Mexico's Bebida Nacional: A History that is both Ancient and Modern
Tequila embodies the most authentic spirit of Mexico and, together with rum, represents the essence of the Caribbean. It is easy to associate the land of the Aztecs with the famous spirit, as it is the only country where it can be produced.
The famously arid and hot desert terrain of the inland area is covered with a good deal of succulent plants, from classic cacti to various types of agave. The Weber variety of agave, known as blue or azul, is the raw material from which Mexican tequila is made. Spread over an area of more than 100,000 hectares in the vicinity of the city that gave it its name, the bushy succulent plant contains a sugar-rich juice that is particularly suitable for fermentation and distillation processes. The growing number of tourists, the quality of the material, the uniqueness of the product, its versatility in making cocktails and the ease with which it can be combined with the region's spicy and tangy dishes have ensured its success and worldwide popularity.
Today, despite the fact that its production is limited to an area of just over 150 square kilometres in the Jalisco region by a small number of distilleries, its consumption reaches the highest levels in the world of spirits, with over 55 million litres a year.
But its origins, like any alcoholic beverage, are shrouded in mystery. Its first production probably dates back to the founding of the city of Tequila in 1666, when a similar drink was prepared by the Aztecs under the name 'Pulque'. According to a myth, lightning struck an agave plant during a storm, cutting it in two. The juice that emerged in contact with the air began to ferment, turning into an alcoholic beverage, which was the ancestor of the modern type. The techniques were refined over time and the distillate began to play important roles for the Aztecs, as a medicine or as a beverage during sacrificial rituals. When the conquistadors arrived, they realised the quality of the product and spread it throughout Europe. A path that was destined for success!
Production Methods and Types
According to the regulations, it must be produced exclusively in Mexico from at least 51% blue agave. The manual work involved in planting and caring for the plant has an ancient origin and has continued for centuries, despite the introduction of new technologies and agricultural machinery in the market. The jimadores have a profound knowledge of all the ripening stages of the agave. They know that when the agave reaches 7 to 10 years of age, reaching a height of around 1.80 metres, and swells due to the presence of sap, rich in sugars, which will be used for the flowering process, they can use their famous curved-bladed knife, known as a coa, to cut the leaves and remove the core which is shaped like a large pine cone, known as a piña. The latter is then cut in half and gently cooked for about a day in steam ovens. The resulting mass loses weight and transforms the sugars into fermentables. At this point it is ready to be squeezed and crushed to obtain a juice, called aguamiel, which is fermented with indigenous yeasts present on the plant in large tanks. The fermented juice is distilled in copper stills, mainly discontinuous, and then reduced with water to obtain an alcoholic strength of around 40%. It is then aged or refined to obtain 4 categories:
- White Tequila, or Silver or Joven, aged only in steel
- Gold, flavoured with caramel
- Reposado, the most famous, aged in oak casks or barrels for 3-12 months
- Anejo, aged for at least one year in wooden barrels (sometimes used to age Reposado), but most distilleries extend the time up to 4-5 years
- Extra Anejo, or Muy Anejo, the oldest, which can be aged up to 8 years in wood.
Other common types are:
- Premium: 100% blue agave
- Mixto: at least 51% agave, combined with corn syrup and sugar cane
The various types have given rise to a variety of legendary cocktails. Worthy of mention are: the Margarita, in which it is mixed with Cointreau and lime, and the Tequila Sunrise, made with the addition of orange juice and grenadine.
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