Tequila is rich in a history far beyond the popular Margarita. Originally used during rituals beginning 2,000 years ago, tequila has evolved into the potent spirit we drink today. The town of Tequila was founded in 1656 and shortly thereafter tequila was produced throughout Mexico, with Jose Cuervo being the first to commercialize the product. The late 1800’s saw the first imports to the US and the following Mexican Revolution and World Wars added to the international popularity of tequila.
The Agave Plant:
Tequila is made by distilling the fermented juices of the blue agave plant (a member of the lily family) with water. After 10 years of growing, the agave plant is ready to be used in the production of tequila. The large bulbous plants are quartered and slowly baked in steam ovens until all starches are converted to sugars. This product is crushed in order to extract the plant’s sweet juices that are then fermented.
100% Agave vs. Mixto:
According to Mexican law all tequila must contain at least 51% agave. Really good tequila is 100% agave and the law requires them to be produced, bottled and inspected in Mexico. Because of the regulations few tequileros (tequila distillers) produce this higher quality spirit and a bottle can be quite expensive. Tequila that is not 100% agave is called mixto because it is blended with sugar and water during distillation. Mixto tequilas can be produced outside of Mexico.
Tequila is distilled in pot stills until it reaches 110 proof. The result is a clear spirit with a significant amount of congeners. Some tequileros re-distill the tequila to produce a cleaner, blander liquor. The darker varieties get their color from the addition of caramel or, in the case of high-quality tequila, from barrel aging. Other tequilas are flavored with small amounts of Sherry, prune concentrate and coconut. Most tequila requires no aging.