Unfortunately, no one around at the time thought it was noteworthy to write the history of tequila. As hard as it is to believe, they apparently didn’t realize that it would become one of the most popular distilled spirits in the world. Not bad for a flower – and yes, agave is botanically a member of the lily family, not a cactus.
Things we do know:
- The agave plant has been harvested at least since the time of the Aztecs, and that they fermented the sap into a drink they called pulque.
- Cortez described pulque in his first letter to King Carlos V, and even tried to send some back to Spain. Since pulque is fermented but not distilled, it probably arrived every bit as skunky as that case of beer you picked up from the display in the convenience store parking lot. Which practice is probably grounds for beer – and customer – cruelty charges, but that’s another article.
- The Conquistadors were nothing if not determined, and they put their minds to it. It didn’t take long for them to learn to distill pulque into mezcal (or mescal).
- Not only was mezcal easier to preserve and ship, it’s twice as strong as pulque, which could be considered an added bonus.
All tequila is mezcal, but not all mezcal is tequila. In order to legally be called tequila, the liquor can only be produced in the state of Jalisco and a few surrounding areas. Place of origin and semantics aside, most of the difference between the spirits come from the production.
For tequila, the agave is normally baked in a steam oven, while the agave used in mezcal is traditionally baked in underground ovens fired with wood charcoal. Pulque is distilled once to make mezcal, but usually it’s distilled two times (or more) for tequila. And the infamous worm in the bottle? It’s the larva of a variety of moth that lives on the agave plant. It can only be placed in mezcal, never in tequila.
But the biggest difference between mezcal and tequila is the agave. There are eight different varieties of agave that can be used to make mezcal, but in order to be called tequila, only one variety can be used, the famous blue agave.
To be labeled tequila, at least 51% of the fermented sugars must come from the blue agave, although the remainder can come from other sources. The tequilas containing a combination of sugars are labeled mixto, or mixed, and are considered the less-than-premium spirits. Premium, top shelf tequilas are produced from 100% blue agave. These tequilas are smoother and more flavorful, and by law, they must be bottled within Mexico.
There are also four classifications to keep in mind when you’re looking for a premium tequila. Any of these classifications can be either mixto or 100% agave. Silver or Blanco tequilas are clear, and have been aged little, if at all – no more than 60 days in stainless steel tanks. Gold tequila is simply an unaged silver tequila that has been colored and flavored with caramel.
Reposado (or rested) tequila has been aged in wooden tanks or casks for a minimum of two months, with higher quality brands being aged 3 to 9 months. These are the best-selling tequilas in Mexico.
Anejo (or old) tequila is aged in wooden barrels, usually old bourbon barrels, for a minimum of 12 months. The best quality anejos are aged 18 to 36 months for mixtos, or up to four years for 100% agaves.
Tags: anejo, drinks, history, reposado, tequila