Tequila. Straight. There's a real polite drink. You keep drinking until you finally take one more and it just won't go down. Then you know you've reached your limit...
Tequila; what makes it a really great drink? Many people associate tequila with the hard drinking clubbing scene as a way to get drunk quickly, easily and cheaply.
This is true in so many areas of our culture today, not just the club scene. To find out what is special about tequila I went to Mexico… or as near as possible as I could manage, I sought out the best person to tell me about Mexico and the origins of tequila and many other things about Mexico.
I was very honoured that the Head of Mission of Mexico to the United Nations) and former Mexican Ambassador to Singapore), Mr. Juan José Gómez Camacho agreed to talk to me.
As the Ambassador to that country between North America and South America it is his personal mission to inform, educate and introduce the local people, expatriates and locals alike to the customs, food, culture and yes; alcohol, of his home land.
Lets us start with the name… Mexico; where did it come from?
With a country that has such diverse cultural aspects it is only conceivable that the name is made up of several cultural aspects.
The name we know today as Mexico originated during the time of the Aztecs who were also known as the Mexicas. Mexico was originally known as Metztlixcictlico and is made up of three sounds in the old Nahuatl language spoken by the Aztecs: METZTLI means moon; XICTLII means umbilical or centre; CO means place so, Metztlixcictlico, then, means place in the centre of the moon (or belly button of the moon).
For the Spanish, it was impossible for them to pronounce Metztlixcictlico, so the word was shortened to Mexico.
From Mexico comes tequila, that bottle of firewater that we all have secreted away in our cabinets at home, or that drink we chuck down our throats to get us in a party mood. As I found out speaking to Ambassador Gomez, it is much more than that. Tequila is not just an alcoholic drink that we drink to get drunk, it IS the spirit of Mexico.
It is so shrouded in folklore and the legends are as obscure as they are romantic, one and possibly the truest of them all is that in the Jalisco area of Central Mexico, a Blue Agave was dying, as the sun dried its leaves and roots, a clear liquid formed. The birds in the area came down to drink, and were seen as ‘Acting Erratically’, this led to the curiosity of man and when the Spanish brought distillation to Mexico, tequila was born.
While many believe that tequila is made from the cactus plant, tequila is made from distilled sap from hearts (piñas) of the agave or maguey (pr. ‘mah-gay’) plant. This plant is actually related to the lily and amaryllis (it has its own genus: Agave). It is known as a succulent and, although it shares a common habitat with many cacti, it is not one itself.
“Tequila is Mexico,” said Carmelita Roman, the widow of the late tequila producer Jesus Lopez Roman in an interview after her husband’s murder. “It’s the only product that identifies us as a culture.”
With over one hundred types and brands to select from, you will find one that suits your individual palette. I am not a tequila drinker, but in the ‘spirit’ of research, I embarked on a spiritual fact finding mission tasting several of the lower end brands, choking as I knocked ‘em back with lemon & salt.
But I was looking for a true ‘Mexican Tequila Taste Bonanza’. Then I contacted Mike Orpwood and Brian Masters, Directors of Prestige Consultants, here in Singapore, who introduced me to something special, Patron Tequila.
Whilst we will all say that we know tequila, can we honestly say this with conviction? Patron Tequila was like sipping, yes, SIPPING liquid velvet. It was cool, not a grain of salt or a slice of lemon in sight and was so smooth that before I knew it we were on a third, then fourth!
I felt that a hangover was ensuing and a terror image of an alarm clock was looming in my mind, but oh well, onwards for England errr… Mexico. After being educated …hic… into the pleasures of a true tequila, it was off to hangover land… not so, the next morning I was pleasantly surprised as to how good I felt and with not a hangover in sight, it was off to the office!
Patron Tequila is a unique tequila with several varieties that are distilled in the traditional way. The blue agave used in the manufacture of Patron Tequila is hand picked; cooked the old traditional way in clay ovens to give it a unique smooth flavour.
The traditional stone or brick oven used in this process is called a Horno – hence the name of Sauza’s Hornitos, which is then aged in single oak barrels and decanted in hand-made crystal bottles.
Patron sells more ultra premium tequilas than all other purveyors, it is in fact THE number one seller of tequila in the world today and out sells its nearest competitor in the USA alone. The company also holds the American Academy of Hospitality Sciences, Five Star Diamond Award, and is the first spirits brand, ever to receive this prestigious award.
