Tequila is all the rage; make no mistake about it. Mexico’s national drink is now one of the world’s top three selling liquors, with 600 brands, its own club of devoted connoisseurs and an ever-increasing number of converts. Never tasted it? Try it when you visitCancún and the Riviera Maya.
Tequila is the fermented and distilled juice of the blue agave plant Agave Azul Tequilana Weber which grows in the fertile volcanic soils of Jalisco, principally around the towns of Tequila, Amatitán, Arandas and Atotonilco, and in small areas of the neighboring states of Nayarit, Michoacán and Guanajuato. In recent years, small plantations of blue agave have also sprung up in the Yucatán, around Valladolid.
Blue Agave Plant
Mexico has 200 varieties of agave found throughout the country, from the henequen that grows in the Yucatan to the maguey or century plant from the central highlands. The liquors distilled from agave juice are collectively known as Mezcal and include Mezcal from Oaxaca, which is world-famous for the maguey worm in the bottle, Sotol from Chihuahua and Bacanora from Sonora. Tequila is unique in that it can only be made from the blue agave and must originate in the Tequila Region. The Mexican government controls the tequila brand and regulates production to protect quality. Premium tequila has a 100% agave label meaning that it only contains sugars from the blue agave, was bottled at a distillery in tequila country and has an alcohol content of 70 to 110 proof.
Blue Agave plantation in the Tequila region
The Origins of Tequila
The pre-Hispanic cultures of western Mexican had a variety of uses for the blue agave. The plant yielded a resistant fiber which was used to make rope, bags and even paper, the spiny leaf tips became nails, needles, scrapers and weapons, the leaves were used to thatch roofs and were burnt as fuel and the ashes were processed to make soap. The sap was fermented to produce an alcoholic drink and the heart of the plant was cooked to extract sugar, however, the history of tequila and mezcal really begins in the 16th century with the coming of the Spaniards.
Exactly when Spanish settlers in the Tequila valley first sampled the aguamiel or honey syrup squeezed from the roast heart of a blue agave plant and thought of fermenting and distilling it is unclear, but by the end of the 16th century the first mezcal wine was being produced in Nueva Galicia (Jalisco).
The colonial authorities initially frowned on the practice and banned the production of all Mexican liquors that could compete with wines and brandies imported from Spain. However, ranchers continued to distill moonshine tequila and sell it to merchants, missionaries and miners in ever-increasing volumes. By the mid 17th century, the government was turning a blind eye to production and even began to levy taxes on it. In 1758, the governor of Nueva Galicia gave Jose Antonio Cuervo the first concession to distill the liquor and in 1795, King Carlos IV gave his son, Jose Maria Guadalupe Cuervo, a royal license to produce mezcal wine. The first cargo of tequila destined for international markets was dispatched from the Sauza family ranch. From humble beginnings, the Cuervo and Sauza families were to become industry giants.
At the beginning of the 19th century there were 24 tequila haciendas in Tequila and Amatitán and production steadily increased, despite occasional setbacks caused by political instability. Tequila received an additional boost after the 1910 Revolution, when the population wholeheartedly embraced all things Mexican. Later, films made in Mexico and Hollywood gave us stereotypes: mariachis raising their glasses in a toast and lovesick charros or cowboys drowning their sorrows in a bottle of tequila.
The Production Process
Tequila plants are ripe eight to 12 years after they are planted. A jimador or cutter selects the mature plants and strips the leaves from the pineapple-like (piña) heart before digging it out of the ground. The piñas are moved to the distillery where they are chopped up and roasted in ovens before being shredded and pressed to extract the sugary juice. Around 15 pounds of raw tequila is needed to produce one quart of juice. The juice is poured into fermentation tanks, yeast is added and after 30 to 48 hours of fermentation, the juice is distilled at least twice and left to rest. It is then diluted with distilled water and the end result is tequila.
A "Jimador" cutting the Blue Agave plant
Blue Agave Plants hearts or "piñas"
The town of Tequila and the surrounding landscape are a UNESCO World Heritage Site and tours are available to the ultramodern distilleries of the largest Tequila companies and small family-run estates where tequila is still produced using artisanal techniques.
Know your Tequila
Tequila blanco or white tequila is bottled immediately after being distilled. Sometimes colorants such as caramel are added to produce Tequila oro.
Tequila Blanco Jose Cuervo
Tequila reposado is white tequila that is kept in white oak casks for more than two months and up to a year. The result is a mellower flavor and bouquet.
Tequila Reposado Don Julio
Tequila añejo is aged in white oak casks for more than a year, acquiring an amber color and distinctive smooth flavor. Some aged tequilas are stored in oak barrels for up to eight years and are known as Reserva.
If you are staying at Royal Resorts, The Royal Market also stocks a selection of well-known brands. Do you have a favorite tequila or margarita cocktail? let us know, and Salud!
Tequila Selection at The Royal Market
Other Divine Drinks
A legend from central Mexico tells how another native agave yielded an alcoholic brew. The earth goddess Mayáhuel was transformed into a maguey as a gift to mankind. The plant had miraculous properties: its sap was fermented to make pulque, a drink consumed during sacred rituals. Not surprisingly, Mayáhuel was also the mother of 400 gods of drunkenness in the Aztec pantheon.