101 THINGS YOU DIDN’T KNOW ABOUT TEQUILA , MEZCAL, & PULQUE
This blog post was published by Taste & Travel magazine, January 2014. For subscription information go to www.tasteandtravelmagazine.com. Here is a link to the published article. https://www.tasteandtravelmagazine.com/media/issue12_tequila.pdf.
While actually a scotch drinker, I forced myself to like tequila as a sacrifice for my travel clients. I organized and escorted 80 two-week Road Scholar (Elderhostel) programs in Cuernavaca over the course of twenty years and I wanted them to experience as much of Mexico as possible. So it was obligatory to introduce them to Mexico’s iconic beverage. Road Scholar urged its program coordinators to hold a meeting the night of arrival and ask participants to introduce themselves with a brief history (after many of them had been up since 4 AM for their early flights)! It struck me as far more compassionate to host a tasting of five tequilas another night, after which the introductions were so much more (ahem) spirited and often hilarious. Ogden Nash got it right: “On Introductions. Candy is dandy but liquor is quicker.”
I now realize that 80 tasting groups computes to 400 caballitos (ponies or shot glasses) of tequila, more really since we allowed refills. And I changed brands often so I guess that makes me somewhat of a tequila connoisseur if not a common sewer. Scores of my clients did not know the difference between mezcal and tequila or between a reposado and an añejo or that such variations even existed. Before explaining the nuances, my past as an historian behooves me to provide some perspective on beverages many of my readers may have sampled only sparingly or not at all.
Mezcal and tequila are Spanish offspring of a pre-Columbian beverage, pulque. All three drinks originated from the fermented juices of the agave or century plant. Agave, maguey in Mexico, is not a cactus but is actually in the lily family and there are over 400 species. A glyph showing a ceramic cup topped with foam dating to 200-300 AD was found in Cholula, Puebla. In Nahuatl (the language of the Mexica or Aztecs) the earliest reference to pulque is about 1000 AD. Its Nahuatl name was iztac octli. When it spoiled it was called octli poliuqui and the Spanish conquerors called it all poliuqui, eventually pulque. (Material for the talk accompanying the tastings was gathered over the course of twenty years and I regret not recording the sources).
The agave juice came from a huge maguey you may have seen in the Mexican countryside with its broad spiked leaves and sometimes an enormous tree-like, phallic blossom. After about twelve years when the blossom reached nearly 20 feet in height, it was “castrated” and the scar covered and left to rest for a few months, after which the scar was reopened. Inside the cavity the milky agua miel was ready to harvest, using a gourd to extract five or six liters daily for up to a four or five months. The Aztecs let the liquid ferment in ceramic jugs producing an intoxicant of three to five percent alcohol.
Pulque became the ritual beverage for the lords and priests and perhaps for sacrificial victims. Outside of ritual occasions, consumption was forbidden to all but the elderly and nursing mothers (it evidently promoted lactation). For the working class and even nobles, the penalty for drunkenness was death by strangulation. Since it was a ritual beverage it is not surprising some religious origins would be attributed to it and one of several versions is that it was a gift from the god Tepoztecatl who resided on the Tepozteco mountain top overlooking today’s pueblo mágico, Tepoztlán.
After the Spanish conquest, pulque became the inexpensive alcoholic beverage for Mexican popular classes until it was superceded in the late 19th century by beer, promoted by European immigrants. Often fruit flavors like strawberry and pineapple were added. It was sold in pulquerias, men’s bars off-limits to minors and those in uniform, but often frequented by a certain class of women. It is much harder to find today since it is not sold in liquor stores or supermarkets. But the reason I didn’t include it in my group tastings is its sour flavor and unappealing consistency. It is a thick, milky liquid resembling saliva or an unmentionable male bodily fluid, sometimes thick enough that a string will form between the glass and your lips.
The Spanish colonizers didn’t think the beverage had enough body. They fermented it in leather bags to which they added sticks, rusty nails, even dog turds, the latter allegedly to speed up fermentation. No wonder it became a public health problem resulting in the first regulations in the late 17th century. The Spaniards of course were more accustomed to the higher alcohol content of their now-scarce native brandies, so they soon found ways to substitute the pulque with mezcal.
MEZCAL comes from a different agave, a smaller plant with narrow blue-green leaves of which there are half a dozen or more varieties. When the plant is mature in 8 to 10 years, the leaves are chopped off leaving what looks like an enormous pineapple, actually called the piña. Some can weigh over 150 pounds. The core is chopped up and put in a pit where it is smoked for a day or two, hence the smoky flavor of mezcal.
The smoked pieces are then crushed by a stone drawn by a burro or an ox, or today more mechanized. The liquid that flows from the crushed pieces is channeled into a vat and transferred to a stainless steel vessel to be distilled then bottled. One can still watch the process and sample the local product at many little distilleries along the highways in Oaxaca. To show it is auténtico mezcal de Oaxaca, producers there add the famous “worm”, actually the larva of a moth that lays its eggs in the agave. I was told that for the overly-courteous Japanese, the exports have six worms in the bottle so the delicacy can be shared, but I have never corroborated that.
