Both tequila and mezcal are distilled spirits produced from the agave/maguey plant. They are typically between 38 and 49% ABV. Contrary to popular belief, the agave plant is not a cactus; it belongs to its own family, the Agavaceae. Agave plants generally take between four and twelve years to mature, after which time they are manually harvested by highly trained ‘jimadors’ or ‘magueyeros’. They are then cooked, ground, fermented and distilled.
Tequila is defined by the exclusive use of the blue agave (also known as Weber Blue Agave, maguey azul, blue maguey or agave tequilana Weber azul); and by a delimited geographical area. Five states in Mexico have the right to produce tequila – Jalisco, Tamaulipas, Guanajuato, Michoacán and Nayarit, though almost all production takes place in Jalisco around the towns of Tequila and Tepatitlan. The volcanic soil surrounding the region is well suited to growing the agave and produces more than 300 million plants each year. Currently there are over 100 distilleries in Mexico producing over 600 brands, however over 2000 brands have been registered over time.
While both tequila and mezcal are both produced from the agave plant, they differ widely in flavour and characteristics. They are produced by different methods, from different species of agave, in different areas. Mezcal is made from a large number of varieties of agave, each with unique characteristics. They are usually cooked by baking in a hole in the ground, which gives a distinctive smoky flavour. Mezcal is produced in various states in Mexico, but mainly in Oaxaca; almost every village in the state makes its own mezcal with a unique personality. ‘Mezcal’ is also used as an umbrella term to describe the family of agave based spirits, such as sotol, although tequila is considered separate from this group. Tequila, by contrast, can only be produced from the blue agave, which is usually cooked by steaming in large ovens.
Tequila and mezcal can trace their origins back around two thousand years. During the first century, one or more of the Indian tribes living in what became Mexico discovered that the juice of the agave plant, if left exposed to air, would ferment and turn into an alcoholic drink. The Aztecs called this beverage octili poliqhui, a name that the Spaniards subsequently corrupted into pulque (pronounced pool-kay). In Aztec culture pulque drinking had religious significance and was limited to specific holidays when large tubs were set up in public squares.
When the Spanish arrived in Mexico in the early 16th century they too began drinking pulque. It was soon discovered that cooking the agave produced a sweeter juice which, when fermented, became a mildly alcoholic liquid known as ‘mezcal wine’. Mezcal wine is revered in its own right but when distilled it produced mezcal which proved, over a period of many years, to be more popular.
In 1656 the village of Tequila was granted a charter by the governor of New Galicia. Tax records of the time show that mezcal was already being produced in the area. This mezcal, made from the local blue agave, established a reputation for having a superior taste, and casks of the "mezcal wine from Tequila" were soon being shipped further afield. By the mid 1800s there were dozens of distilleries and millions of agave plants under cultivation around Tequila in what had become the state of Jalisco. Gradually, the locally produced mezcal came to be known as tequila (just as the grape brandy from the Cognac region in France came to be known simply as cognac, and corn whiskey from Bourbon County became known as bourbon).
All tequila and mezcal production begins with the agave plant, which is cultivated in almost every small town and village in Mexico.
For smaller producers, the plants’ lives begin in small village plots. At around two years of age the plants are moved to outlying village hills to be used as border fences until they reach maturity between four and twelve years of age. They require very little in the way of maintenance and provide a much needed source of revenue for small villages.
Larger producers will grow the plants in a more formal fashion but still harvest the plant by hand. It takes a trained ‘jimador’ or ‘magueyero’ to decide when a plant is ready to be harvested and to ensure that the plant is not damaged in any way during harvesting.
The jimador or magueyero will harvest the plant by cutting away the pulpy spikes, or pencas, leaving the heart, called the piña (‘pineapple’). The piñas, which weight from 40 to 170 lbs, are cut into several pieces and then cooked.
After this stage of production similarities end and the difference between the two styles become noticeable.
To produce tequila, piñas are steam roasted in earthen clay adobe ovens or modern stainless steel ovens. Some artisanal producers will crush the cooked piñas with traditional stone wheels while many large producers will shred then press the piñas to obtain the sugar rich juice. Fermentation, in large vats, will be aided by the producers own secret blend of yeast.
In a similar way to mezcal, the spirit is usually double distilled in copper or steel pot stills. Some producers, preferring a lighter clearer spirit, will use a column still or a third distillation. Tequila destined for aging is placed in oak casks from two months up to five years. The final spirit is diluted down to 38-40% ABV.
Tequila is produced throughout Mexico. Tequila originates from the western states of Jalisco in the areas surrounding the small town of tequila.
The maguey (agave) worm is really the larvae of a moth, which feeds on the agave. These larvae can remain in the heart of the agave during production, and in 1950 Jacobo Lozano Páez, owner of a small alcoholic bottling company in Mexico City, discovered that imparted a different flavour to the mezcal.
He got the idea to give his product a distinctive marketing touch, by adding a ‘worm’ to the beverage and including with the bottle a small sack with salt, seasoned with the same larvae, dehydrated and ground. Ultimately these ingredients determined the identification of the mezcals "Gusano de Oro" and "Gusano Rojo."
Various myths have sprung up around the worm, largely concerning its supposed aphrodisiac or narcotic effects, and usually attributing it an extended heritage. It should be pointed out that it was in fact not created by the Aztecs as a form of hallucinogenic Viagra.
Tequila must contain a minimum of 51% agave. Some brands will mix fermentable sugars from cane or corn to the distillate mix. Historically these would be the cheaper brands but the fluctuating prices of agave and sugar cane mean that this is not always the case.
Premium tequila brands will only use the sugars from the agave plant to produce their spirit.
These two types of tequila further break down into a number of styles:
• Blanco (‘white’) or plata (‘silver’) – a colourless spirit that is either unaged or aged for less then two months.
• Joven Abocado, or gold – unaged spirit coloured with caramel, and occasionally blended with rested or aged spirit to give an aged appearance
• Reposado (‘rested’) – aged in oak casks for two months up to one year.
• Añejo (‘aged’) - aged in oak casks for a minimum of one year but no more than three years.
• Extra añejo (‘extra aged’) - aged in oak casks for a minimum of three years.
Tastes of the blue agave plant should be noticeable. The tequila should be brilliant, clean and colourless. Aromas should be fresh and floral or herbal with notes of citrus or white peppercorns. The palate should be brilliant, clean and crisp with a strong agave flavour, perhaps slightly reminiscent of peppermint. Quality tequila will have a pleasant finish that lingers gently on the palate.
This tequila should be clean and transparent with a light amber or straw colour. Aromas should remind you of vanilla, almonds, peppercorns, chocolate or honey with a slight note of brine. Expect flavours such as citrus, peppercorns, eucalyptus and spice combining with vanilla or honey from the short period of oak ageing. Throughout the flavours of the agave should be noticeable. This tequila should have a medium body finish that lingers pleasantly.
Añejo tequilas should have a golden, possibly copper, colour tones. Spice and fruity aromas should have notes of cherry, vanilla, spices, peppercorns, cocoa and hints of smokiness. Fill your senses with full flavours of caramel, stewed pear, almonds, cardamom spice and white pepper. A very pleasant flavour should linger in your mouth for some time.
In Mexico tequila and mezcal are both drunk straight. It is recommended that high quality tequila and mezcal is drunk straight as mixing only acts to mask the spirit’s characteristic taste. The popularity for drinking tequila with salt and a slice of lime, and in an extensive range of cocktails, exists outside of Mexico. To truly appreciate the fullness of flavour premium mezcal deserves to be drunk straight as an aperitif or after dinner digestif.