by Greg Duncan Powell
Magazine Issue: AUS/NZ Issue Two
There’s a lot more to the stuff than shots, salt and worms that make you go crazy. In fact, according to Greg Duncan Powell, it seems much of the truth on tequila got lost in the translation.
When the Spanish conquistadors arrived in Mexico in the early 16th century they brought to the inhabitants the delights of Catholicism and various western diseases such as small pox, syphilis and tuberculosis. The native Indians offered them in turn a sort of milky beer called “pulque”. However the trials and tribulations of being a conquistador demanded a stronger drink. Using the pulque as a base they learned to distill it into a crude spirit called mezcal. It had the requisite dose of alcohol the conquistadors sought, but was a fairly coarse sort of drink.
That was what they drank in Mexico until the end of the 19th century when a few worthy families around the town of Tequila happened on a way to produce a cleaner, lighter spirit by double distilling in pot stills. Tequila was born.
Authentic tequila is now protected by law. It must be produced from a single variety of the blue agave plant, the species Tequiliana Weber, which is grown in a limited region of Mexico in the state of Jalisco around the towns of Tequila, Tepatitlan, Guadalajara and Jalisco.
There are over 400 species of the agave plant which thrives in the arid Mexican climate. It begins life about the size of an onion, and looks very much like that favourite of 1950s gardens, the spiny yucka plant. Agave plants are mature at about 10 years old and normally measure about 60-70 centimetres around the base.
When harvested, the spiky leaves are chopped away from the core of the plant. The “pina” as it is then called, looks like a giant green pineapple and is cooked to convert the starch to sugar. It is then shredded and pulped to extract the sugary juice. This juice is fermented twice in pot stills. It emerges from the stills the second time at the relatively low proof of 110 (vodka is distilled at 190 proof). That means that when the spirit is adjusted to the requisite alcohol level, less water is needed and the character of the spirit is not diminished. Tequila bottled straight from the stills is called white or silver tequila. Gold tequilas or anejos are aged in wood for one to three years but sometimes up to seven.
Mezcal is more potent than tequila
There is more myth and legend pedalled about mezcal than virtually any other drink barring absinthe. Mezcal refers to an alcoholic beverage produced in Mexico from the fermented juice of any variety of the agave plant. Just as cognac is brandy but not all brandy is cognac, all tequila is mezcal but not all mezcal is tequila. Tequila is just the most refined.
The worm has special properties
Mezcal is often exported containing a dead mariposa worm (which feeds on the agave plant) as a mark of authenticity. What began as a bid for credibility has become a marketing gimmick. The worm in the mezcal is much like the plastic things you used to find in cornflakes boxes. Some producers have even gone further than one worm and offer dos gusanos.
Mezcal is hallucinogenic
This confusion stems from the similarity of the words mezcal and the mescaline. The mescal cactus has absolutely no relation to the agave plant, apart from the fact that the Indians called the agave mezcal. The conquistadors called it “maguey”. The mescal cactus or peyote plant is the source of peyote buttons which contain the hallucinogenic drug, mescaline. Aldous Huxley has a lot to answer for.
Tequila is made from a cactus
This stems from the mezcal/mescaline confusion. The agave plant is not a cactus. Botanically, it’s from the amaryllidaceae family.
HOW TO DRINK TEQUILA
Tequila is the principal ingredient in the margarita. It’s a truly classic cocktail, which unlike the daiquiri, doesn’t lend itself to variation. But no matter — the basic margarita needs no improving.
The Basic Margarita
Lemon or lime rind
Salt for the glass
60ml of tequila
15ml of Cointreau
1 teaspoon of freshly squeezed lemon or lime juice
Rub rim of cocktail glass with the rind of the lemon or lime. Dip the glass rim down in the salt. Combine the rest of the ingredients and ice in a shaker and strain into the salt-rimmed glass. Put on anything by Herb Albert and the Tijuana Brass and put everything off until manyana.
Los tres cuates or the tequila slammer
The slammer uses the same time-honoured trinity of tequila, salt and lemon or lime that the margarita relies on, albeit in a more basic form. It’s best with white or silver tequila. Participants lick a pinch of salt on the back of their hand, take a slug of tequila and then suck on a lemon or lime. It’s a riot in the mouth. When you can no longer coordinate your lick sip suck, it’s time to stop.