TEQUILA is actually a variety of mezcal, as bourbon is a variety of whiskey. Its production dates from about 1600 in the town of Tequila, Jalisco, about 60 kilometers west of Guadalajara. While several agaves produce mezcal, only one can be used for tequila, the agave azul or the agave tequilero Weber. Its history is obscure, but its popularity surged by the mid-19th century and it was being exported by the 1870s. At the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, an award went to a “mescal brandy made in Tequila.” At the San Antonio fair in 1910 another award went to a “Tequila wine.” Gradually the simple name tequila prevailed.
Tequila is produced in a way similar to mezcal but it is not smoked and it is twice distilled to produce an 80-proof liquor no stronger than gin or vodka. To be labeled tequila the Mexican government requires that it contain 51 percent agave azul. Premium tequilas are 100 percent agave azul and are labeled as such. The Mexican government decreed a Norma Oficial Mexicana in 1978, regulating labeling and restricting production to the state of Jalisco and limited municipalities in Guanajuato, Michoacán, Nayarit, and Tamaulipas. When a South African firm announced it was going to produce tequila the Mexican government threatened action in the World Trade Organization.
There is a tourist train from Guadalajara to Tequila on weekends, visiting the Casa Herradura, www.tequilaexpress.com.mx.
The uninitiated are usually surprised to discover the wide range in the quality of tequilas. The immediate product is called blanco (white) or plata (silver). Gold tequilas, so popular in the U.S., have molasses or other colorants and sweeteners added and are too harsh for sipping. The real quality began probably in the mid-20th century when distillers aged the tequila in oak barrels purchased from U.S. bourbon companies. The result after two months to a year of aging is called reposado (rested). Those aged for a year or more are called añejo (aged). Aged tequilas of 100 percent agave azul, are called premium and some, aged as long as seven years, compare favorably to a French cognac with comparable prices. In 2006 the government added another category, extra añejo, for those aged over three years.
U.S. college students looking for a quick drunk favor a white or silver tequila in straight shots a la Mexicana, with a lick of salt and a bite of lime. Quality usually improves with price, but a cheap one is fine for making a margarita or a paloma (recipes follow) currently the rage with young Mexicans. Putting a premium tequila in a margarita is as profligate as pouring a Bombay Sapphire or Grey Goose in your gin or vodka tonic. A white tequila will give your margarita more kick and save you lots of money. Due to exporting hundreds of thousands of cases to the U.S., Europe, and Japan, prices of premium tequilas have soared.
For sipping, you want a reposado or an anejo, preferably 100 percent agave azul. (Except where noted, prices are for 750 ML at La Europea shop in Cuernavaca,Domingo Diez 1460, as of January 2014). Some of the reposado mezcals from Oaxaca are quite smooth if you like the smoky taste. A good one is Mezcal del Amigo, (219 pesos) which comes with the bonus “worm.” A good choice for versatility is Sauza Extra, a smooth reposado to replace economical Sauza Conmemorativo that the company no longer makes. At 105 pesos the liter it is inexpensive enough for a fine margarita but smooth enough for sipping if the premiums are beyond your budget. Going up a notch, one of the best choices and a personal favorite is Herradura Reposado, (700 ML, 358 pesos) the number-one choice of tasters for Bon Appetit magazine, who found “flavors of oak, spice, and orange peel.” (Anthony Dias Blue, “Tequila at the Top,” Bon Appetit, October 1995). Some supermarkets have featured it on occasional special for 299 pesos. On the other hand, the Herradura Añejo (700 ML, 449 pesos) is too spicy for my taste. I find the same distinction between the superb Don Julio Reposado (364 pesos) compared to that brand’s spicy añejo (414 pesos). But some people prefer the spicy añejos, hence the importance of doing your own tasting.
I read somewhere that the rock group Van Halen’s concert contracts call for El Tesoro de Don Felipe añejo in the dressing room (750 ml, 499 pesos). This one makes a classy gift for a treasured friend or relative. But who deserves it more than you do, so splurge on one for a special occasion. Less expensive among the añejos is Gran Centenario, (298 pesos) with a smooth butterscotch finish. Or ask the store manager to point out any sale items or make educated suggestions.
Actually, the choices are overwhelming. La Europea stocks several hundred brands, the most expensive José Cuervo 250 Años, 25,721 pesos. There are bars in California that boast over 200 tequilas, and one in Guadalajara claiming to stock 400. The bartenders who must be able to make recommendations are probably candidates for liver transplants. A report in Gourmet magazine (April 2007), said there were 110 distillers producing over 750 brands, so you have a lot of sampling to do to become a connoisseur. For a class act, invite your best friends, get out your crystal brandy snifters, pour a few fingers of premium tequila, and offer the traditional brindis, “Salud, amor, dinero, y tiempo para disfrutarlo.” (Health, love, money, and time to enjoy them).
1 ½ oz tequila
½ oz triple sec, Cointreau, or (in Mexico) Controy
1 oz fresh lime juice
Rim the glass with lime and dip in salt. Shake or blend ingredients in ice and serve.
¼ cup grapefruit juice (diet Squirt for a low-cal version)
1 tbsp lime juice
1 tsp sugar
¼ cup tequila or mezcal
Rim a highball glass with lime, dip in salt, and serve over ice to taste.