Tequila!!Where does it come from?... Ok, besides a bottle or the Gods.
If you were to visit Mexico's western state of Jalisco, you would find fields full of tall, spiky,
turquoise plants. These cactus-like agaves provide the raw material from which tequila and its
primitive relation pulque are derived.
Pulque is the traditional local beverage. To make it, the flower stalk of the agave is cut to provide
the sap on which the pulque is based. The sap is then passed through a bamboo tube into a
gourd, and decanted into a wooden barrel to ferment spontaneously overnight. The finished
pulque is a milky greyish colour, and has an acid, fruity taste.
Though pulque was made before the conquest of Mexico, the Spanish introduced the art of
distillation, and called their distilled product vino mescal. Elsewhere in Mexico, this spirit is known
simply as mescal, and is often served from what looks like a petrol can.
The more elaborate bottled examples sometimes contain a "worm" - a caterpillar-like bug that
bores into the plant. The survival of its body, intact, in the bottle is said to be a sign of the spirit's
high alcohol content, and the consumption of the worm an enhancement of manliness. It is
mescal made specifically from the "blue" variety of agave in a denominated region of the Jalisco
province, and three bordering states, that is permitted to bear the name TEQUILA.
In the wild, the plant grows to 15ft, and is cross-pollinated by bats. The growers prefer to plant
saplings in neat rows, then prune them to control the bug and strengthen the root. One man with
a machete can prune 2,000 plants in a day, even though each has about 200 6ft spines, each
looking like the blade of a saw.
The plant takes eight to 12 years to mature, at which point its huge root, resembling a pineapple
but up to 500lb in weight, is excavated. Tractors and pick-up trucks haul loads of the roots to
about 20 distilleries, which make several types of tequila.
The best known producer of tequila is the Cuervo distillery, which claims to have made the first
commercial tequila in 1795. Behind the distillery's Spanish mission facade, a cloistered
courtyard, set round a fountain, is home to a caged raven - the cuervo.
The distillery softens the agave roots for 50-72 hours in steam ovens, minces them in a huge
mill, then places the pulp on a sieve and washes out the plant's complex sugars. the resultant
liquid is fermented with a yeast from the spines of the plant, and distilled twice in pot stills similar
to those used to make cognac or malt whisky.
Jose Cuervo's has six well-worn, rocket-shaped stills made of copper and two modern ones of
stainless steel. The small independent distillery that makes Torada tequila boasts a 48-year-old
mill, but its still are all stainless steel.
Tequilas labelled "100 per cent agave" should contain no other fermentable sugars. By law, 51
per cent agave is the minimum, but the remainder may be made up from cane or other sugars.
The cheaper, colourless tequilas are matured for only a few weeks. Others may be coloured,
and softened in palate, with caramel or almond essence. Those labelled Reposado have been
matured in oak tanks for up to six months. Those with the appellation A¤ejo have been kept for at
least a year, often two or three and occasionally eight or 10, in oak barrels usually obtained from
Kentucky bourbon distillers.