant party. For those who like to sip their spirits with only a little addition - and sometimes just a dash of water - anejo tequilas can surprise with their sophistication. Mexico is rightfully very proud of its premium tequilas and there is an entire community devoted to understanding and appreciating these subtle flavors. Reposado tequilas, happily, can go in either direction: cocktail mixer or sipper.
Biggest tequila myth to bust...Tequila is mezcal. Mezcal is any distilled spirit made from agave and distilled in Mexico. They can use any agave and popular ones include Espadin and Sotol. Mezcal becomes tequila when it is made specifically from Blue Weber agave (named from the doctor who "discovered" it) and distilled in the specific state of Tequila. Mezcal is beginning to gain in popularity and can be just as sophisticated as tequila.
There is no worm in tequila. The little worm is actually a larvae that lives in agave and is found in some mezcal bottles according to tradition. The worm may be disgusting to some but harmless to ingest and not remotely hallucinogenic (blame that on the mezcal).