Wednesday, May 09, 2012

A Brief History of Tequila

In honor of Cinco de Mayo, it might be fun to take a look at the history of tequila. First, let’s dispense with the myth of the worm in tequila, a myth I subscribed to until I started research for this blog. Tequila doesn’t come with a worm (actually a moth larva) in the bottle. Mexcal, another Mexican liquor, may contain the worm. Tequila, however, is only made of the blue agave (Agave tequilana Weber var. ‘azul’), whereas mexcal can be made of any agave. Although the agave is a succulent, it isn’t a cactus but a member of the lily family.

By the time the Spaniards landed in the area we now call Mexico in 1521, the Aztecs had been drinking the fermented juice of the agave for centuries. A beer-like drink octli poliqhui was used in rituals and ceremonies. The Spanish bastardized the name of the drink into pulque. Still, the aguamiel (nectar) of the agave had never been distilled until the Spanish ran out of their own brandy and turned to the local flora to make hard liquor.

The blue agave grows best in state of Jalisco, and it was there that the Spanish first produced tequila in 16th Century, thereby creating the first indigenous distilled spirit. Around 1600, Don Pedro Sánchez de Tagle mass produced tequila near what is now Jalisco. Later, King Carlos IV granted the Cuervo family the first license to make tequila commercially. In 1656, the city of Tequila was founded. Don Cenobio Sauza first exported tequila to the United States in 1873. One hundred years later, the US was importing over a million cases a year.

There are two basic types of tequila -- 100% pure blue agave and mixto, which may contain as much as 40% of other sugars. Tequila can be either blanco (white) or can be reposado or anejo, both of which are stored in oak and take on a golden color. I can personally attest that both white and golden taste really good, especially with the traditional wedge of lime and salt or with a chile pepper mixture appropriately called fuego as a chaser.

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