“Mezcal smells like history…..It tastes like wonder and superstition.” Tequila Lovers Guide to Mexico (and Mezcal), 2000.
The Spanish learned the art of distillation from the Moors then carried the techniques to Mexico with Cortez in 1519. When they arrived they found the Aztecs of Central Mexico producing a rustic, moonshine-qualitybeverage from the agave plant called octili poliqhui. The Spanish shortened the name to pulque (pool kay).
The Spanish didn’t care for the taste of pulque so applied their knowledge of distillation to make the drink more palatable. They found that by cooking the agave pulp, the resulting brew was sweeter when fermented. The Indians eventually learned how to transform rough ‘agave wine’ into the highly potent drink, mezcal. The alcohol carried a mystical religious significance, connected to holidays, funerals, weddings and and the public sacrifice of captives.
The name mezcal comes from the prehispanic Nahuatl word for agave. Mescal comes from several varieties of the spiky plant (Maguey in Spanish), such as the TobalÃ¡ (rare wild agave) and EspadÃn (blue) varieties. Pure agave mezcal is an artisinal type of spirit produced in small quantity, and has a smoky flavor and rich, sweet body.
The agave isn’t a cactus and was once classified in the lily and aloe family. Now it is classified in it’s own family – Agavaceae – with more than 400 species. Alcoholic beverages are not made with cactus in Mexico, but certain cactus pads are used in foods like salads, side dishes and breads. (See my post under Mexican Fiesta, Prickly Pear Cactus-A ‘Sticky’ Culinary Matter)
Today, mezcal is made exclusively in the mountainous state of Oaxaca, where agave plantations are terraced in the hills. At least 25 percent of Mexico’s Indian population live in this region. Here, the agave is known by its Spanish name, Maguey. Almost every village and town produces it own local brand of mezcal. It takes the magueyeros (those who harvest maguey) at least seven years to grow and harvest it for the distillers. Mescal is mainly served as a shooter, often with a lick of salt and a bite of lime. Oaxaca is also famous for its vibrant, diverse cuisine that includes at least seven varieties of rich, flavorful mole.
Many people are familiar with mezcal as the bottle of spirits with the butterfly caterpillar (gusano de maguey) floating inside. Definitely an acquired taste, the caterpillars are hand-harvested from various agave plants during the rainy summers and treated before being added to the mezcal. Most types of mezcal don’t include the caterpillar. However, a few have a small side pouch of dried caterpillar ‘salt’ mixed with chiles and salt, for added flavor.
The gusano de maguey has been part of OaxacaqueÃ±o cuisine since pre-Columbian times. It would seem like a ritual of machismo to eat one, but the caterpillar larvae are commonly sold in Zapotec markets for snacking. This ‘delicacy’ reminds me of the coiled habu snakes I first saw floating in bottles of sake in the Hilton Hotel in Okinawa, Japan. Habu snakes are a predatory menace in Okinawa, kept under control by a cute, furry critter known as the mongoose.
Another type of mezcal that seems far more appealing features a whole lime inside the bottle. In the state of Oaxaca, growers tie bottles over healthy blossoms on lime trees. When the lime matures, the bottle is “harvested” with the lime inside then filled with mezcal.
The ritual toast for drinking mezcal reflects mystical, ancient beliefs still associated with its use: “arriba (above), abajo (below), al centro (the centre), para dentro (within).”
Tequila evolved from mezcal, but the production methods are slightly different. Tequila is also made from the fermented, distilled sap of the agave hearts ( piÃ±as) BUT it is the Agave Tequilana Weber Blue variety. Tequila is primarily made in the Mexican state of Jalisco, near the town of Tequila, but it is also made in the states of Guanajuato, MichoacÃ¡n, Tamaulipas and Nayarit.
One of the oldest existing distilleries in Tequila dates back to 1795 when a local padrone named Jose Cuervo was granted a distiller’s liscense by the Spanish crown. In 1876 when General Porfirio DÃaz came into power, the tequila industry was well established. In 1873 the first shipments to the United States started when Jose Cuervo shipped three barrels to El Paso, Texas.
Around 1930, tequila producers began adding various types of sugars to 100 percent agave tequila (up to 49 percent). The resulting tequila blends became known as mixto (‘Mix-to-tequila’). The flavors are less intense that those of 100 percent pure agave tequilas. Less-expensive, these tequilas appeal to the American taste.
