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What is it about a 16th century distilled spirit in the 21st century that has “suddenly” become all the rage among discerning imbibers? Who rang the bell to tell us to try tequila in all sorts of cocktails and even straight? And is there really such a “run” on tequila that there is a possibility of running out of the elixir?
Lots of questions so let’s get to some answers.
Seems when the Spanish were having their way with New World exploration/exploitation in the 1500’s, they could not keep themselves in a fulfilling supply of their favorite drink, brandy. Conquest is thirsty work. When beverage supplies are low, European pillagers can’t just pop into their corner market and satisfy a manly thirst.
The surest way to shorten a supply chain is to make whatever you want wherever you are. But grapes are a tough commodity in central Mexico, and certainly the grapes the Spaniards planted back home were not in any available supply. However, there were these very large and very weird plants in the area the Spaniards were overwhelming. Not really cactus, but they give the appearance of such. We sometimes refer to these plants as “century plants.” These agaves are actually related more closely to the aloe plant. All are succulents.
The blue agave likes sandy soils, high altitudes (5,000 ft.), and it is particularly adept at producing sugars. And now you have the essential background as to why the Spanish correctly thought there was the possibility of producing a spirit from this genus.
The blue agave is actually, sort of, kinda blue. It takes eight to 15 years for the plant to create the proper material that can be cooked and converted into tequila. Now you also have an idea as to why some tequila producers have whispered about a coming shortage of tequila. This process cannot be rushed and with you folks suddenly discovering the beauty of tequila, well, the laws of supply and demand takes over.
Blue agave has made its home, but not exclusively, in the state of Jalisco on the west central coast of Mexico, about 600 km from Mexico City. Jalisco is renowned for mariachis and tequila, a fitting combination if there ever was one. Principal city in the area is Guadalajara, 10th largest city in Mexico, about 1.5 million souls.
Incidentally, Jalisco has exclusive world-wide rights to the term “tequila,” which is protected everywhere and can only be applied to this beverage from this Mexican region.
The blue agave makes a total commitment to its purpose and then it dies. After about five years, the plant sends up from its center a tall stalk, sometimes 16 ft. This stalk is topped with beautiful flowers, most attractive to native bats who play a role in germinating the next plant.
The stalk is removed by the jimadores, the plant’s caretakers, so that all of the plant’s energy will be focused on growing the piña, a large round mass in the center of the plant just under the ground. At some point, as determined by the jimadores, around 15 years into the plant’s life, the pina’s sugars are ready and the up-to-200-pound ball is harvested.
The pina is roasted in an oven, then crushed, fermentation occurs (the conversion of the sugars into alcohol and the only part of the manufacturing process not in the control of the humans), and those juices are finally distilled. An alcohol level of at least 40% is required by the United States for the spirit to be labeled tequila.
The color of the tequila is the result of the storage vessel’s influence. Blanco is aged less than two months; with Reposado required by law more than two months but less than 12 months aging in wood barrels; Anejo, more than one year but less than three; and Extra Anejo, more than three years wood barrel aging.
The popularity of tequila is no doubt due to stricter manufacturing standards that has resulted in more consistent and excellent qualities, as well as a discovery by consumers of the pleasant versatility of the spirit. Great in cocktails or just by itself on the rocks.
Next up here at Happy Hour: Mezcal, which is really not just tequila with a marketing-gimmick worm. Trust me on this.
Read Happy Hour here on myneworleans.com every Wednesday, and listen to The Dine, Wine and Spirits Show, hosted by Tim, every weekday, 3:00 – 5:00 p.m. on WGSO 990AM and streamed as well as stored (podcast), at www.wgso.com. Also, check out Last Call, Tim’s photo-feature every month in New Orleans Magazine.