So, what’s with Mexico and its tequila anyway!
Visitors to Mexico have likely noticed the abundance of tequila. While often associated with Mexican cowboys, ranchers and bandits – thanks to Hollywood — it’s with great pride that the country produces most of the world’s best tequila products.
Tequila is a distilled beverage or spirit made from the blue agave plant. It comes mainly from the area surrounding the city of Tequila in the highlands in the north western Mexican state of Jalisco. It has been produced in this region since the 16th century.
The Aztec people were making fermented beverages from the agave plant long before the Spanish arrived in 1521. After the Spanish ran out of their own brandy, they began to distill agave to produce one of the first indigenous distilled spirits in North America. Around 1600, Don Pedro Sanchez de Tagle began mass producing tequila at the first factory in the now modern-day Jalisco. Don Cenobio Sauza, founder of Sauza Tequila, was the first to begin exporting tequila to the United States.
Don Cenobio’s grandson Don Francisco Javier gained international attention for insisting that “there cannot be tequila where there are no agaves!” His efforts led to the practice that real tequila can come only from the State of Jalisco. To this day, tequila is still produced in that region.
The region of Jalisco is comprised of red volcanic soil, making it well suited for growing the blue agave plant. Agave plants, which grow well in the highlands of Los Altos, are much larger in size and sweeter in both taste and aroma. On the other hand, agave plants grown in the low lands, are known to have a more herbaceous flavor and aroma. Each year, the region harvests more than 300 million plants for the purpose of making tequila.
Tequila is recognized as a Mexican-designated product in more than 40 countries around the world and is protected through NAFTA. Mexican laws state that tequila can only be produced in the state of Jalisco and limited municipalities in the states of Guanajuato, Michoacán, Nayarit, and Tamaulipas.
Planting, caring for and harvesting of the agave plants remains a manual task. Even with modern farm machinery, agave farmers still rely on centuries-old knowledge. The men who harvest the plants are jimadores. From generations of intimate passed-down knowledge, jimadores know how the plants should be cultivated.
The jimadores prevent the plants from flowering by regularly cutting the quiotes – a stalk of several meters that grows from the center of the agave. By preventing the plant from flowering, they also prevent it from dying early and instead, allow it to fully ripen.
Through generations of shared knowledge, the jimadores must be able to tell when each plant is ready for harvesting. They use a special knife called a coa – a circular blade on a long pole – to carefully cut away the leaves from the piña – the core of the plant. If harvested too early or too late, the piña, which averages between 70 kg and 110 kg, will not contain the correct amount of carbohydrates for proper fermentation.
Once the plants are harvested, they are transported to ovens and slowly baked to break down the complex fructans into simple frustoses. The piñas are mashed or shredded using a large stone wheel called a tahona. The fibrous pulp is used for animal feed, but can be used for fuel or processed into paper.
The extracted juice is then poured into large stainless steel or wooden vats as large as 20,000 liters where it’s left for several days to ferment. The result is wort or mosto, which is then distilled to produce ordinario. It is then distilled a second time to produce clear ‘silver’ tequila. The tequila is either pumped into wooden barrels to age – where it will develop a milder flavor and amber color, or it is bottled.