Tequila: the name alone conjures up a variety of images associated with the Mexican cultural landscape. From its beginnings in the blue agave fields of Jalisco, to its consumption in humble cantinas and trendy restaurants, tequila is the quintessentially Mexican drink.
The incredible growth industry which has spawned over three hundred new labels in the last two years alone, along with as many new drink recipes as there are tequila bars, has given rise to the use of tequila in the kitchen, too. Tequila-flavored dishes can be found in places as far apart as Las Vegas’ MGM Grand and the village of Tequila, Mexico, where it all began.
From Local Ritual to International Export
The importance of tequila dates back to the pre-Hispanic Tiquila tribe of Amatitlan, in western Mexico, who boiled and fermented the agave plant in order to obtain the ritual potion used by priests and healers. Local legend holds that one day, many centuries ago, lightening struck an agave, causing it to burn, during which time a passing native noticed liquid flowing out of the plant base, an occurence which led to its eventual use by the indigenous people.
Whether or not this actually happened, it is known that when the Spaniards arrived in the area in April of 1530, Fray Francisco Ximenez noted the importance of tepemexcall in religious practices. Jeronimo Hernandez, a Spanish doctor who wrote during the early colonial period, observed the use of the liquid as a rub for curing rheumatism.
The fermentation process used before the arrival of the Spaniards resulted in a drink somewhat similar to beer or pulque. It was only the introduction of the distillation process, which had been brought to Spain by the Moors, which produced the liquor now known as tequila.
As early as 1600, Don Pedro Sanchez de Tagle, Marquis of Altamirana, began the formal cultivation and distillation of agave, and in 1758, Jose Cuervo, a Spanish businessman, was granted full cultivating rights on the territory of Villoslada, Jalisco. In 1873, Cenobio Sauza acquired the distillery he later called La Perseverancia, which today is the Tequila Museum, offering tours and tastings similar to those given by wineries. That same year, Sauza exported eight barrels of tequila to the United States. The growth of the Mexican railways, along with more efficient agricultural production, marked a change in the tequila industry, from a rural endeavor to an international export product.
Transforming the Blue Agave
Tequila, like its cousin, mezcal, is made from the agave plant. Contrary to popular belief, the agave is not a member of the cactus family, but rather comprises its own distinct botanical family, agavaceae, related to the lily. In order for a liquor to be labeled “tequila”, it must be made from at least 51% blue agave, also known as Agave Weber Azul, bearing the name of a Dr. Weber, who isolated and identified the plant in 1902, and named it for himself.
If the beverage distilled from the agave has less than 51% fermented sugars obtained from blue agave, it cannot be called tequila. The Mexican government regulates this appellation in much the same way that the French authorities do with cognac. Only designated areas in the country, mainly in Jalisco and Nayarit, produce legitimate tequila. Anything produced outside the tequila regions is labeled mezcal.
The Agave Weber Azul, which flourishes in the red clay soil of arid western Jalisco, takes eight to twelve years to mature. During this time, the plants are in almost continuous bloom, with flowers called quiotes. After this period, they are pinched back; this removal of the seeds produces more sap, which will give the tequila its underlying sweet taste.
The plants are now ready for the process known as the jima, which is the removal of the pencas – soft, inner leaves – from the ground without disturbing the rest of the plant. The jimadores, responsible for this procedure, work by hand and acquire their skill only through years of experience.
Next the pencas are placed in large steaming vats in order to extract the sap. This is then allowed to ferment, and then double-distilled in pot stills (unlike mezcal, which is distilled only once.) The resulting liquor may be aged in either used bourbon barrels or new French oak barrels.
Ordinary white tequila is not regulated as to the amount of time it must be aged, but in order to be called “silver” it must rest in wax-lined oak barrels for at least two months. “Gold” refers to tequila to which a coloring agent, most often caramel, has been added. Reposado means that the tequila has aged between two months and one year, and añejo means that the tequila has rested for over a year, by which time it has acquired an amber color as a result of aging, and not from coloring agents.
A Day in Margaritaville
Surrounded by rolling red hills covered in bright blue, spikey agave plants, the town of Tequila is, at first glance, just another dusty pueblo. However, we have not come here for the scenery, but for the tequila. With over 100 million liters manufactured here annually, we are bound to find several favorites. As we exit Highway 5 about 55 kilometers northwest of Guadalajara, roadside signs in the shape of giant tequila bottles welcome the visitor to town. As we approach the center, the streets are lined with stands selling leather crafts, miniature wooden tequila barrels, and a seemingly endless supply of the liquor itself.
The prospective customer may taste a variety of brands, but is not pressured to buy. The attitude seems to be “we have plenty of this stuff and it’s all good.” Advice may be given when solicited, but the general rule is to let your tastebuds be your guide. After sampling a few different kinds, my husband and I each have our own favorite, so naturally we buy both. We haven’t driven all this way for nothing, and besides, it’s time to stop tasting and go on to the Tequila Museum before comida time.
The museum is housed in the oldest existing distillery in town, La Perseverancia, the 19th-century Sauza building. Appointments are not necessary, and the gatekeeper leads free tours which are informative and interesting. Stories of the Sauza family defending their business against raids by banditos are passed right along with explanations of the various stages in the manufacture of Mexico’s most famous beverage.
For those who’d like to learn more about the source itself, Sauza also has an experimental agave farm, Rancho El Indio, on the edge of town. It, too, is open to the public free of charge.
Aficionados of unusual architecture might enjoy a stroll through the gardens of the Sauza villa, built in the early 19th-century, with a series of quarry-stone fountains carved in the shapes of vegetables which match the bas-relief vegetables in the building’s main arch.
¡A La Cocina!
With heads full of tequila lore and sadly empty stomachs, the next stop is a good comida. There are several restaurants from which to choose, nearly all featuring the regional specialties, including pozole, a hominy-based meat stew, and birria, a meat dish most frequently prepared with either lamb or goat marinated and steam-cooked in a red sauce. However, we have been fortunate enough to get a recommendation from one of the tequila vendors, and find ourselves in at El Callejon, a restaurant which features a selection of grilled meat dishes, subtly accented with tequila.
We start with a before-dinner drink of – what else?- tequila, served in small pony glasses called caballitos, served with the traditional chaser called sangrita, an orange and tomato juice combination seasoned with chile and spices. This is followed by Fajitas de Res al Tequila, a scrumptious dish of sauteed beef strips, onion and green peppers, with just enough tequila splashed on at the end for a delicious twist.
After our meal at El Callejon, I was inspired to seek out other recipes using tequila, and found several from different parts of Mexico, including a delicious fish dish from Acapulco, among others. In fact, I found so many, from salads to main dishes to desserts, that more will follow next month, including some refreshing spring dessert recipes. So, whether your preference is for gold or silver, añejo or white, you’ll find something to suit your taste in tequila.
- Sangrita salad dressing: Aderezo de sangrita para ensaladas
- Avocado soup with tequila: Sopa de aguacate con tequila
- Beef fajitas with tequila: Fajitas de res al tequila
- Acapulco-style fish fillets: Filetes de pescado estilo Acapulco
- Chicken tequila Fettuccine: Pollo al tequila con fettuccine