In the 1940’s the invention of the margarita cocktail boosted tequila’s popularity. Singer Bing Crosby was especially fond of Herradura Tequila and partnered with actor Phil Harris to import it into the United States. Jimmy Buffet sang “Wasting Away in Margaritaville” in the 1970’s enticing countless Americans to try the fiesty liquor.
The Mexican government carefully regulates its tequila production. The Tequila Regulatory Council states that to be called tequila, the product must contain at least 51 percent blue agave (the remaining 49 percent is cane spirits). Top-drawer tequila is ‘100 percent agave tequila.’ This means it has been produced from the pure fermented, distilled juices of the blue agave – nothing added.
On January 17, 2006, the United States and Mexico renewed an agreement allowing the bulk import of tequila into the United States, where it can be bottled. A “tequila bottler’s registry” was established identfying approved tequila bottlers.
There are five main classifications of tequila.
Blanco (Blawn-ko) – white, silver tequila: Bottled directly from the still or aged up to two months in stainless steel vats. Bright, fiery taste. Good for mixing drinks, especially margaritas. Inexpensive. Additional aging creates a reposado or anejo. Try brands like PatrÃ³n Silver Tequila, Herradura Silver Tequila, Milagro Silver Tequila, Margaritaville Tequila Blanco or Pepe Lopez Premium Silver Tequila.
Gold: ‘Oro’ – gold-hued from oak aging and caramel. Most are ‘mixtos.’ Gold tequila is a favorite in the United States, outselling other types. The agave flavor isn’t as distinctive in gold tequila. Often a value-priced product for mixing drinks. Jose Cuervo Especial, commonly known as Cuervo Gold, is popular for margaritas and is one of the best selling brands. The company also offers 100 percent agave and premium brands for fans, notably the boomer generation, who are becoming more educated and savvy about fine tequila. Sauza Gold Tequila and Margaritaville Tequila Oro are other good brands for margaritas. Joven (HO-ven) is a blend of white and gold tequila. Look for 100 percent agave tequila.
Reposado (ree-poh-SAH-doh):’Rested’ -aged 2 to 12 months in vats or oak barrels, which makes this tequila darker. It has a softer taste than Blanco (Silver). Longer storage drive up the price. Good for margaritas. Try 1800 ReposadoTequila (slightly sweet), Patron Reposado Tequila or Cazadores Reposado Tequila.
AÃ±ejo (on-YAY-ho): Vintage tequila; aged one year minimum and sometimes 5 to 6 years. Reminiscent of aged brandy. Natural amber color from old whiskey or brandy barrels. Anjou tequila is a premium sipping tequila that can cost $100.00 or as much as $3,000 a bottle. Jose Cuervo Reserva de la Familia is excellent for sipping in a snifter. Try Sauza Tres Generaciones, Tequila Herradura Anejo, Cabo Wabo Anejo Tequila or Patron Anejo Tequila.
Taste is ultimate factor on deciding which tequila to buy. Becoming familiar with the distilleries can help to determine the quality of various types. All tequila is double-distilled, by law (most mezcal is traditionally single-distilled). Fine tequila is good ‘on the rocks’ or can be used in mixed drinks. Some like it with a side of sangrita, the traditional spicy tomato-orange drink. Blanco and Reposado are especially good served this way. A few folks take it with a lick of salt, a sip of tequila and a bite of fresh lime. Premium, aged tequila can be sipped as you would a fine wine.
Prices are higher for 100 percent agave tequilas but these products are superior when it comes to aroma, body and flavor. Their popularity is on the rise in the United States.
One Tequila, Two Tequila, Three Tequila, Floor!
Please drink tequila responsibly and in moderation. To avoid a tequila hangover, stay away from brands with additives. Buy only 100 percent agave azul. But the most expensive type of tequila will give you a hangover if you drink the entire bottle!
Sangrita is traditionally served as the side-kick to a shot of straight tequila. Sip the drinks alternately. But if you prefer, you can mix tequila into the sangrita. Traditionally, the red color comes from grenadine, not tomato. The better the tequila, the less the need for a chaser.
2 cups fresh-squeezed tangy orange juice
1/4 cup of fresh lime juice, or to taste
2-1/2 tablespoons grenadine syrup
Tabasco sauce, to taste or about 1/8 teaspoon chile piquÃn
Sea salt and black pepper, to taste
Combine all the ingredients in a pitcher. Serve in shot glasses or liqueur glasses accompanied by shots of quality tequila. For a tomato version, stir in 1 cup tomato juice and a pinch of sugar.
Read my post on Margaritas (See category Mexican Fiesta) for more information on tequila!