Nature’s source for Mexico’s national beverage is actually an impressive but pretty ugly plant.

A grapevine in the full of bloom or an olive tree late in the fall or an apple orchard with the trees loaded with bright-red fruit just smelling of sweet apples: Those are pretty sights.

The blue agave, however, looks like something brought in from another planet and put down into red volcanic soils that look like NASA’s pictures of Martian dirt but are really perfect to root this strangely shaped plant.

And from this weird landscape – and only from this area – come the finest tequilas, a beverage that is now one of the most sought-after spirits made anywhere.

The beginning of this story is somewhere back in Aztec history, when that civilization discovered that the blue agave, a member of the lily family, not a cactus, yielded sweet juices for fermentation, which became known to the ancients as “octli” and was later renamed “pulque.”

Spanish conquistadors arrived in 1521 and took note of what was going on. The Aztecs were not anxious to share, and the Spanish had a reasonable supply of their own brandy. Fair enough – until the brandy ran out and the supply lines back to Europe were too long. Now the Spanish were interested in what the Aztecs had been making.

Around the town of Tequila, in the state of Jalisco, in the period of time about 1570, a drink taking its name from the town became North America’s first indigenous distilled spirit. Even the pulque fans among the Aztecs thought the Spanish were on to something by adding the cooking, or distillation, process to the fermentation step.

Skip ahead into the late 1800s, and it was decreed by tequila producers that there could be no tequila without blue agaves, and the real deal only came from this specific area.

Specifically the piña of the blue agave is harvested and prized. It takes eight to 10 years for an agave plant to become sexually mature and to send up a flower stalk with the intention of spreading the seeds to the wind for procreation. For tequila, that can never happen to conclusion because the agave would put its energies into the flower stalk, growing it to a height of 20 to 40 feet.

The flower stalk is cut off by the farmers, known as jimadores, and the plant redirects its energy into its central stalk, swelling it with sweet juices and taking on the name of piña because of its ultimate resemblance to a pineapple. All manner of plant care and harvesting is provided by the jimadores, who are skilled by generations of working with the agave. The harvest, like all fruit-into-alcohol harvests, requires crucial judgments to assure sugar levels are in the correct range before cutting the piña from the mother plant. At this point, the piña is dramatically enlarged and can weigh between 40 to 70 pounds, although some have been known to balloon to 100 pounds.

From here the fermentation and distillation processes are pretty routine, with some aging taking place in oak barrels.

What truly separates one tequila from another are the location of the agave plant, whether it’s on valley land or in the hills; the yeasts used by the distillery, most of which are proprietary and closely guarded secrets; and the various aging processes employed by the distillery to create different quality levels of tequila. 

All tequilas are considered mescals, but not all mescals are tequilas. Mescal is rougher on the palate than tequila mainly because it is single-distilled, whereas tequila is double-distilled. And mescal can be made in a much broader geographic area, but tequila production is limited to the specific sites around the town of Tequila.

About the worm: It’s not for you, unless you want to be a bit of a showoff or you are involved in an initiation rite of some sort.

Worms are primarily a marketing gimmick. They are really not worms at all but the larval form of a moth. Their presence is usually indicative of a lower-quality product because they represent an infestation of the plant. Healthy plants do not have insect infestations.

Tequilas, by law, can be 38 to 40 percent alcohol, which is about 80 proof. Some tequilas are higher, up to 100 proof, but then they are watered back to 80 proof. This is done to smooth out the tequila, but the better tequilas achieve 80 proof by proper distillation methods without the addition of water.  Whenever tequila adds water or any other liquid, it must be labeled mixto. All other Tequilas are noted agave or blue agave.

Also defined by law are the various grades of tequila:

• Blanco (white) or plato (silver): Both are usually clear because the blanco is not aged in oak barrels, and the plato is aged for less than two months in barrels.

• Oro (gold): Aged as plato but mixed with a coloring agent, such as caramel. Noted mixto on label.

• Reposado: Most popular tequila in Mexico. Aged three to six months in barrels.

• Anejo: Tequila aged for a minimum of 12 months and up to four years in oak barrels.

Many tequila producers are not enamored with aging their brands more than four years in barrels. They feel the longer time in wood begins to diminish the real and true flavors of the tequila.

The likeliest barrels to be used in the aging process actually come from bourbon and whiskey producers in the U.S. or Canada. When these industries are finished using a barrel for their products, they make the ones still in good order available for sale to tequila producers. Those not in such good order end up as planters for sale at Home Depot – another public service of the Jack Daniel’s Distillery.

Finally in the U.S. and around the world, people are discovering tequila as a quality, pleasurable, flavorful beverage and not just an inexpensive ingredient to add alcohol into margaritas.

Fine tequilas are better for sipping than cocktail-making, and cocktail-making can be made better by using at least silver-level tequilas.

Would the Aztecs steer you wrong?