Tequila: What is it and how is it made?
From the heart of Mexico hails one of the most recognizable drinking rituals in North America – tequila.
That special ingredient in your Margarita actually comes from the aptly-named town of Tequila in the west central Mexican region of Jalisco. The area is covered in volcanic soil, which serves as the ideal growing environment for the blue agave, a thick, spiny-leafed plant that to this day remains the only source of the world’s tequila.
The blue agave’s cactus-like leaves can grow up to two metres long, while its core – the source of the sap used in tequila – normally weighs between 75 and 200 pounds. After 8 to 12 years of growth, a Mexican harvester called a “jimador” chops off the agave’s leaves to expose the core and assesses its ripeness before harvesting.
Just to give you an idea, it takes roughly 15 pounds of agave core to produce a single litre of tequila and between 200 and 300 million plants are harvested each year!
The core of the blue agave is chopped and roasted in massive furnaces or steam ovens to soften the pulpy centre. To squeeze out the juices, the pulp is then shredded and pressed. The juices are then mixed with yeast for fermentation, converting the agave’s sugars into alcohol, which ultimately gives tequila its kick.
The fermented tequila juice is distilled at least two, often three, times in copper or stainless steel stills. The multiple distillations serve to purify the tequila and give it a smooth finish – while still capturing the vegetal aroma of the blue agave. To be labeled tequila the final product must follow strict regulations set by the Mexican government.
North Americans generally enjoy their tequila with a lick of salt and a slice of citrus – a tradition that was actually influenced by the lower-grade tequilas that traditionally made it to North American markets. But most Mexican tequila drinkers will tell you that good tequila is best enjoyed like any other fine spirit, straight up.
So if you’re feeling up to it, ditch the lemon and salt and enjoy fine tequila the way it was meant to be enjoyed, neat in a glass.