A Guide to Tequila and Mexican Spirits
Everyone has heard of it, and our clients sure enjoy it on our culinary vacations to Mexico, but what exactly goes into making a tequila? What is the difference between tequila and mezcal? And are there other ways to drink it besides tequila shots or margaritas?
Tequila is a region-specific name, sort of like Champagne, meaning that it's a particular type of spirit hailing from the area surrounding the city of Tequila, Mexico. Tequila, which harkens back to 16th-century Mexico, is distilled from the blue agave plant, which is a type of succulent (cactus) that produces a high amount of fructose in its core. Supposedly the soil around Tequila makes it particularly suited for growing these plants. As a spirit, tequila is pretty alcoholic, ranging from around 40 percent alcohol to over 50 percent.
So what exactly is mezcal, which seems a lot like tequila? Mezcal is also a distilled spirit made from a type of agave plant (the maguey). (Tequila is considered a sub-category of mezcal, as it has to be made from a specific plant in a specific geographical area.) Mezcal is perhaps best known for some of its varieties (particularly from Oaxaca) having a worm added during the bottling process. (Why, you might ask? Marketing!) Tequila, despite popular belief, never has a worm.
You might have noticed that tequila these days comes in a variety of categories, but you might not have realized that they relate to the aging process:
- Blanco (white) or Plata (platimum/silver) is, as you might guess, clear in color, bottle immediately or aged for a very short time (less than 2 months)
- Joven (young) or Oro (gold) is simply Blanco tequila that has had caramel added to it for color and flavor
- Reposado (rested) has been aged between 2 and 12 months in oak
- Añejo (aged) has rested 1-3 years in small oak barrels
- Extra Añejo (extra aged) has spent at least 3 years in small oak barrels
So, how do Mexicans drink tequila? Usually neat, as you would drink a fine whiskey, and with no salt or lime, although sometimes with a chaser called sangrita, which is a spicy, fruity, tomato drink. Although margaritas can be found in Mexico (lime variety only, please, no strawberries!), you are more likely to enjoy tequila in a cocktail called a Paloma ("dove"), which is a mix of tequila and a grapefruit-based soda, served on the rocks with a wedge of lime. Of course, if you prefer to "shoot" yours with salt and lime, you would not be the first!
By Peg Kern
P.S. Want to try savoring tequila with a sangrita chaser? Mix equal parts tomato juice and orange juice, add fresh lemon or lime juice, a pinch of salt and couple dashes of tabasco. Sip—do not shoot—alternating between the two.