Tequila is a strong distilled alcoholic beverage produced from fermented Agave plant, made primarily in the area surrounding Tequila, a town in the western Mexican state of Jalisco, 50 km from Guadalajara. It is made from the agave plant (also called maguey) - a succulent, similar to the lily, which is native to Mexico.
Regions and other variations
Tequila is only one type of mezcal, which is the name of any distilled alcohol made from the agave plant. What makes tequila different from other mezcals is its adherence to the strict standards set by the Tequila Regulatory Council (Mexican norm NOM-006-SCFI-1994), the region where it is made – Denominación de Origen regulations restrict its production to specific regions in the states of Jalisco, Guanajuato, Michoacán, Tamaulipas and Nayarit – and the fact that tequila is made from Agave tequilana, also called blue agave or agave azul. Tequila is required to be at least 51% agave; the remainder is usually maize or sugarcane. There are, however, premium tequilas made from 100% blue agave. If it is not made from 100% agave, tequila is called mixto.
Tequila made only from agave sugars must be made in Mexico, and is marked Hecho en México (made in Mexico). Bulk agave syrup, usually derived from wild agave, may be exported, and often has other sugars added, and caramel for colouring. Agave syrup or nectar is about 90% fructose, and is often used as a sweetener and a safe substitute for table sugar. It is marketed as a natural sweetener with a low glycemic index. A person trained in the facts of Tequila history, Tequila production, and Mexican Folklore is called a Tequilero.
Tequila was first produced in the 16th century near the location of the city of Tequila which was not officially established until 1656. The Aztec peoples had previously made a fermented beverage from the agave plant which they called octli (later, and more popularly called pulque), long before the Spanish arrived in 1521. When the Spanish conquistadors ran out of their own brandy, they began to distill this agave drink to produce North America's first indigenous distilled spirit.
Some 80 years later, around 1600, Don Pedro Sánchez de Tagle, the Marquis of Altamira, began mass-producing tequila at the first factory in the territory of modern-day Jalisco. By 1608, the colonial governor of Nueva Galicia had begun to tax his products.
The tequila that is popular today was first mass-produced in the early 1800s in Guadalajara, Mexico. 1800 Tequila (tm) is marketed today in commemoration of the year in which the first successfully aged Tequila was produced. Several large batches of Tequila produced in 1800 (although not of the original single batch) have survived the test of time and are marketed today for commercial consumption. This premium Tequila is a tribute to the earliest master Tequila blenders.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, increasing world-wide popularity of tequila drove corporate interest in the drink. Notable developments as a result included:
- The purchase of the Cabo San Lucas-based Cabo Wabo brand by musician Sammy Hagar.
- The purchase of the El Tesoro brand by massive holding company Fortune Brands.
- The production of the El Tesoro's Paradiso, a blended tequila, aged in French oak barrels that had been used for A. de Fussigny Cognac.
- The debut of Partida Tequila, estate-grown and made from 100% blue agave. Partida Tequila makes a Blanco, Reposado (6 months in French-Canadian oak barrels) and Anejo (18 months in French-Canadian oak barrels), all awarded a rare 5-stars by acclaimed spirits critic F. Paul Pacult.
In fact, most well known tequila brands are owned by large multinational corporations including: Cazadores, Sauza and Cuervo. However, there are over 100 distilleries making over six hundred brands of tequila in Mexico and over 2,000 brand names have been registered.
2006 Tequila Trade Agreement
On January 17, 2006, the United States and Mexico signed an agreement allowing the continued bulk import of Tequila into the United States. Without this agreement all tequila would have had to be bottled in Mexico. In addition to allowing bulk import, the agreement also created a "tequila bottlers registry" that identifies approved bottlers of tequila.
Other key elements of the agreement include:
- A prohibition on restrictions of bulk tequila exports to the United States;
- A prohibition on Mexican regulation of tequila labeling or marketing, as well as the labeling, formulation, and marketing of distilled spirits specialty products outside of Mexico;
- Continuation of current practice with respect to addressing Mexican concerns regarding the manufacturing of tequila in the United States; and
- Establishment of a working group to monitor the implementation of the agreement.
- For more detail on TMA, see the entry in Tequila agave
TMA is a blight that has reduced the production of the agave grown to produce tequila. This has resulted in lower production and higher prices throughout the early 2000s, and due to the long maturation of the plant, will likely continue to affect prices for years to come.
Types of tequila
Tequila is usually bottled in one of four categories:
- plata or blanca ("silver" – aged no more than a couple of months)
- oro or joven abocado ("gold" or "bottled when young" – "silver" tequila colored to resemble aged tequila)
- reposado ("rested" – aged about a year)
- añejo ("aged" or "vintage" – aged from 1 to 3 years)
The aging process changes the color of tequila, but the liquid can sometimes be colored with caramel to show a darker color, indicative of a longer aging process; añejos tend to be darker, the reposados slightly less dark, while the platas are not colored at all.
It is a common misconception among foreigners (as well as some natives!) that some tequilas contain a 'worm' in the bottle. Only certain mezcals, usually from the state of Oaxaca, are ever sold con gusano, and that only began as a marketing gimmick in the 1940s. The worm is actually the larval form of the moth Hipopta agavis that lives on the agave plant. Finding one in the plant during processing indicates an infestation and, correspondingly, a lower quality product. (Note: for more information on how tequila is made, see mezcal.) However this misconception continues, and even with all the effort and marking to represent Tequila as a premium product similar in the way Cognac is seen to Brandy, there are some opportunist producers for the shooters and fun market who will help blur these boundaries.