Guadalajara blue skies, desert heat, verdant blue-green leaves, distilled down via an ancient recipe into a crystal-clear, power-punch of a spirit. The roots of our most beloved, hangover-inducing inebriant go all the way back to the 13th century.
Agave was an important part of life in pre-Hispanic Mexico: the dense fibers were perfect for mats, ropes, possibly wigs, but people also had another use for the plant: they loved to booze around with agave juice.
Pulque was their favorite drink, a fermented, milky colored, yeasty agave juice concoction that pre-Aztec civilizations had the good sense to distill. North American fascination with tequila began during prohibition and surfaced again in the Second World War when European spirits were hard to come by.
Whatever you thought about the tequila drink, you’re wrong
However, it wasn’t until 1944 that the Mexican government decreed the spirit could only be made in Jalisco, Mexico.
There have been tweaks and upgrades to the laws of tequila production ever since but, like champagne and cognac, it remains a product of origin and can only legally be made in the states of Jalisco, Tamaulipas, Nayarit, Michoacán, and Guanajuato.
Today, there are more than 100 distilleries in Mexico that proudly create over 900 brands of tequila (and more than 2,000 new brand names have been registered), much to the delight of margarita-lovers and spirit-sippers.
The recipe for tequila is startlingly simple. All you need is agave, yeast and water, a few years for your crops to mature, oh, and a donkey or two. Jimadores (agave farmers) harvest the piña (heart) from the center of the huge Weber blue agave at the perfect point in its life cycle (by all accounts, a rare, almost esoteric skill passed down through generations).
The piña is chopped up and gently steam-baked in a brick oven for a few days (or in an industrial pressure cooker for a shorter cook time) and – slowly – the heart softens as the starch turns to sugar. The cooked piña is shredded like pulled pork, then crushed (often on a stone wheel, sometimes by donkeys) to extract the aguamiel, or juice, which is poured into heated wooden tanks.
The nectar ferments for a week or two – the yeast found naturally on the leaves of the agave plant is traditionally used to speed up the process – and then it’s distilled two to three times, water is added and it’s aged in wooden tanks or vats.
Each producer’s distillation process, aging time and vessel give the tequila its unique flavor notes and aroma. It takes between 14 and 21 days to create the perfect white, clear-as-crystal tequila, while aging the spirit for two months creates a pale gold tequila, drawing in some of the flavors and hues of the wood. Aging the spirit from two to 364 days creates reposado (rested) tequila, and one year and beyond is known as añejo or aged tequila (and it’s delicious).