American author Tom Robbins, in his novel “Still Life with Woodpecker,” wrote that tequila was a drink of outlaws, describing it as a “liquid geometry of passion.” It has been the sordid catalyst for spring break “shooter” shenanigans with college students, and the subject of varying degrees of reverence and cursing in movies, modern songs and poetry. But no popular culture can possibly encompass the true nature and spirit of this gorgeous liquor as well as Mexican poet Alvaro Mutis when he states, “Tequila has no history; there are no anecdotes confirming its birth. This is how its been since the beginning of time, for tequila is a gift from the gods and they don’t tend to offer fables when bestowing favors. That is the job of mortals, the children of panic and tradition.” True to his allusion to panic holding hands with mortal traditions, the history of tequila and its sister spirit, mezcal, is a parallel to the turbulent history of Mexico itself, connecting the fire of indigenous tribes to Conquistadors to modern global consumers, sip by historic sip.
According to the ancient Aztecs, the earth was once held in darkness by an evil goddess named Tzintzimitl, who devoured the light. In order for the humans living on the earth to have enough light to survive, she required that they perform human sacrifices, until Quezalcoatl, the serpent god, became tired of her evil deeds and ascended to the heavens to kill her. Instead of finding Tzintzimitl, he found and fell in love with her trapped granddaughter Mayahuel, the four-hundred breasted fertility goddess. After freeing Mayahuel, Queztlcoatl returned with her to the earth, and an enraged Tzintzimitl waged war upon the lovers until Mayahuel was killed. Fueled by grief & rage, Quetzlcoatl returned to the sky and killed Tzintzimitl, restoring light to earth. Returning from the heavens, Queztlcoatl spent night after night crying at Mayahuel’s grave. Moved with pity for his loss, the other gods created a special life-giving plant and let it bloom on Mayahuel’s grave, and when an elixir was made from the plant, it would soothe the grieving soul of Quetzlcoatl. And thusly, this is how the Aztecs believed the maguey, or agave plant came to be.
Because of its many healing properties, they used it in everything from dressings for wounds and a balm for skin infections, and the sap from the heart of the agave, or the piña, was used to sweeten their water. It was by accident that it was discovered that if the sweetened sap water was left out in the sun, it would ferment into a powerful drink that would grant them its spiritual properties and allow them to communicate with the gods. This drink, called octli or pulque, is believed to be the predecessor to mezcal. Distillation of this pulque into mezcal wine began with the Spanish Conquistadors possibly as early as the 1520s in what is now known as Jalisco, and the town of Tequila (the ancient Nahuatl term for “the place of harvesting plants”) was established in 1656. By the early 1700s, mezcal wines became a very important export because Tequila lay on the export route for the San Blas Pacific port.
Historically, all tequilas were known as mezcals but in today’s modern distillations they are completely different, in the same manner of distinction of whiskeys (think bourbon versus Scotch and rye whiskies). Both tequila and mezcal derive from Agave plants (which, incidentally, are succulents related to lilies and not cactus plants), but tequilas are only made from agave tequilana Weber, or blue agave. Tequila is double- (and sometimes triple-) distilled, but mezcal is only distilled once, which gives it a much stronger and smokier flavor profile (think swallowing lava versus a fiery river). Mexico has exclusive international right to the word tequila, and according to Mexican law, tequila can only be produced in the state of Jalisco in the regions of Guanajuanto, Michoacán, Nayarit and Tamaulipas. It is strictly regulated and has caused many international disputes resulting in stringent trade agreements and bottling regulations. Rightfully so, tequila is a source of deep Mexican pride, even in the painstaking way that the agave plants are harvested manually by jimadors, a process untouched by modern farming technology. While tequila and mezcal are not the only native Mexican drinks made from agave, I think it can be said that the “burning river in a small glass” encompasses much of the fire of the Mexican culture both in current and in past generations, from drinking in notes of lively mariachi music to the smoky revolutionary endurance of the hardships of war. Even to this day there is an urban legend around mezcal and its “worm-in-a-bottle” myth. There are a few mezcals, usually from Oaxaca, that include the agave moth larva, or “worm” in their product, but interestingly this was a marketing ploy from producers in the 1940s and not an actual Mexican tradition. And despite the similarity of the word “mezcal” to “mescaline” the worm does not contain any psychotropic properties and is not in itself an aphrodisiac, at least, not any more than imbibing large quantities of alcohol is. As a general rule, a top quality mezcal will not include a worm in it.
So what type of tequila would fit your palate profile, and how should you drink it? Tequila comes in a few different types, Blanco (or Plata, platinum), Oro (gold), reposado (rested), and Añejo (aged). Tequila Blanco is tequila in its most pure form, and is clear and typically unaged, having a bright and young sweeter agave flavor profile. For a gin or vodka drinker, this might be a great introduction into the tequila world. Tequila Oro is considered a “mixto,” or a tequila that has colorants or flavors added prior to bottling and is predominantly used in mixed drinks. Fans of single-malt Scotch might enjoy the profile of Tequila Reposado, which is a tequila that has been aged in a barrel between 2 and 11 months, giving it a more complex and rich flavor that is a little more mellow and peppery than its blanco counterparts. Tequila Añejo is aged for at least one year, and the aging process results in a more amber colored tequila that profiles into a very smooth, complex and richer tequila. Blended Scotch fans or those who enjoy a higher tannin profile in their aged spirits will enjoy the complex and wooded flavors in a nice Añejo.
In Mexico, tequila’s liquid fire is typically savored and sipped without the salt and lime, though in some regions it is not uncommon to find it consumed with a side of sangrita (a sweet, spicy and sour drink made from orange juice, grenadine and chilies). The “bandera” is also a popular drink, named after the flag of Mexico with its green, white and red colors. This drink consists of three shot glasses, filled with lime juice for the green, white tequila and sangrita for the red. The practice of using the lick, suck & bite method with salt and lime is often used to counteract the effects of alcohol burn in lower quality tequilas, but is not necessary in 100% agave, higher quality tequila. Aged tequilas should be served in a snifter to best capture all of the flavor profile within, and younger tequilas are well-served in a caballito, or tall shot glass (though a regular shot glass will do), and ideally at room temperature as to not stifle the complexity of flavors.
I had a delightful evening of research using a Vinturi Spirit aerator that I brought home from Liquid Planet, which did a very remarkable job at bringing out quite a few different flavor profiles from three different types of tequilas I tried in order to get out of my standby favorite Patrón (which I do recommend if you would like a nice, very touchable tequila). It was definitely a fun project, and well worth the fun if you are up for the experiment. If you are, I might recommend a few I tried in my Vinturi experiment. I had the Milagro Reposado, which has a beautiful but creamy profile but with amazing spicy agave finish, the Corazón de Agave Blanco, which is a very soft, pure, crisp and clean tequila, and the Casa Noble Añejo, which has so many vanilla, citrus, mocha and sweet herbal flavors that you will fall in love after a single sip. Enjoy this rich and beautiful spirit responsibly, but with all of the passion of Mexico’s complex river of fire.