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Tequila: Born from the Agave

Updated on June 29, 2015
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Salud!

During my college drinking years in the mid 1970’s, Jimmy Buffet led me and many others down a dark path with grade-lowering favorites like “God’s Own Drunk” and the anthem, “Why Don’t We Get Drunk and…” By the time he released his smash hit song “Margaritaville” in 1977, I had dropped out of school and was living with my parents. To them, a “lost shaker of salt” was what disappeared between the couch cushions during a night of TV and popcorn.

I eventually graduated, and though my mom and dad justifiably harbor some ill will towards Mr. Buffet, there is no question that he helped raise the margarita–and its main ingredient, tequila—to superstar status in the U.S. Shout the word "tequila!" in a Mexican restaurant in the U.S. and a dozen arms will hoist their salted margarita glasses to toast a distilled spirit that’s as familiar as bourbon or gin, but few would have more than a vague notion of the plant that it’s made from.

In Mexico, it’s the national drink, more often enjoyed straight from a shot glass with salt and lime than mixed in a wide-mouth margarita glass the size of a buttered tortilla. Typically, at small parties and family get-togethers, a large platter is brought out with a dozen or more shot glasses, all filled to the brim, with a wedge of lime for each. Everyone sprinkles the side of their hand with a pinch of salt (but not before a swipe of lime is rubbed across the skin to make the salt stick). Then, in near simultaneous celebration, each person sucks up the salt, downs the tequila, and chases it all with the wedge of lime. Repeat, as required.

This is maguey verde (Agave salmiana) in flower, the agave that the fermented drink "pulque" is made from.  But for it to yield its aguamiel, the timing has to be perfect. Once it flowers, like these two specimens, it's too late.
This is maguey verde (Agave salmiana) in flower, the agave that the fermented drink "pulque" is made from. But for it to yield its aguamiel, the timing has to be perfect. Once it flowers, like these two specimens, it's too late. | Source

The curious few decades of a century plant

Without sugar cane, rum wouldn’t exist, and without potatoes, neither would vodka. For tequila and other types of mescals—as well as the fermented drink, pulque—a plant called the agave is the indispensable ingredient. There are nearly 160 different species of agaves shared between the United States and Mexico. On the U.S. side, they are commonly called century plants because they seem to take a human lifetime, or more, to finally flower. South of the border, the wait doesn’t seem quite as long, so they are simply called the maguey.

What makes the agave particularly unique is that when it finally decides to flower—which is usually in 8 to 20 years, rather than 100—it only flowers once, and then the plant dies. Because it has nothing to lose, the plant furiously drains the carbohydrates from its leaves and roots and concentrates them in the heart of the plant just before it flowers. This powerhouse of stored sugars will fuel the growth of an inflorescence (flowering stalk) that can reach thirty feet in height and six inches in diameter in a few of the largest Mexican species.

Harnessing this fateful, botanical crescendo—nipping it in the bud, really—is what makes the production of tequila, as well as other lesser known products of the agave, possible.


Harnessing this fateful, botanical crescendo—nipping it in the bud, really—is what makes the production of tequila, as well as other lesser known products of the agave, possible.

A blue agave field near the town of Tequila in the Mexican state of Jalisco.
A blue agave field near the town of Tequila in the Mexican state of Jalisco. | Source

Ever since the Spanish brought distillation to the New World, the most important use of the agave has been in the production of the distilled alcoholic beverage mescal, known by different names when made from different species of agave in different parts of Mexico. In Sonora, it is called bacanora, and if it’s grown in Oaxaca, it is generally just called mescal.

Within a legally defined area in the highlands of central Mexico, however, a very special kind of mescal—one made from a species of agave that is different than all the rest—is a $750,000,000 a year industry. It’s called tequila.

Botanically, it's known as Agave tequilana (Weber). More commonly, it's called the blue agave, maguey azul, weber blue agave, or tequilana weber blue variety Agave.
Botanically, it's known as Agave tequilana (Weber). More commonly, it's called the blue agave, maguey azul, weber blue agave, or tequilana weber blue variety Agave. | Source
"Middle shelf" tequilas, readily available with dozens of upper and lower shelf tequilas above and below, all awaiting your perusal in just about any liquor store north of the border.
"Middle shelf" tequilas, readily available with dozens of upper and lower shelf tequilas above and below, all awaiting your perusal in just about any liquor store north of the border. | Source

What about that worm?