What makes a premium brand tequila?
The most important identifier on the label is “100% agave” or “100% agave azul”.This means it is made from the blue agave plant, and must be approved by a government inspector to ensure its’ purity. If it doesn’t say this, it is not a pure agave tequila. It is all those non-agave ingredients which are the recipe for a wicked hangover.
NOM on the label means Normas Oficial Mexicana, usually referred to simply as the NORMAS: it means that the tequila meets Mexican government standards. All 100% agave tequilas must have a NOM identifier on the bottle.
Some of the different types of tequila readily available are: Blanco or Silver: This is the traditional tequila that started it all. Clear and transparent, fresh from the still tequila is called Blanco (white or silver) and must be bottled immediately after the distillation process. It has the true bouquet and flavour of the blue agave. It is usually strong and is traditionally enjoyed in a “caballito” (2 oz small glass, see below).
Oro or Gold: This is Tequila Blanco mellowed by the addition of colorants and flavourings, caramel being the most common. It is the tequila of choice for frozen Margaritas.
Reposado or Rested: It is Blanco that has been kept (or rested) in white oak casks or vats called “pipones” for more than two months and up to one year. The oak barrels give Reposado a mellowed taste, pleasing bouquet, and its pale colour. Reposado keeps the blue agave taste and is gentler to the palate. These tequilas have experienced exponential demand and high prices.
Añejo or Aged: This is Blanco tequila aged in white oak casks for more than a year. Maximum capacity of the casks should not exceed 600 litres (159 gallons). The amber colour and woody flavour are picked up from the oak, and the oxidation that takes place through the porous wood develops the unique bouquet and taste.
Reserva: Although not a category in itself, it is a special Añejo that certain distillers keep in oak casks for up to 8 years. Reserva enters the big leagues of liquor both in taste and in price.
How to drink tequila the Mexican way
The traditional way is to use a tall, narrow shot glass called a caballito. The caballito, with its narrow base and wider mouth, it is said to be modeled after the original bull’s horn from which tequila was drunk.
The bottom was cut flat so it could rest on a table. It’s a perfect size and shape. Sip it, without the lime and the salt. Don’t add ice you lose the aroma.
Some people like it served cold, try it at room temperature if you want to appreciate the full bouquet and body. The air can erode the tequila of its agave flavours in a matter of several weeks or a month. Tequila won’t last forever, you do have to drink it within 1-2 months else it starts to lose its oomph.
Most of the tequila-producing communities in Mexico are in Jalisco. Jalisco became a part of greater Mexico in 1821, the district around the town was also called Tequila. Today the town of Tequila has a population around 35,000. It lies on an east-west line that starts in Jesus Maria in the east, passes through Guadalajara through to Escobedo in the west. There are two main areas of production that lie around the region, the town of Tequila, and in the highlands (near Atotonilco and Los Altos) to the east. Tequila takes its name from the town in the late 19th century; before that the product was a type of wine known as mezcal.
Hernan Cortez, from research, seems to be the man responsible for bringing tequila to Europe, he wrote many letters of interest to King Carlos V of Spain, most notably that regarding Mezcal, the close cousin to tequila as we know it today, which was unknown to Europe and other continents until it was brought back by Senor Cortez. There are many rumours about how he got to Mexico, The governor of Cuba sent him, or he found it mistaking Mexico for the Indies… whichever it was, he found it and brought us tequila. Yea!!!
Much of the history and legend behind tequila is taken from the pre-hispanic era and the importance of the products and rituals is still evident today. The history that founded the origins of the Tequila as a product initiated in about the mid 1700’s, Jose Cuervo was presented with territory in Villoslada, Jalisco by the King of Spain. About a year later he was given the rights on the production of Tequila.
Tequila reminds us of a particular world, a world that was born of shared imagination - a wild, rural landscape of robust men on horseback, accustomed to difficult tasks… A powerful shadow, of the mountain also called Tequila, falls over this great region. That terrain of hard beauty is as hypnotising to contemporary travellers today, as it was in centuries past. From Jalisco, Tierra del Tequila.
The message from the Mexican Ambassador to the United Nations is very clear: “Mexico has many facets and is very diverse in food, culture and legend. Tequila is one way we can embrace Mexico. Tequila is Mexico, and Mexico is tequila”