Lesson Four: White Spirits
Chapter Four: Tequila
Earning Respect at Last
As avowed agave fanatics, we BARmen are completely blown away by the fortunes of agave spirits in the U.S. market, the world’s most important (even surpassing Mexico). Not so long ago, you could buy Margaritas in chain restaurants that contained absolutely no Tequila whatsoever; today, it’s totally changed! Well, actually, it’s changed a bit but not as much as we would like. Twenty years ago in Europe, before the EU agreed to respect Mexico’s Tequila normas (or regulations), Tequila was as likely to be flavored Spanish cane spirit as anything else that wasn’t Tequila. Today the U.S. government still refuses to recognize or enforce Mexican Tequila rules, but the U.S. government is famously dickish about such matters.
There are still some silly legends around this stuff, of course, and maybe that helps sales. People will still ask if mezcal has a worm in it, but that’s okay. There have to be truths too dangerous to share with those who don’t love agave completely, totally, hopelessly. At DrinkSkool, our love is absolute but it’s not as though we ignore the facts:
Some Facts Taste Good
The agave plant is not one thing; there are hundreds of versions of the plant, and they are found the world over. And while you’ve probably heard of only one of the sub-types of agave (the blue agave so critical to Tequila, otherwise known as tequilana weber, typa azul), there are many that can produce lovely beverages: sotol, sisal, manso, arreguense, tepastate, espadin (the sword agave, a large and spiky plant commonly found throughout many of the lands south of the U.S).; and for many of us, tobala, the tiny agave with the powerful heart, like Thomas the Train pulling far above its weight class.
But the agave was central to the lives of generations of Central Americans because it offered more than mere beverage. From its pencas (its spiny leaves) could be gathered sewing needles, roofing materials and shoe soles, but the plant also offered medicines, nets, ropes, baskets and mats.
History Tastes Good Too
Oh, yes, it gave a liquid called aguamiel, or honey water, and the iosine-rich (more about iosine later), sweet goo has been made for (perhaps) millennia into alcohol. How long has this been happening? We don’t know. But we do know that the Spanish conquistadors found people getting drunk on pulque; a mildly alcoholic, fermented aguamiel. While there are some who believe that distilled agave was happening before the Spain’s arrival, we don’t have any strong evidence yet to support that. Time and archaeology will tell.
Pulque was as crucial to Aztec and Miztec religious practice as wine and crackers is to Catholicism. Actually, a lot more crucial. Have you ever consumed wine in some Catholic churches? Shocking. Consuming pulque was not a social activity; it was reserved for certain religious practices or personalities. The rest of mankind required permission to consume it. Getting drunk too was supposed to be a religious act; getting drunk any other time justified draconian punishments: head-shaving, banishment, death, stuff like that.
A Spit (Moon)Shine
Under those circumstances, it’s hard to believe that people were messing around with aguamiel or would have made distilled aguamiel without permission from the apparently testy and inflexible authorities. And unlike distillation, pulque was easy: let the juice of a mature agave plant pool up in the center of the heart of the plant and wait. Or more commonly, collect the aguamiel of many plants into a bowl, spit into it (we have some pretty amazing enyzmes in our mouths) and the fermentation will kick into high gear.
But then traditional authority was destroyed by Spanish conquest; Aztec leaders, revered as gods, were tricked, humiliated and slaughtered. Cultural norms and political and social hierarchies crumbled. From that moment onward, anything was possible and the Spanish, who brought rudimentary stills to the party (they were proven adepts at that technology) utilized the existing alcohol beverage to make their distillate. But one small problem with this glib account: pulque doesn’t distill.
Aguamiel, with its base sugar iosine, does something odd when it ferments: it changes chemical shape and if you try to distill it, it gums up the still almost instantly. Don’t bother trying to distill it, though the conquistadores surely did. Eventually they figured out the fix: cook agave before it turns into pulque, shred that agave and then ferment that juice. NOW distill and drink happily. It might have taken a few extra tries to get it right but I’m guessing they had extra time on their hands.
