Fine Spirits: Tequila myths and mysteries

Once only a drink for gringos and rancheros, tequila is surrounded by many stories.

tequila 88 (photo credit: )
tequila 88
(photo credit: )
Once only a drink for gringos and rancheros, tequila is surrounded by many stories, myths and legends. For many, it is probably just another fashionable and relatively cheap spirit which usually gets you drunk - and later bad headache. Obviously, if you drink it excessively, you will certainly have a hangover, pretty much like you would do with any other spirit. However few people know that tequila reflects a lot of hard work and inherited knowledge. As North America's first distilled drink, its history is long and rich and its roots reach back into pre-Hispanic times when the natives fermented liquid from the local maguey plants into a beer-like drink called pulque, also made from the agave. Tequila was first distilled in the state of Jalisco, Mexico where the agave plant grows best. Even today, real tequila can only be produced and bottled in Mexico, and is only made with the blue agave weber plant. (The agave is not a cactus as rumored, but belongs to the lily family.) It takes a long time to produce tequila since the blue agave plant reaches maturity after eight to 12 years. The plants are harvested by jimadores or "groaners" who are responsible for selecting them and cutting the leaves from the head. They are called jimadores because the cutting of the leaves makes a sound resembling a groan. The pineapple-shaped heads are then cut in pieces and cooked in large ovens for more than 18 hours. The result is a sweet sugarcane-like product that is then shredded. Traditionally, the shredding was done with a large stone wheel pulled by a horse which would crush the heads. Water is then added with some yeast, and after 72 hours of fermentation the process is completed. Subsequently, the juice is distilled twice to get rid of impurities and any water residue. The tequila then rests for a while, before its alcohol content is reduced from 55 percent to the standard 38% or 40%. It is then bottled. Another product made from the agave plant is mescal. While traditionally all tequilas were known as a type of mescal, today they are distinct products, differentiated by the production process and taste. Tequila and mescal share a similar amount of alcohol in the bottle, although mescals tend to be a little stronger. Because mescal feels a little more like lava as it flows down the back of your throat, it is not quite as popular. No other liquid is surrounded by as many legends as tequila; even the word tequila itself is a mystery and is said to be an ancient Nahuatl term. The Nahuatl were the original people who lived in the area, and the word means "the place of harvesting plants." Another tired and worn myth associated with the drink relates to a worm: Yes, it's true, some American-bottled brands put them in their bottle to boost sales, but it was merely a marketing trick and not a Mexican tradition. Sometimes, however, there is a worm, properly a butterfly caterpillar, in some types of mescal. And yes, you're supposed to eat it, but don't worry: It's quite well pickled and free of pesticides as they're often raised just for use in mescal. There are two basic types of tequila: 100% blue agave tequila and mixto. The 100% blue agave tequilas are distilled entirely from the fermented juice of the agave, while the mixto may have been distilled from as little as 60% agave juice with other sugars. Tequila also has grades where the most important are blanco or silver, which doesn't undergo any aging; reposado or middle aged, which rests in oak barrels for six to 12 months; and añejo or aged, which must have at least 12 months of aging in oak barrels. Just like a fine Armagnac or Spanish brandy, this aging process will smooth the product and give certain type of characteristics to it. Note: A good tequila must say "100% agave" on the label. JOSé ANTONIO CUERVO was the first licensed manufacturer of tequila. He received the rights to cultivate a piece of land from the king of Spain in 1758. However, tequila did not achieve its prominence until after 1821 when Mexico attained independence, and Spanish products were more difficult to obtain. By the middle of the 19th century Cuervo's fields had more than three million agave plants, and by 1880, Cuervo was annually selling 10,000 barrels of its tequila in Guadalajara alone. Today, Cuervo is the largest manufacturer of tequila, with a huge export market and the highest sales of any tequila brand. A selection of the José Cuervo tequilas are imported to Israel by the Caspirits company. While many here have sampled this spirit in the form of a margarita, many more are discovering that good tequila is a drink to be enjoyed like a fine cognac or Scotch. Some prefer the rougher edge of the young blanco tequilas with their more distinct agave flavor, while others like the sharper flavor of a middle-aged reposado, or prefer the smooth, woody aroma in an older añejo. The José Cuervo line of tequilas includes Reserva Antigua 1800, a copper-colored tequila aged in charred oak barrels, which displays spicy flavors of anise and caramel; NIS 600. Clasico, an unaged tequila with smooth body and crystalline clarity; NIS 165. Especial is a clear tequila tinted with gold and hints at lime and wood; NIS 165. The latest addition is José Cuervo Black Medallion, a super-premium añejo tequila aged in charred oak barrels for 12 months. It has a deep oaky flavor and an extra smooth feel and taste; NIS 220. For those who are new to tequila and want to partake in this piece of Mexican heritage, my suggestion is to try them first at a local bar, then decide which to buy. Salud.