Celebrating Tequila: Uniquely Mexican
Tara A. Spears
Hooray, hooray, its international tequila day on Monday 24 July. Let’s all have a glass and say “Salud” to Mexico for giving the world this wonderful beverage. To show just how special this brew is, each bottle must be labeled with an appellation of origin that legally defines where it was produced. All tequila is grown and distilled in one of only five regions in Mexico!
To keep it simple, think of tequila in two classes and three types. The two classes are “mixto” and “100 percent agave.” They reflect the two sides to this spirit: the cheap headache side and the refined sipping side. The distillers would love to just concentrate on producing the high quality tequila, but the distillers make far too much easy money from the mixto, especially in export sales to other countries.
Mixto roughly translates to, “No self-respecting Mexican, no matter how broke he is, drinks this stuff.” The alcohol is from 51 percent agave and 49 percent whatever else can be converted into sugars. That Cuervo Gold or Sauza stuff you see your average U.S. bartender serving? That’s a brand-name mixto. If you woke up with a screaming headache from drinking tequila, it’s probably because you had too much of this stuff. White? Gold? Brown? It doesn’t matter: Approach the worm or low price tequila with caution.
If you want to enjoy your tequila, you want something that has “100 percent agave” on the label. It’s the real deal, with nothing added. Imagine the taste of your favorite concoction at Starbucks compared to what comes out of the pot at your local gas station. That’s the difference between 100 percent agave and mixo. Tequila distillers say that high altitude affects the tequila, giving it a more floral and fruity taste.
A quick definition of the five types of tequila will help you select the right one for your taste. Blanco is un-aged tequila in its young and exuberant state–straight out of distillation. I find it too strong. Next, there is joven o oro (young or gold) which is aged a few months.
Next level is Repasado, meaning “rested” in Spanish. This is a good choice for shots or margaritas as it has a smoother taste due to being aged for at least nine months to a year. The fourth type of tequila is the Anejo. This
aged tequila tastes so good it’s difficult to just have one! Lastly, the superior quality ExtaAñejo (long term aged) is the type of liquor you enjoy by inhaling the aromas and savoring the complexity. This is an excellent example of you get what you pay for; bottles can run $100 US or more.
Growing agave intended for tequila is not a quick turn- around crop. The blue agave plant takes a minimum of eight years to reach maturity and to be ready for harvest.
There’s a huge bulbous fruit in the middle of the spikes. After it’s chopped,
roasted, fermented, distilled, and aged in oak barrels, the result is a nice batch of tequila. The only problem is, at least 10 years have passed between when the agave started growing and when you’re squeezing a lime into your margaritas. Lucky for us, the Mexican people are patient.
“We cannot really call our industry organic, because about every eight or ten years, there might be a need to fight an insect infestation” says Cirilo Oropeza, master distiller at Corazon Tequila Company. “Otherwise, the whole process is very natural: no chemical fertilizer, no additives-just fermented blue agave and spring water.”
On a couple of tequila tours, I asked the guide what’s the typical salary that a field worker (jimador) makes. “Normal is about 150 pesos a day,” he said. “In an eight-hour day, one experienced jimador can harvest over 100 piñas. Each worker gets paid on how many they harvest, so someone who is really good can make 300 pesos a day in harvest season.” So the kick-ass workers who really hustle get 300 pesos for a hard, hot, messy day, that’s not nearly enough to buy a bottle of retail Patrón.
What’s interesting is that four family agri-businesses (Cuervo, Sauza, Herradura, Cazadores ) dominate the tequila industry by producing 65% of all tequila in the last decade. Just the top 20 companies consumed 86% of all the harvested agave. Due to specific needs that
dictate where agave plants can grow, the leading producers are all neighbors. Jose Cuervo started producing the town of Tequila at the end of the 1700s and the family Sauza started up soon after. They are still by far the two biggest producers in Mexico, yet they’re only a block away from each other in this little pueblo.
It is well worth a trip to the mountain town of Tequila, Jalisco to tour an actual tequila distillery. The tours run the gamut from structured
to informal; technical to entertaining. No matter what the tour format, all tours include drinking samples of the company product as well as an opportunity to shop. What better souvenir of your Mexican vacation than a couple of bottles of authentic, top quality tequila?
No matter where you are, July is a perfect time for having a margarita or a shot of tequila. Next Week Part 2 Tells the History and Economic Importance of Tequila in the 21st century