By most accounts (if a corroborating standard of agreement can be relied upon), the “worm” in mescal is actually one of two or three species of moth larvae, i.e., caterpillars, either the red worm (gusano de rojo, in Spanish) or the gold worm (gusano de oro). Other sources mention the larva of the agave snout weevil, a serious pest for cultivated agaves that can cause large scale death in both agricultural and horticultural crops. Moreover, the addition of the moth or weevil larvae to mescal was actually a marketing ploy that didn’t start until the 1940s, a gimmick that cited the hallucinogenic and aphrodisiac properties of the worm. Most importantly, though tequila is a form of mescal, it never contains a worm or any other insect.

The one, the only: tequila

The rules of the Appellation of Origin Tequila legally define the word tequila in a similar way as wines are regulated in France. Tequila must be produced from Agave tequilana Weber, aka blue agave or maguey azul (often written confusingly as tequilana Weber blue variety) and from plants grown only within the Mexican state of Jalisco or in certain municipalities of the nearby states of Nayarit, Tamaulipas, Guanajuato, and Michoacan. The most well-known distilleries are located in eastern Jalisco, and, not surprisingly, around the town of Tequila.

By Mexican law (the Official Mexican Standard, NOM), non-100% (mixto) tequila can be fermented with as much as 49% sugars from sources other than the blue agave (such as cane sugar) but not from any other species of agave. It can also be bottled outside of the area in which the blue agave is grown. This would include such mass marketed brands as Jose Cuervo.

The purest and most sought after tequila is made from 100% blue agave and each bottle must be labeled as such by law, including Hecho in Mexico. It must also be bottled at the distillery controlled by the company and must be fermented from sugars derived exclusively from the blue agave. Top shelf brands will always be labeled: “100% blue agave,” or “100% de agave.” If it doesn’t say 100% on the outside, it’s not 100% on the inside.

A jimador hard at work with a field of job security behind him. Note the rounded blade of a tool called the coa that is the jimador's stock and trade.
A jimador hard at work with a field of job security behind him. Note the rounded blade of a tool called the coa that is the jimador's stock and trade. | Source
A jimador expertly cuts the leaves of an agave with raiser sharp closeness using his trusty coa.
A jimador expertly cuts the leaves of an agave with raiser sharp closeness using his trusty coa. | Source

Pineapples on steroids

The most important step in the making of tequila begins in the fields. Jimadores are highly skilled agave farmers who determine when subtle morphological changes signal that an individual blue agave plant is about to flower, usually when the plant is 8-12 years old. At just the right time, the bud of the flowering stalk (the quiote) is removed, effectively castrating the plant. This diverts the carbohydrates that would have gone to the flower stalk, flowers, and seeds, and causes them to concentrate in the stem. If cut too early, the plant may die before it can be harvested; if too late, the plant will have begun wasting its stored reserves to produce the undesirable quiote. But when timed correctly, the plant will continue for several months to concentrate its starchy carbohydrates inside the fattening stem, now called the piña or sometimes, the cabeza, before it is harvested.

The harvest (jima) begins when the jimador chooses an individual agave of the proper maturity and begins to cut away the long spear-like leaves (pencas) using a coa, a long handled knife with a rounded, ultra-sharp cutting blade. With the pencas partially removed to gain closer access to the plant, he hammers a bar into the base of the plant to pry it out of the ground, and uses the coa to finish the job, cutting the remaining leaves clean and flush against the fat stem. What remains looks much like a 50 – 100 pound pineapple (the English translation of piña) which is then loaded onto a truck and delivered to the distillery. Up to five liters of finished tequila can be made from a single piña.

Up to this point, the method of growing and harvesting the blue agave is fairly standard, but once the piñas leave the fields, each distiller has its own methods of making its trademark brand of tequila.

