travelog 65


Blue agave fields as far as the eye can see. Gently rolling hills, steep mountain sides, even federally owned roadside embankments, are planted with agaves. Blue sky, coarse red earth, light blue agave plants, what a color combination for the eye! And what a final product for the palate!

Traveling through Mexico one inevitably enjoys Mexican spirits. The many varieties are the result of production from different agave species and varying production practices. In almost the entire country people make Mezcal, a somewhat smoky tasting agave liquor that is mostly produced in small traditional family distilleries without modern equipment. Raicilla comes from the west coast and adjacent mountainous regions of Jalisco. Bacanora on the other hand is produced in Sonora where it is sweetend with a very small agave species, Agave parviflora ssp. flexiflora. Sotol, another liquor from Chihuahua, is not made with agave plants, but with Dasylirion. And pulque is more or less the prototype of tequila. The list goes on and on. About 2000 years ago, the Aztecs had already discovered that the juice of the agave (aguamiel) converts itself into a milky-white, slightly alcoholic beverage when it comes into contact with the air. They called it "octili poliqhui". Later, the Spaniards made that into "pulque". The consumption of pulque was, except on special holidays, reserved for the Aztec elite. The Spaniards didn't like the taste of it very much but soon found out that they could produce a sweeter juice if the pulp was cooked first. This sweet juice was then distilled and the result was what we today call mezcal. Later they discovered that a mezcal produced from the blue agaves that were grown in the area of Tequila, a small town in the state of Jalisco, was of an extraordinary quality. Soon after, the mezcal produced in Tequila was not called mezcal anymore but simply "tequila". Until about 30 years ago, the state of Jalisco was the only place where equila could be distilled legally. Not much has changed since then. Even today there are only a few states in Mexico that are allowed to produce tequila. The lion's share is made in Jalisco. There's exactly one tequila factory in Guanajuato and one in Tamaulipas. In the states of Nayarit, Michoacan, Guanajuato, and Tamaulipas, agave azul is grown but almost never used to produce tequila.

Tequila is made from the Agave tequilana, a plant popularly known in Mexico as "agave azul". The plants are harvested after about 8-10 years, just before they start flowering. The leaves are cut in a special way, leaving only the heart, the so-called "piņa" that weighs between 30-50 kilograms (50-100 pounds), but can also weigh up to a 100 kilograms (200 pounds) in extreme cases. Depending on the size of the piņa it is divided in the factory before being cooked in huge primitive steam ovens until the starch converts into sugar. Then the piņas are mashed and ground. Earlier this was done with huge grinding wheels that were pulled by donkeys. The pulp is then pressed to extract the aguamiel, the sugar water. The next steps determine if the end product is a pure tequila or a mixto. The real, pure tequila is 100% blue agave juice fermented with water and then distilled. Mixto can be made with up to 49% of other alcohol, mostly sugar cane alcohol. It is not allowed to export 100% tequila, that's why many producers send 99% agave liquor to the US where it is mixed and diluted with up to 51% other alcohol in the bottling factories. In huge tanks, today mostly stainless steel, the aguamiel is mixed with water and sprinkled with yeast to start the fermentation that takes between 2-4 days. The next step is the distillation. The product after the first distillation is called "ordinario". It's a clear liquid that smells strongly of alcohol. Then there's a second and sometimes even a third distillation after which the alcohol percentage should be about 39°. Now it's time for aging. By law a "Blanco" has to be aged for at least 2 weeks or a maximum of 2 months. "Reposado" is aged in oak barrels for at least 2 months or up to 1 year. That gives it a light brown color. The "Aņejo", the best of the tequilas, must be aged in oak barrels for at least 1 year or longer. Of course this is not only reflected in a darker brown color but also in its price in the market.

