The Evolution of Tequila

agave azul
agave azul

There was a time the words “tequila” and “blender” were hardly ever separate entities. Most consumers viewed tequila as some rough party spirit that required heavy concealment with syrupy fruit mixers, meant to be slushed or shot quickly on a dare. But as agave advocates and celebrities like George Clooney can attest, it has come a long way from its party animal past as more bars and restaurants celebrate the popularity of fine quality tequilas, more of which are being imported to the US than ever before. The category has grown a staggering 67% since 2002, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the US. People are finally understanding these are elixirs intended to be sipped and savored like a good whiskey, worthy of serious top shelf real estate. They are made with care and respect for the earth and the elements, and steeped in tradition.

Tequila is, for all intents and purposes a version of mezcal – a spirit produced from the heart of ripened agave fruit (the piña) that is cooked, mashed and fermented. However, there are several distinctions between tequila and mezcal production. Prior to fermentation, mezcal is made from agave that is fire roasted, while tequila’s agave is boiled or steamed. Mezcal can be produced from any species of agave; tequila is only derived from Weber Blue agave. Mezcal has its own production zone in and around the state of Oaxaca. To label a product as tequila, it must be produced within the tequila zone encompassing the lowland areas in the state of Jalisco, and the highlands (“Los Altos”) where it overlaps northeast into the states of Nayarit, Guanajuato, Michoacan and Tamaulipas. The higher elevations, prolonged sun exposure, low nighttime temperatures and tierra roja (“red earth”) grow a lighter, fruitier agave than the lowlands, which are more robust, earthy and mineral. People associate the word “terroir” with wine, but it is just as applicable to tequila.

The Spanish introduced alembic stills to Mexico in the late 16th century, when the first “mezcal wine” was produced from oven-roasted maguey (agave.) According to various sources, the word “tequila” could mean anything from a native Nahuatl word for “work,” “plant,” “place where cut,’ or “rock that cuts” (referring to the prevalent obsidian stones in the region.) By the 17th century, mezcal was a common beverage served throughout Mexico. By the time Mexico gained independence from Spain in the early 19th century, the process and style of mezcal produced specifically around the state of Jalisco became closer to what is now associated with tequila. By the 20th century and the Mexican Revolution, tequila became the most popular drink in Mexico, with government regulations on its production.

mi casa group
mi casa group

From the point of breaking down the agave to process its sugars, the process of tequila’s distillation is similar to that of mezcal. The cooked agave is milled prior to fermentation, which takes place in stainless steel tanks with added water to extract the sugars from the fibers. Distillation undergoes at least two rounds: the first brings its alcohol concentration to 20-25%. The second rectifies the distillate, bringing it up to about 55% (in whisky terms this would be cask strength.) It is then up to individual producers to decide on how much water is added for the final proof, or even to give it another round of distillation for added smoothness. In some cases, the final distillate is aged in oak barrels – usually American oak, ex-Bourbon and even, on occasion, former French Cognac casks - before release. Unlike whisky or brandy, Tequila is not considered a “white dog” or any sort of “shine” if it is released unaged or without color imparted from oak.

Tequila is available in different age expressions:

Blanco (also known as Silver) is unaged or minimally aged, no coloring. Reposado (“rested”) is aged in oak for two months to a year. Añejo has aged in oak for a minimum of one year. Extra Añejo refers to tequila aged for a few years before release.

When choosing your tequila, if unfamiliar with a brand, be sure to read the label for an easy quality check. Beware of the word “mixto.” In many instances, when tequila gained popularity in the 20th century, it expanded from the traditional family distillery to the corporate entity, which sadly, in some cases, affected its production and reputation. Hence the mixtos, which have added sugars, syrups, base alcohols (aguardiente- “firewater”) and artificial coloring (“gold”) and aren’t required to list these additives on the label. These are the products that gave tequila the wake-up-in-a-Vegas-massage-parlor reputation of the past. The good stuff, the only stuff that belongs in a bar worth its salt-rimmed glasses, is made with 100% agave and no additives.

Don Julio 1942
Don Julio 1942

The luxury spirits category has embraced tequila for some time now. Brands such as Don Julio 1942, Milagro, Mi Casa and Casamigos (yes, the George Clooney one) have successfully positioned themselves on top beverage lists around the country, some going for $30 and up a glass, the same as high profile and rare whiskies.

Another emerging trend in the tequila market is that of agave ambassador. In 2009, Philip Ward, former head bartender of New York City’s Death and Co., opened Mayahuel, a cocktail bar dedicated to all things agave, named for the Mexican goddess who is said to be the protector of that fruit. Chef Richard Sandoval has based an entire chain of restaurants around tequila and agave spirits. Mexican academic David Suro Piñera, who produces Siembra Azul tequila and owns Tequilas restaurant in Philadelphia, travels the world educating bar and restaurant professionals as well as consumers about agave spirits production.

Suro is the president of TIP – the Tequila Interchange Project – a non-profit organization dedicated to training beverage professionals through onsite visits to production facilities in Mexico. Ward is also very active in the organization. Last year, largely through a petition that went viral on social media, they successfully fought the Mexican government against a proposition known as NOM 186, which would have changed the way tequila and other agave spirits would be labeled and produced. Thousands of workers make up the industry, most of which are family businesses. Had NOM 186 been passed, it would have effectively wiped out most production of 100% agave products, thus destroying the lives of hundreds of those workers and their families.

Suro believes the reason the NOM was attempted in the first place was as a conspiracy against the rising popularity of quality production and successful small businesses. The aforementioned corporate mixtos are starting to lose traction in the marketplace. Said Suro, it was “a set of rules designed to eliminate the competition.” Luckily, it never came to fruition.

Margarita Legendario
Margarita Legendario

Of course, the classic margarita is still popular, and thankfully, more bars and restaurants are straying away from premixed, sugary sours that reached their height in the 1980s, to using fresh fruits and ingredients that enhance and celebrate the inherent flavors of tequila instead of masking it. Brands such as Milagro, Riazul, Corzo and Don Julio 1942 are also positioning themselves as “sippers,” especially with their añejo expressions. These tequilas are specifically produced to compete with whiskey as a category of spirits to be consumed neat or on the rocks, served in snifters at the end of a meal, and/or in more upscale cocktails. There is a new revolution for tequila, with an increasingly eager and knowledgeable fan base in the US market.

No lime wedge necessary.