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King of Agave: A Tequila Deep Dive

Wed, Jul 19, 23  |  agave spirits

Agave Spirits: Tequila

The most well-known and widely consumed agave spirit in the world is tequila. Tequila is primarily produced in Mexico and is made specifically from the blue agave plant, which is what gives tequila its unique flavor profile.

Tequila History

The history of tequila can be traced back thousands of years and it is deeply intertwined with the culture, tradition, and heritage of Mexico. Agave plants have been cultivated and consumed since the time of the Aztecs and Mayans, who used agave plants for a number of purposes, including food, fiber, and medicine. The indigenous peoples of the region also fermented the sap of the agave plants to produce alcoholic beverages known as pulque, which served as a ceremonial drink.

During the 16th century, Spanish conquistadors arrived in Mexico and subsequently introduced the distillation process to the indigenous population. The knowledge of distillation techniques and copper stills brought by the Spanish marked the transition from fermented agave drinks to distilled spirits.

Tequila as we know it today started centuries ago when the King of Spain granted the first license for the production of tequila to José Antonio de Cuervo in 1758, and the Cuervo family began commercial tequila distilling.

In the 19th century, the production of tequila expanded when the town of Tequila, located in the state of Jalisco, became a center for tequila production. The volcanic soil and climate of the region was ideal for cultivating blue agave.

Regulations were put in place by the Mexican government at the start of the 20th century to protect the integrity and quality of tequila production. Furthermore, in 1974, the Mexican government declared tequila a Denomination of Origin (DO) product, which means that it can only be produced in specific regions of Mexico, primarily Jalisco and certain areas in other states. This regulation makes sure that tequila produced outside those regions cannot be labeled as tequila.

Today, tequila has become a globally renowned spirit and an iconic symbol of Mexican culture. Celebrated for distinct flavors, craftsmanship, and versatility, tequila has cemented itself as a staple for enthusiasts everywhere.

Production Method

The first step in tequila production is harvesting the mature blue agave plants, which typically take around 8 to 12 years to grow. The leaves are stripped, leaving the piña, a large pineapple-shaped core that weighs around 40 to 80 pounds.

These piñas are then cooked to convert the starches into fermentable sugars. The traditional methods involve baking the piñas in stone ovens, however, modern techniques may use steam or autoclaves. The cooking methods chosen can significantly influence the final flavor of the tequila.

After they are cooked, the piñas are then crushed to extract the sweet juice known as aguamiel. The traditional methods use stone mills called tahonas, while modern techniques will use mechanical shredders. The juice that is extracted is collected for fermentation. To convert it into alcohol, yeast is added to the aguamiel, and the fermentation process can last from a couple of days to a couple of weeks. This results in a low-alcohol liquid known as mosto.

The fermented mosto then goes through distillation to increase the alcohol content. While most tequila is typically double-distilled in pot stills, some premium tequilas may go through a third distillation. The first distillation produces what is known as “ordinario,” which is distilled again to create tequila.

The aging of the tequila can vary depending on the desired style and can be aged in oak barrels to add complexity and character to the final spirit. However, not all tequilas are aged.

Types of Tequila

There are a few different types of tequila that are labeled depending on their age.

1.    Blanco: Blanco tequila is unaged and bottled shortly after the distillation process. It has a clear appearance with a strong agave flavor and can be slightly peppery.

2.    Reposado: Reposado tequila is aged in oak barrels for a minimum of two months, but less than one year. This aging process gives it a light golden color, and adds in flavors of vanilla, caramel, and oak, while keeping the agave profile.

3.    Añejo: Añejo tequila is aged in oak barrels for a minimum of one year but less than three years. This extended aging gives it a darker color and a smoother, more refined flavor profile with stronger notes of oak, vanilla, and caramel.

4.    Extra Añejo: This is a newer category of tequila that was introduced in 2006. Extra Añejo tequila must be aged for a minimum of three years in oak barrels. The results in a rich amber color and complex flavors and aromas that develop during the extended aging process.

You may also find some tequilas that are labeled s “Joven” or “Gold.” Joven tequilas are oftentimes a mix of blanco and aged tequila or they can be blanco tequila with additives to give it color or flavor.

The tequila landscape continues to grow and branch out in new directions, creating continually unique and surprising expressions that can be enjoyed by both hardcore tequila enthusiasts and those just dipping their toes into what tequila has to offer. 

By benhemstock117@gmail.com

Tags: agave spirits tequila