The History of Booze
Tales of Tequila
Exploring the world of tequila; from the legends of the Nahua tribe to the classic Margarita
In the last issue of B&C tequila featured in a couple of the recipes, promoting the team to want to more about this delicious Mexican spirit. Legend has it that the Nahua tribe saw a blue agave struck by lightning on top of Volcán de Tequila, causing the nectar to explode forth and the tribe sampled the sweet juice for the first time. Between1000BC to 200AD, the Aztec drink of choice was pulque, a fermented drink created using the sap of the agave. This was a culture that took their pulque very seriously, even worshipping two gods who were associated with alcohol; Mayahuel (goddess of maguey) and her husband Patecatl (god of pulque). There is reference to pulque in Aztec stone carvings from around 200AD.
Things changed when the Spanish arrived in the 1500s and then historians have differing views on what happened next. Some say that the Spaniards ran out of brandy and they had to improvise and tried a combo of mud stills and agave, thus the mezcal was invented. Here’s a little technical tip to remember - all tequilas are mezcals, but not all mezcals are tequilas. By the mid 1500s a trade route was opened between Manilla and Mexico. The Marquis of Altamira constructed the first large-scale distillery in what is now Tequila, Jalisco.
The Cuervo family began commercially distilling tequila in 1758; a name that is known across the globe. King Carlos IV of Spain gave the Cuervo family the first license to commercially make tequila. The Sauza family began distilling in 1873 and with the identification of the blue agave as the superior agave in tequila production, tequila as we know it today was born. The blue agave grows particularly well in the red volcanic soil which surrounds the city of Tequila.
Mexico officially claimed tequila as its intellectual property in 1974, making it the law that tequila production and aging could only take place in certain parts of Mexico. In one fell swoop they created a monopoly, other countries could not produce their own tequila.
Whilst technology has transformed many aspects of tequila production, on the whole the management and harvesting of agaves remains much the same as it has been for centuries. The men jimadores [xima-ðo-es] who tend the plants have knowledge of the plants that has been handed down from father to son. There are approximately 200 varieties of agave, of which only 40 are used to make into tequila. Each plant can take decades to reach maturity. Being an agave farmer takes plenty of know how and an awful lot of patience.
The actual process of making tequila is quite simple. The heart of the agave (piña) is harvested, chopped up and placed into a brick oven and steamed for a few days (it can be done more quickly in an industrial pressure cooker). This process softens the piña, turning starch into sugar. Next, the piña is shredded and crushed to extract the juice (aguamiel) which goes into hot wooden tanks where it ferments for a couple of weeks. Yeast found on the leaves of the agave plants speeds up the process and finally this liquid is distilled. The numbers of times distillation takes places, aging time and vessels used for aging will all impact on the end product’s flavour and aroma.
Now we now the how, why and where, it is time to de-bunk a few myths about tequila.
1. The agave plant is NOT a cactus even though it looks surprising like one. It is actually related to asparagus - who knew!
2. Every tequila IS different - it is commonly believed that one tequila is much like another, but there is plenty of variety to this spirit.
3. Despite there being so many agaves, you CANNOT make tequila out of them all. It has to be a Blue Webber and it can only be grown in one of five states in Mexico.
4. The only way to drink tequila is NOT in a Margarita - that it is just one of many ways that you can enjoy tequila. But just in case you want to, here is a classic Margarita recipe.
The Classic Margarita
Lime wedge for salt rim
60ml white tequila
30ml triple sec
30ml lime juice, freshly squeezed
Lime twist to garnish
Sea salt for salt rim
Shaker, strainer, saucer for the rim
Pour the Tequila, triple sec and lime juice into a cocktail shaker.
Add a handful of ice cubes and shake vigorously for 10-15 seconds.
Strain into a Martini glass with half the rim damped with water, then dipped in salt.
Add a lime wedge on the rim by way of garnish.
Once you have mastered the classic Margarita, you can twist it with various flavours, such a mango, grapefruit or even avocado. From there, the world of tequila will explode for you just like it did for the Nahua tribe. Once tasted, you too will worship Mayahuel and Patecatl!
Archibald, Anna (2015) ‘Everything You Need to Know About the History of Tequila’, Liquor.com
Chadwick, Ian (2011) “Cultivation & Agriculture”. In Search of the Blue Agave.
Jones, Dan (2018) ‘The history of the misunderstood spirit of tequila’, The Independent, - accessed 09-02-2019
Martineau, Chantal (2015) ‘7 Common Tequila Myths, Debunked’, Firstwefeast.com, - accessed 10-02-2019
Seal, Mark (2018) ‘Tequila Rocks’, nationalegographic.com, - accessed 09-02-2019