Tequila is the national beverage of Mexico. The Toltex Indians discovered tequila as a drink made from the agave plant more than 200 years ago in the town now know as Tequila, Mexico.
Tequila has been the drink of choice among Mexican tourists for years. But Mezcal is catching up due to its’ unique ‘smokey’ flavor. Connoisseurs talk about their favorites tequilas and mezcals the same as Europeans talk about their favorite Scotch or bourbon.
The agave plant
Both Tequila and Mezcal are made from agave, a succulent plant. You may see some varieties in gardens in North America – Maybe even here at TAO.
Most agaves consist of rosettes of thick, hard, rigid but succulent leaves often with marginal teeth and usually with a lethally sharp terminal spine. Agaves are pollinated by bats. If you cut into an agave, the sap is often poisonous and can cause severe skin irritation.
The flowers of the agave are perfect, both male and female. Agaves are monocarpic, meaning they die after flowering. Agave americana, the most common agave in the Southwest,US has the common name “century plant” because it supposedly takes a century to bloom. If you pamper it it can flower in 15 to 20 years.
The interior of the leaves contains longitudinal fibres representing the vascular system. These fibres are best know as hemp, used in making clothing and rugs. Carbohydrates are stored in the core or pulp and this is used for fermentation.
Definition of mezcal and tequila
Mezcal refers to any agave-based liquor, of which there are over 30 varieties in Mexico and over 300 world wide. According to spirits writer Chris Tunstall, the most common varieties of agave used for mezcal are tobalá, tobaziche, tepeztate, arroqueño and espadín, which is the most common agave and accounts for up to 90% of mezcal.
Only if made from the Blue Agave grown around Tequila, Mexico can the distillate be called Tequila.
Where is agave grown?
According to spirits writer John McEvoy, mezcal is produced in nine different areas of Mexico. They include include Durango, Guanajuato, Guerrero, San Luis Potosi, Tamaulipas, Zacatecas, Michoacán, Puebla and Oaxaca, which is where upwards of 85 percent of all mezcal is made.
Tequila is made only from blue agave (agave tequilana) and is produced in five places: Michoacán, Guanajuato, Nayarit, Tamaulipas and Jalisco, which is where the actual town of Tequila is located. The featured picture shows a man harvesting blue agave.
Different distillation processes.
Traditionally, the agave plant leaves are scraped to remove the pulp or “piña”.
For tequila the piña or pulp is steamed in ovens and then distilled in 2 – 3 times in copper pots.
For Mezcal the piña the is cooked in earthen pots with lava rocks, wood and charcoal then distilled in clay pots. Thus the smokiness commonly associated with mescal.
Check the label
Once distilled, both tequila and mescal are aged inside oak barrels. The aging categories are different.
Tequila comes in three varieties: blanco (silver or plato/0-2 months), reposado (2-12 months) and anejo (1-3 years).
Mezcal is also grouped into three categories by age, including joven (blanco or abacado/0-2 months), reposado (2-12 months) and anejo (at least one year).
How do I Order tequila or mezcal?
Ordering tequila and mezcal can be quite complicated because you can order by a combination or region and the aging process.
Next time you are in a bar or liquor store check out the different labels. Try one of each until you get the flavor you like. Now you are a connoisseur of tequila and mezcal.
Adapted from an article by Max Bonem.
Thanks to Larry Lawrence, owner of the website Riviera Maya Restaurants for passing along the article.