A distillery worker stands in front of a large pile of piñas destined for the ovens that are visible in the backround.
A distillery worker stands in front of a large pile of piñas destined for the ovens that are visible in the backround. | Source
A historic tahona, used to crush agave fibers and extract the aguamiel from roasted piñas in the making of tequila and other mescals. Some distillers are returning to the use of this stone for some of their most pricey tequilas.
A historic tahona, used to crush agave fibers and extract the aguamiel from roasted piñas in the making of tequila and other mescals. Some distillers are returning to the use of this stone for some of their most pricey tequilas. | Source
A fermentation vat at the Tres Mujeres distillery in Amititan, Jalisco, Mexico.
A fermentation vat at the Tres Mujeres distillery in Amititan, Jalisco, Mexico. | Source
A stainless steel still from La Confredia distillery. Note the Spanish words "cola" and "ordinario" (tale and ordinary) on the two tanks. The cola is discarded and the ordinario will be distilled a second time to achieve the final product.
A stainless steel still from La Confredia distillery. Note the Spanish words "cola" and "ordinario" (tale and ordinary) on the two tanks. The cola is discarded and the ordinario will be distilled a second time to achieve the final product. | Source
Oak barrels in the El Jimador tequila factory.
Oak barrels in the El Jimador tequila factory. | Source

On its way to the bottle

When the piñas reach the distillery floor, they are hacked into halves or quarters and either loaded into traditional ovens (hornos) to be steam baked for 48 hours, or pressure cooked in stainless steel autoclaves for 12- 18 hours. The cooking process converts the heavy starches within the piñas into fermentable sugars, and the color of the flesh changes from potato white to a carmelly brown.

The next step is to shred the baked piñas to extract the sweet agave juice.

Most modern day distilleries use steel knives and revolving drums to shred the baked piñas into their composite fibers, then use water to help dissolve the sugars and presses to extract the juice. But others, such as the Patrón distillery, have returned to the use of the tahona, a vertical stone wheel, often weighing several tons that travels around a center pivot inside a round stone pit, pulled by mules or horses (like a pony ride at the county fair), crushing the piñas inside as it moves. This was the standard method of crushing and extracting the juices of the piñas for several centuries, and it has made a comeback for producing special batches of tequilas by top shelf distillers.

The extracted juice, now called the must (mosto), is fermented in large stainless steel or wooden vats to produce a liquid that is approximately 5% alcohol. Each distiller has its own formula for the strains of yeasts, additives, temperatures, and length of time for the fermentation process. For tequilas that are not destined to be made from 100% blue agave, this is the stage when other sugars are added to the fermentation vat. The must is fermented for three to ten days, and the resultant liquid is ready for distillation.

Distillation is generally a two stage process, with two separate distillations inside large stainless steel vessels to produce the end product. The first distillation produces ordinario with a 25% alcohol content, and the second yields finished tequila at approximately 55% alcohol. Before bottling, it is diluted to a standard 40% (80 proof) alcoholic content.

White/silver tequila (blanco or plata) is straight from the still and bottled immediately. Young/gold tequila (joven or oro) is made from a blend of silver and any of the aged tequilas. Aged (reposado) is aged in oak casks for a minimum of two months. Extra-aged (añejo) is aged in white oak casks for at least one year. Ulltra-aged (extra añejo) is aged at least three years in oak casks. Tequila mellowing or softening (the addition of caramel color, natural oak extract, glycerin, or sugar syrup) is permitted, though this is rarely done with high quality 100% agave tequilas.

Despite this incredible journey of the agave from field to bottle, I’ve never developed a connoisseur’s taste for tequila. But I do enjoy an occasional glass of good wine, and when I do, I sometimes lean back in my chair, and wonder whatever happened to the Coral Reefer Band.


A hilltop view of blue agave fields, painted in patchwork, virtually guaranteeing a steady supply of the mescal called tequila.
A hilltop view of blue agave fields, painted in patchwork, virtually guaranteeing a steady supply of the mescal called tequila. | Source

Comments

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    • yalul profile image

      Yalul 

      3 years ago from Philippines

      Very interesting :) Now that I know how tequilas are made, I'll savor every sip of it.

    • lions44 profile image

      CJ Kelly 

      3 years ago from Auburn, WA

      While not a tequila drinker, I knew very little of its production other than a mural at my favorite Mexican restaurant. Thx for the education. Great job. Voted up and shared.

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