By Ellen Schnepel
Chantal Martineau, a food, drink, and travel writer, led us back in time on a journey to discover the popular culture of tequila. The voyage, by default, takes us to Mexico and begins with pulque, the ancient Aztec beverage. Pulque is a fermented nectar from agave, a native succulent also known as the maguey plant, which has over 200 varieties. The color of milk, somewhat viscous consistency, and a sour, yeast-like taste, the alcoholic drink predates tequila and mezcal and is part of the mythology and folklore of Mexico.
Chantal walked us through the difference between tequila and mezcal. While each is made from the heart of the agave, tequila can only be made from the blue agave. Named after the town of Tequila in the state of Jalisco where its production is focused, the drink is also produced in five other states (see map).
Mezcal, the mother of tequila, is made from many varieties of agave and across the country, with each regional version distinct.
The two spirits are also processed in different ways. Field laborers (jimadores) slice off the sharp, spiky leaves to get to the heart (piña) of the agave. At the distillery hearts are steamed in brick ovens for tequila, and for mezcal they are roasted in underground pits using wood, often mesquite, which gives the drink its characteristic smoky flavor. The cooked hearts are then mechanically shredded into mash or milled on stones (tahonas) using horse power to extract the juice. The pressed juice is collected for distillation in small copper pots for mezcal or stills with greater capacity for tequila. Produced in greater quantity, tequila has readily available markets. Mezcal is artisanal, produced in small batches, and sells largely to the family or village.
While it normally takes 7 to 10 years for an agave plant to be ready for harvest, some take 30 years or more. The plant is relatively hard to grow, has only one harvest, and produces an average of seven liters of the spirit. Periods of shortages and gluts, along with the fluctuation of prices from planting to final processing of tequila, have repercussions for the farmer’s income. In addition, lack of biodiversity heightened by the monoculture of agave constantly threatens the plant’s genetic robustness and, in turn, the tequila industry.
While we may be more familiar with clear or white (blanco) tequila, which purists prefer, it can also be aged seven months or longer in wooden oak barrels that give the spirit its brown color. Reposado, or “rested” tequila, is aged for at least two months and up to a year; anejo, or “aged” tequila, is matured for at least a year. Tequilas vary in percentage of agave and alcohol. During the talk we tasted four varieties of the beverage:
- the Paloma, a popular tequila-based cocktail made with Peloton mezcal and Jarritos grapefruit soda, served with ice and lime juice;
- Tapatio Blanco, an unaged 100% agave tequila from master distiller Carlos Camarena, whose distillery is in the highlands, 40% ABV (alcohol by volume);
- a reposado tequila, aged around 7 months in oak barrels by the same producer, 40% ABV;
- Mezcales de Leyenda’s Puebla expression, a mezcal that is 100% agave from either Cenizo, a rare agave of the Karwinski family, or Tobalá, a maguey variety found growing naturally only in the highest altitude canyons in the shade of oak trees like truffles; 48% ABV.
Chantal wrapped up her talk by finally satisfying our curiosity about the controversial title of her book. For a long time mezcal was limited to local consumption and associated with the poorer classes. With the rise of American taste for tequila, the spirit flooded the southern border. The US and Europe now account for 80% of its consumption, and the product is no longer controlled primarily by Mexicans. Like rum from the Caribbean, tequila and mezcal may be yet another example of how an indigenous agricultural product-turned-spirit, with a vibrant cultural tradition, is appropriated by the North, moves on to mass consumption, and is later transformed into luxury brands destined for the local elite and foreigners, and in the process becomes unattainable for the average Mexican.