Tequila: Mexican Culture in Liquid Form

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BY RODRIGO LABARDINI

AMBASSADOR OF MEXICO IN AZERBAIJAN

Tequila, just like the Mexican nation, is the successful outcome of the fusion of two cultures: the European-Mediterranean and the Mesoamerican. The ancient Mexican wine of mezcal, from the townTequila, which today proudly takes its name from its region of origin, is a mestizo (mixed) product, and it is the best example of the combination of ancestral customs and practices born on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. Two roots and two continents jointly flowed into western Mexico and coexisted in order to create this emblematic Mexican drink.

Europe and the Mediterranean have grapes, the Americas have maguey. Maguey is an endemic plant from the American continent. There are over 200 species. Some 186 species are found in Mexico. It grows in over 75% of Mexico’s territory, although it has a rather assymetrical distribution – very abundant in the semi-arid central and northern regions of Mexico and somewhat limited in the humid and warm regions of southern Mexico. The subspecies agave is formed by 103 species. Sixty-eight percent of the agave species, like agave salmiana and agave rhodacantha, are widely spread throughout the different regions of Mexico, but the rest, like agave tenuifolia or agave zebra, may be locally abundant, but restricted to only some mountains or valleys. Agave grows in varied conditions, normally between 1,000 and 2,000 meters of altitude, but you can find them even at 3,400 meters above sea level. This is an important element to explain why mezcal – which comes from agave – is so varied in its flavors and textures, just as wine is diverse due to its grapes. Similar to wine, the specific variety of agave, as well as the conditions of the soil, the abundance of water, the warmth of the environment, the amount of sunlight, and the conditions for its maturation become reflected in the flavor, odors and texture of mezcal and tequila.

The southern state of Oaxaca produces 83% of all Mexican mezcal. Mezcal made from agave tequilana – also called blue agave – in the state of Jalisco in western Mexico is called tequila, because it originated in the town of Tequila, close to the city of Guadalajara. Hence, tequila is a denomination of origin. This denomination of origin also extends to mezcal produced in municipalities in Tamaulipas and the neighboring states of Nayarit, Guanajuato and Michoacán.

Tequila has a history of over 2,000 years, a span in which procedures and materials used in its production have evolved. Today’s industrial production largely resembles the methods and techniques employed in the past, because producers want to follow tradition. From the old artisanal tavern to an industry with global reach, the essential ingredient since the prehispanic era has always been the agave. Ever since colonial times, its production phases – seeding, harvesting, jima (cutting of the agave leaves), cooking, grinding, fermentation, distilling, and maturation –have adhered to the traditions and ancestral knowledge of the Mexican peoples.

The quality of tequila – and mezcal – is evidenced when we recall that each bottle is the product of some 10 years of work. Producers harvest the agave only when it reaches maturity and is able to produce its wine. Depending on the specific variety, agave reaches maturity between 7 and 15 years of growth, with some larger species not reaching maturity until 25 years of growth. This offers quite a complication for producers because they must have enough hectares of agave in order to rotate the land, whereby one hectare rests, another one has one year of planting, the next one has two years, and so on until you reach the hectare that will be produced this year. In addition to this, we must add the aging process in American oak barrels that produces differences and additional subtleties in the drink: white (up to one year of aging), reposado (one to three years of aging), añejo (three to five years), extra-añejo (five to seven years of aging), and ultra-añejo (over seven years of aging).

People often drink tequila in a salt-rimmed glass with lemon on the side. This was presumably derived from Mexican movies from the 1940s-1950s that showed people drinking tequila this way and gulping it in one single shot. This was totally acceptable at that time because the quality of tequila at the time was still in the works. Today this is also acceptable for tequila mixto – meaning 51% of the alcohol content comes agave tequilana and the other 49% comes from other sources, including sugar. However, for “100% agave” tequila, where the quality is extremely improved, it is highly recommended to drink it with no salt and no lemon in order to savor its luscious qualities, including it thickness and odors, and especially to sip it as an appetizer, accompaniment to food, or as a digestive for after the meal.

The importance of its cultural tradition and its strong impact on Mexican (and global) life was recognized in 2006 when UNESCO declared the “Agave Landscape and Ancient Industrial Facilities of Tequila” as World Heritage of Humanity. This highlights the culture of the plant that has been used since the 16th century to produce tequila and for at least 2,000 years to make fermented drinks and cloth. It further demonstrates that the agave culture is part of Mexico’s national identity.

Mexico exports 70% of its tequila production to over 100 countries, approximately 435 75-milliliter bottles a minute. The industry is an important element of Mexico’s economy, with over 700,000 direct jobs, and integrates Mexico’s rural sector with the international sphere.

Government and industry have joined efforts to guarantee that the product that reaches you is truly of high quality. That is why you will see two logos on tequila bottles: CRT (Consejo Regulador del Tequila) the private industry regulatory body overseeing tequila production and NOM (the official standard for producing Mexican products) with the official stamp of government-regulations.

People often ask me which is the best tequila. I have always replied that it is the one you like the most. A friend also told me that the best tequila is the one coming up. Whether it be white, reposado or añejo, rest assured, it is a drink that has worked over two millenniums to reach your taste buds so that you can savor it as you please. Each sip has a part of Mexico. Each time you swallow, you feel your spirit open up and you make friends. Every moment you toast with your friends, you want mariachi musicians to come and play your favorite pieces because a Mexican fiesta is in the workings.