Necessity like the Mothers of Invention
All this the Spanish did out of necessity. In their other colonies they were utilizing the crop that Chris Columbus brought to the New World, sugar cane. Cane prospered in the Caribbean and Brazil; not so much in central Mexico. We should be grateful to the Spanish for both distillates, even if rum derived from sugar cane was not their invention (see Distillation chapter). For the time being, we must give them credit for the creation of both Tequila and Mezcal.
Greater plaudits belong to the beleaguered Mexicans. The Spanish laid waste to the social and economic structures of Central and South America. They tore from the land and people what they could; docile vassals were what they required. Yet Spain’s intrinsic culture sowed the seeds for its defeat in the long battle for the Western Hemisphere; its subjects felt no fealty to the Spanish crown. England and France had created a strong merchant class with at least a modicum of political power. Eventually, some members of that class would move closer to the source of their raw materials, grow frustrated and break away from the mother country. Mexico remained a vassal state for longer and Tequila was controlled, proscribed, squashed. Those who made it; drank it, and selling it abroad was nearly impossible.
Chapter Four, Part Two: Dark Night, Bright Days
Into the Wilderness
And so began Tequila’s long time in shadows; it became a drink of Mexico’s poor. The wealthy drank better. Pulque turned into a nearly invisible drink, and mezcal: some damned marketing company stuck a worm into it. Everything about the drink was off the books; maybe that’s why the rumors still abide about its extraordinary powers, its hallucinogenic properties. Look; we BARmen love it as much as anyone, but from years of long experience and massive consumption, we can assure you that it’s no more hallucinatory than absinthe. Okay, bad example. It’s no more psychotropic than any other delicious, easy to over-consume alcohol beverage.
Tequila was for many years just barely north of the border. During Prohibition, Texans among others bootlegged it as best they could, and Texan boots can be mighty flexible when needed. By the 1960s, companies were bottling Tequila hardly worth the name in the U.S.; some of those Tequilas barely contained any agave at all. That practice should have been prevented but as noted above, the U.S. wasn’t going to lift a finger to protect Tequila’s reputation.
Growing Like a Weed
Things changed but American companies and government agencies deserve no credit for this; it was that the intrinsic quality of Tequila was impossible to deny. Today, even large-scale brands (you know who I’m talking about) have had to up their games; they produce attractive Tequilas now and often outperform their once suspect reputations. At the same time, there are new and powerful brands that hardly merit the attention they’ve received; just as decades ago, a useful rule may be to watch what the Mexican people themselves consume instead of being ruled by clever or ubiquitous ad campaigns.
But here’s our BAR confession (drink does that to people, you know): we believe that consumers will notice the difference between quality and bullshit, if only given the chance. So, Tequila drinkers, please compare them and stop drinking something just because someone whose palate preference might be different than yours likes it.
You don’t believe us, do you? Okay. What is the most popular cocktail in the U.S. today, and has been for decades? The Margarita. Why is it the most popular cocktail? Because it makes you crazy, it makes you hallucinate? No, there are a lot of non-hallucinating folks having Margaritas right now, for lunch…somewhere. No, because it is a delicious cocktail based upon a delicious spirit and you, yeah, I’m looking at you, can taste the difference between a good Margarita and a crap Margarita. Quality is there.
The State(s) of Tequila
So the Mexicans took steps to protect Tequila from those who would injure its reputation: in places like the USA and the EU. By the late 1980’s the EU had shut down their diluters, counterfeiters and Tequila charlatans. They recognized that Tequila comes only from Mexico; from its five designated production regions. Those are of course Jalisco, the state in the southwest that contains the town of Tequila, near the volcano known as Tequila, where Tequila the spirit has been made for centuries. The other regions are Guanajuato, Michoacan and Nayarit, and near the Texas border, Tamaulipas.
Economic realities being as they are, Tequila may or may not be wholly from agave plants. The term mixto shows up on bottles here in the U.S. as well as in Mexico, and it means that 49% or so of the juice used to make the Tequila came not from agave but usually from piloncillo, or sugar cane. Hey, partying with mixto is not all bad but you can afford better, so buy 100% agave Tequila, okay? That’s exactly what Norte Americanos should do with their ill-gotten gains.