It's not very easy to visit a tequila factory. Of course you have the best opportunities around the city of Tequila but most of the time these factories only let you in if you're with a large guided group of tourists. Not exactly our dream. A well-known factory in Amatitan, Tequila Herradura, doesn't even allow us to look at the colorfully painted former houses of their workers because we're not coming with a group in the Tequila Express, a train that runs from Guadalajara. We have more luck just on the other side of this factory where a shareholder's meeting ends at the factory "Tradicional". The shareholders all totter away more or less drunk but we get hold of a young man who is willing to show us the factory. He's visibly relieved to find out that he can give us the tour in Spanish. We pass on the offer of tequila samples, prefering a cold beer in the nearby town of Tequila; it helps quench our thirst far better than tequila. The whole little town seems to profit from tequila and almost entire streets of shops sell shot glasses, decanters, little oak barrels to age tequila or mezcal at home, gallon plastic bottles with many mezcal types, but also hundreds of different tequilas. How all these little shops selling the same things can survive is a big mystery to us. If you want to have it a little bit more private, then it's best to find a tequila producing factory in a little village somewhere in the "Los Altos" of Jalisco. You may not be allowed to take pictures due to fear of espionage. At "Siete Leguas" it is forbidden to take photos. Traditionally the cooked piņas are still crushed with grinding wheels pulled by mules but the owners don't like it if a visitor takes a picture when one of the animals passes water that is of course mixed into the aguamiel. We have more luck at "Quiote", a name for the agave inflorescence. Through connections we can move around freely on the premises and can witness how the piņas are quartered and filled into the primitive steam oven. Huge tanks for the fermenting process are in the next room and we're also shown the distillation. A very long tanker is filled with 99% agave liquor to be transported to the US where it is mixed and sold under another name. Adjacent, we discover oak barrels where tequila has been aging since 2002. There's even a real laboratory on the premises where they analyse and test everything. The factory produces three different tequila brands. "Toril" is available as Blanco and Reposado. "Quiote" is on the market as Blanco, Reposado and Aņejo. The third brand is called "Puerto Vallarta" and it is sold, as the name indicates, to the Gringos in Puerto Vallarta. In the near future the company also wants to bring a tequila on the US market under the name of "Don Anastasio".

In Mexico, tequila is consumed at a number of different occasions. Tequila in a shotglass with a pinch of salt on one hand and a slice of lime in the other is an American invention and is consumed only by tourists. Tequila is normally served in a "caballito". For lunch, for example, you order a beer and a tequila. If you don't like it that stong, mix your tequila with lemonade, soda water and ice. Or order it as a "Changuito" or a "Cuba", a mix of tequila, Coca Cola, soda water and ice. In the countryside tequila drinking starts early in the morning. For example, after the milking of the cows. You can see hand painted signs advertising "Pajarete" or groups of men with sombreros and slightly red noses. For a "Pajarete" the host mixes tequila, sugar and grated chocolate in a glass and fills it up with milk still warm from the cow. There you have your morning power drink! Of course you also get "Margaritas" but those are mostly served in tourist areas too. The connoisseur drinks tequila pure. But, as with wine, tequila aficionados have their own language to describe its flavours. Tequila has fruity nuances, delicate harmony, full-flavoured body, tastes of apple and vanilla, and one can smell notes of caramel, cinnamon and butter. But even the simplest ranchers in the countryside drink tequila, and that's why we don't care much about these sometimes stilted gourmet attitudes and enjoy our tequila as it comes: straight!

At the end we also want to tell you something about the legend of tequila. The proverb "Para todo mal, mezcal. Para todo bien, tambien!", meaning roughly "For everything bad, mezcal. For everything good, the same!", seems to be known and followed all over Mexico. We have known people who sip a glass of mezcal every morning and nibble on a piece of dried rattlesnake meat. They firmly believe that this is why they never get sick. Others prescribe you a tequila for every little complaint. Following the motto "If it doesn't help, it doesn't harm you either!". Consumed in reasonable quantities, tequila, like wine, increases the good cholesterol levels in your blood while decreasing the bad cholesterols. Besides, it optimizes cardiac functions, is a good digestive aid and it combats stress. Of course this means, as with wine, drinking one glass of tequila per day and not half a bottle or even more!

Now we wish to propose a toast "Viva Mexico and its national beverage!". Besides, who still thinks we're studying the wrong plants...

March-May 2005

Julia Etter & Martin Kristen