Celebrating Mexico's National Spirit

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By Tony Bell

Bars blogger

A favorite drink of most everyone is the Margarita, and that brings us to tequila, on our review of the "Big Six" spirits. Tequila is derived from the agave plant, specifically from the Agave Tequilana Weber (blue variety). The agave is NOT a cactus, but a member of the amaryllis family. Tequila began way back in the first century (100 A.D.) when the Aztec Indians of central Mexico discovered the naturally fermenting sap of the agave plant, which they called octili poliqhui. Now fast forward to the 16th century, it was discovered that the cooked pulp of the agave plant was sweeter than merely the sap, and that when it fermented and then was distilled, it was called Mezcal, (which is the kissing cousin of the drink we know as Tequila). Mezcal became extremely popular and quite lucrative to the Spanish crown for the tax revenue it produced. In 1656, the Mexican village of Tequila received a charter to produce Mezcal from the local blue agave plant. This version of Mezcal later was known solely as Tequila. Cuervo, a very popular brand today, received their first license to bottle Tequila back in 1795.

Tequila's production was hampered by political instability in Mexico until the early 20th century. Starting in 1920, better sanitation and more standardized production methods increased the popularity of the spirit. For quite a time, starting in the 1930's, non-agave sugars were added to fermenting agave juice to give Tequila a blander flavor, but wider appeal. This is known as 'mixto', and it may have only as little as 51% agave content. Most Tequila aficionados insist on 100% agave, which must be printed on the label. There are three major different types of Tequila. Blanco (also called White or Silver) is aged in stainless steel tanks not more than 60 days. Reposado is aged in wooden casks for 2 to 11 months. Anejo, the most expensive, is aged in wooden barrels for at least a year. Tequila production and quality are closely monitored by two agencies of the Mexican government: Consejo Regulador del Tequila and Norma Oficial Mexicana. Jalisco is the major Tequila producing region within Mexico.

Tequila's popularity in this country, of course, comes from the famous cocktail, the Margarita. There are several versions of the origin for this drink, but it probably started someplace out west, perhaps California in the 1940's. Served blended with crushed ice or on the rocks, with or without a salted rim, and in a variety of flavors, there is hardly a decent bar that does not serve some version of the Margarita. The Tequila Sunrise, using orange juice and grenadine, is another cocktail that was trendy a couple of decades ago. While brands such as Cuervo, Patron and Sauza remain popular with Americans, most Mexicans drink Tequilas that are not usually found on U.S. backbars or grocery store shelves. Some of these include Cazadores, El Tesoro and Corzo.

Until next time, Salud!

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