More Categories of Goodness
Buying “Gold Tequila” is for high school girls who have crappy boyfriends. Forget about it. Buy 100% agave Tequila. Sometimes it’s “100% Blue Agave” and sometimes it’s “100% Agave” but either way, you’re good. Once you are drinking the good stuff, now you can focus upon style. There are four basic aging categories: Blanco (or Silver or Plata, but un-aged in barrels is what this means), Reposado (or rested from 60 days to one year in barrels of many shapes and sizes), Anejo (aged for one to three years in small oak barrels) and Extra Anejo (aged in the same sorts of barrels for more than three years). Which one you drink is up to your taste and wallet. But we BAR gents will admit to a proclivity for Blanco. Why? Because we happen to love the flavor of agave spirit and once you add oak, it can diminish those agave characteristics.
Those flavors include cucumber, green or jalapeno pepper, dill, honey, caramel, citrus, lime, lemon, grapefruit, smoke, black and white pepper as well as salt. Wait:, lime and salt? Like you would add to Tequila when you drink a shot? Actually, you don’t need lime and salt, if you’re drinking good Tequila; it already has those flavors.
More Flavors of Greatness
Why vegetal notes like dill, pepper or cucumber? Because it’s made from a plant, dude; you harvest the heart of the shallow cactus-looking agave by carving off the sharp pencas, ending up with something that looks like a huge pineapple. It deserves to be a bit vegetal in flavor because it’s more or less a vegetable.
I said the cactus word; don’t be fooled. It is not a cactus though its pencas are sharp as knives. It’s a succulent, like a big Aloe Vera plant.
Mezcal: we’ve talked around it; let’s talk about it. I don’t want to waste time talking about what mezcal is NOT; just type mezcal on your computer keyboard and you’ll see it magically change to mescal. Jesus. When will autocorrect learn? It’s mezcal: made from a variety of agave plants because Oaxaca, where mezcal is born, is the Garden State of Mexico and hosts many different types of plants, and many types of agave.
Smoking or Baked, Dude?
The critical difference between Tequila and Mezcal is not the type of agave, though it has some impact. It’s not the location per se, though all of these regions are remarkably high in elevation. It’s that the agave hearts used for mezcal are routinely baked in earthen pits, usually surrounded by smoldering agave leaves that send off vegetal smoke, and the smoky character of mezcal is its dominant feature. In Tequila, they’ve moved on to ovens or even autoclaves, stainless stele containers where the process happens very rapidly, in a matter of hours. Mezcal cooking and smoking can take a week.
One last note: pulque has a reputation for being an intense intoxicant. Nice try; it’s about three to six percent alcohol and when fresh, it’s rather tasty. But like a number of agave iterations, the mythology is nearly mystic, as though Carlos Castenada wasn’t the fantasy of some white writer, and as if mezcal was actually mescal. Don’t laugh; I’ve had editors change the word mezcal from a word that means a drink made from an agave plant into an abbreviation for mescaline. Crap. Autocorrect just did it again. Mezcal. Mezcal. You know how autocorrect is; you have capitalize it to keep it from screwing up mezcal, which is not mescal. With all due respect to one of the world’s loveliest spirits, mezcal is nowhere near as strong as mescaline. But it is much more delicious.
Review these videos to see BAR Master Ryan Maybee use Tequila in a variety of Drinks.
Ryan Demonstrates How To Make a Margarita.
Using a fresh lime, coat the rim of the glass
Lightly rim the glass with salt then set aside
In mixing glass add;
1.5 oz Blanco Tequilla
3/4 oz Lime Juice
3/4 oz Cointreau
1/4 oz Agave Nectar
Add ice and shake
Strain into cocktail glass
Garnish with lime wheel
Ryan Demonstrates How To Make a Tequila Sunrise.
In mixing glass add;
2 oz of Reposado Tequilla
4 oz of Orange Juice
1/2 oz of Chambord
Garnish with orange wheel