TEQUILA - THE TEQUILA GUIDE
Strongly associated with Mexican national identity, tequila is subject to numerous stringent regulations. A Mexican eau de vie, tequila is made from the fermentation and then distillation of agave juice; it can only be produced in five Mexican states, from a particular variety of agave: Tequilana Weber Azul, commonly known as blue agave.
A HIGHLY PROTECTED SPIRIT
After a first initiative in 1949, the Official Journal of the Mexican Federation published a protected designation of origin declaration for tequila on 9 December 1974. Strongly associated with Mexican national identity, tequila has since been subject to numerous stringent regulations. For example, the Tequila Regulatory Council, founded in 1994, monitors each stage in the production of tequila, from the agave plant to the labeling of the bottles.
A PURE PRODUCT OF MEXICO
Like the AOCs for French spirits, tequila can only be produced in Mexico within a precisely defined area. The state of Jalisco and its 125 municipalities form the heart of the agave production, the area in question has now spread to encompass four other states: Tamaulipas, Nayarit, Guanajuato and Michoacan. However, only a few municipalities within the latter have the right to grow the only legally authorised variety of agave, Tequila Weber Azul, commonly known as blue agave. Five states (Jalisco, Michoacan, Guanajuato, Nayarit and Tamaulipas) are authorised to produce tequila, and within these states two regions have the greatest concentration of agave fields: ‘Tequila Valley’ which includes the towns of Tequila, Amatitan and Arenal. The agave plants ripen slowly due to the climate and the resulting tequila is mild and fruity. The Los Altos region, sometimes known as the ‘Highlands’, includes the towns of Atotonilco, Tepatitlan and Arandas, where the climate is drier. The tequila is characterised by an earthy, vegetal taste with woody flavours.
AGAVE: A SLOW GROWING CROP
A member of the Agavaceae family, also known as the maguey or century plant, agave only flowers after 7 to 10 years of growth. This single flowering, which takes place in the summer can produce stalks several metres high that use up the plant’s reserves and result in its death. It is up to the agaveros (or magueyeros) to judge the best moment to harvest the agave heart (or piñas). This can weigh from 35 to 80 kilos in the Lowlands and up to 125 kilos in the Highlands. Harvested too early, it will yield insufficient sugar; too late and the plant will have digested the sugars in order to produce a flower. Already weakened by monovarietal farming, agave crops suffer from worms and diseases that can ruin several years of work. In the case of tequila, care must be taken throughout the growing period, and the crops must be maintained until the extraction of the agave hearts.
A Mexican eau de vie made from the fermentation and then distillation of agave juice (at least 51%), tequila can only be produced in five Mexican states, from one variety of agave, Tequila Weber Azul. While tequila can be bottled in the United States, 100% agave tequila must be bottled in Mexico.
Step 1 - From agave fruit to agave juice
The production of tequila starts with the harvesting of the agave hearts, or piñas. A 70 kg piña will produce about 10 litres of alcohol. After they have been removed the agave plants, the piñas are transported to an oven (usually steam operated) to be cooked. Cut into halves or quarters, they are then traditionally baked for 50 to 72 hours. This can be reduced to 12 to 48 hours for industrially produced tequila. The cooking phase enables the inulin in the agave to be transformed into fermentable sugar. Once cooked the piñas are ground by a traditional or modern mill to separate the fibres from the juice. Three or four changes of water are needed to extract all of the sugar and obtain agave juice, or ‘honey’.
Stage 2 - Fermentation and distillation
Fermentation can take 2 to 5 five days in an industrial distillery, or up to 12 days in a traditional distillery. At the end of this step, the ‘beer’ will have an alcohol content of between 4% and 7% and is filtered before being distilled. While both types of still (pot and column) can be used, preference is usually given to traditional copper stills since they enable a double distillation, as required by law.
Step 3 – Ageing & bottling
Two types of container are used to age tequila: oak barrels and oak vats. The barrels can be new or used. They usually come from the United States (after having being used for bourbon), or from France, and have a capacity of 180 to 200 litres. In certain cases, the law permits the use of a maximum-sized barrel of 600 litres. Whatever their capacity, all of the barrels must be sealed by the CRT (Tequila Regulatory Council). The vats, which generally have a capacity of 20,000 litres, can hold more alcohol. The tequila is diluted and then filtered before bottling.
THE TWO TEQUILA FAMILIES
There are two main families of tequila: tequila and 100% agave tequila (puro de agave).
TequilaTequila is produced by fermenting and distilling a mash consisting of at least 51% agave juice sugars and 49% other sugars. The law also authorises the addition of food-grade caramel or almond essence, in order to enhance the colour of the resulting alcohol. Tequila can be bottled outside of the state of Jalisco, and even outside of Mexico.
100% agave tequilaThis is the most sought after type of tequila and the most popular with tequila fans and connoisseurs. 100% agave means that 100% of the sugars used in fermenting the mash come from blue agave juice, also known as Tequilana Weber Azul. While it is not a guarantee of quality, the stipulation of 100% agave does enable the production method to be identified.
Blanco (silver) : "non aged"‘White’ or non-aged tequila is bottled 60 days after distillation. Fresh from the still or stored in stainless steel vats or barrels, these ‘blancos’ are the purest expression of tequila.
Joven or Oro (gold)This is tequila blanco to which caramel or oak essence has been added.
Reposado (aged)This tequila is aged for 2 months to 1 year in oak vats or barrels. The nature of the container (barrel or vat) will affect the final quantity of alcohol.
Añejo (extra aged):By law this type of tequila must be aged in oak barrels for at least a year; some are aged for more than 3 years. This practice resulted in a fifth category of tequila: extra añejo.
Extra AñejoCreated in 2006, this new category of tequila requires an extended ageing period in oak barrels of over 3 years. The general opinion among tequila producers is that the optimal ageing period is between 4 and 5 years.
SHOT OU CUERNITO ?
Like all of the best eaux de vie, traditional tequila, whether it is white or aged, must be treated with respect. Tequila should be enjoyed neat in a shot glass (known as a caballito) for the reposado, or a brandy glass for the añejo, to appreciate the subtle agave flavour, the expertise of the distiller and, in the case of aged tequila, of the cellar master. It will reveal much more of its flavour at room temperature than if it is served ice-cold. Blanco tequila is always drunk in a cocktail.
“TO THE DEVIL WITH SALT, LIMES AND MARGARITAS”
Introduced in 1930 to curb a Spanish flu epidemic in northern Mexico, the consumption of tequila with salt and lime has become a classic ritual: it consists of placing a pinch of salt on your tongue, swallowing a mouthful of tequila and then immediately sucking on a wedge of lime. Traditional tequila, whether it is white or aged, should be treated with respect. It is best drunk neat to appreciate the subtle agave flavour, the expertise of the distiller and, in the case of aged tequila, of the cellar master. A tequila will reveal much more of its flavour at room temperature than if it is served ice-cold. As for the belief held by many drinkers that tequila = margarita, this developed from various practices dating from the end of the 1930s. These reached their peak in the 1990s, when some producers went as far as to offer pre-mixed margaritas, in an effort to draw in a new clientele.