Tequila and the Agave plant

Tequila tasting at San Sebastian
It's almost Cinco de Mayo, that time of year when everyone grabs some Mexican food and a Margarita (or two, or three). Have you ever given thought to what's in your glass? According to the International Bartenders Association, the officially accepted ingredients and proportions, for a traditional Margarita are 50% Tequila, 29% Triple Sec (an orange-flavored liqueur), and 21% fresh lime juice. In the United States, the thick skinned Persian limes are usually used, while the original Mexican margaritas use key limes. Key limes are smaller, and have a strong, somewhat bitter, citrus flavor. Many times, the triple sec is substituted with other orange-flavored liqueurs like Cointreau, Grand Marnier, PatrĂ³n CitrĂ³nge or Gran Gala. All three ingredients are shaken with ice or served on the rocks, or in the US, commonly blended with crushed ice, in the form of an alcoholic "slushy".
Let's focus on the Tequila component...what is it, and how is it made?

Jim in the Blue Agave Fields
Tequila is a spirit. It all starts with the Agave plant (related to the Yucca). More specifically Tequila is made from the Blue Agave plant, and can only be made in the province of Jalisco, in Mexico. The Blue Agave plant grows best at high altitude, and develops the necessary sugar after growing for eight to fifteen years. At harvest, the "pina" or the heart of the plant is baked or steamed to soften the fibers, allowing the juice to be released. Traditional "juicing" of the pina is actually a crushing process achieved by grinding the cooked plant fibers under a large stone wheel, pulled by a donkey. Obviously, this process has been modernized over the years, but small production Tequilarias still use this process. The juice is then allowed to ferment (nowadays, cultured yeasts are added to control this process). The resulting alcohol is known as "pulque". The pulque is next distilled at least two times, to create a clear spirit. It then can be barrel aged, blended, or bottled. There are four official styles of Tequila: 1) "Plata" (also known as "Blanco" or "Joven") - these are young, usually aged no more than 60 days, they are clear (some time charcoal filtered; 2) "Joven Abocado" (also known as "gold", or "oro") - these are young spirits that have caramel added for color and flavor; 3) "Reposado" - these are oak aged for a minimum of two months; and 4) "Anejo" - these are aged at least one year in oak. These four styles range from harsh and pungent to smooth and complex, in the order presented. Lastly, by law, 51% of the alcohol in a Tequila must come from the Blue Agave. The rest might come from added sugar. These Tequilas are known as "mixto". The finest Tequilas are made from 100% Blue Agave, and will be labeled so, on the bottle.

Raicilla - the local "moonshine"
So what is the difference between Tequila and Mezcal? All Tequila is Mezcal, but not all Mezcal is Tequila. Huh? Mezcal is a generic term for spirits made from any type of Agave (remember Tequila is only made with Blue Agave), and Mezcal can be made anywhere in Mexico (but mainly in Oaxaca). One other key difference is the cooking process of the pina...Mezcal is commonly cooked in underground smoke pits, which give Mezcal a more pungent, smoky flavor.

 
At San Sebastian
Now we are seeing flavored Tequilas. On my last trip (obviously my "bearded days, if you look at the photos) to the Agave fields of Jalisco, I tried coffee flavored Tequila, and probably the most unique, Domiana Tequila. Our host insisted that Domiana is a relaxant, and he took a shot every night before going to bed. I must admit, this is some good stuff. It is more of an after dinner sipping drink, or almost like a liqueur. The Mayans used Damiana as an aphrodisiac. If you can find it, give it a try. If you add it to your next Margarita, you never know what might happen!

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