Tequila: the Mexican Spirit

Tequila Tasting in Puerto Vallarta with Aimee Pellet Cinco de Mayo is upon us when Mexicans celebrate the 1862 underdog victory against the French, who occupied Mexico at the time. But it’s a day when we all feel a bit of the Mexican spirit. And what would be Cinco de Mayo without tequila, the ever-present accompaniment to great Mexican food! Unlike many alcohols that are made from either grain, like vodka, or from grapes, like wine, tequila is produced from the blue agave plant, also known as Agave tequiliana.

Agave tequiliana at Dona Engracia Hacienda in Jalisco, Mexico. Photo by Stan Shebs, Wikimedia commons

The large Agave tequiliana is a succulent, which usually grows to around 15 feet tall and is the basis of all tequila production. Similar to wine appellation, tequila must be produced in one of five states in Mexico designated for its production. However, most of the industry centers around Jalisco, where the entire state has gained the designation for production. Various types of agave plants grow throughout Mexico and have been used through the centuries for medicinal purposes and as a natural sweetener but only the blue agave is used for tequila. It may come as a surprise that it is not the succulent’s large, bluish leaves that are used to make the tequila, but rather the pineapple-shaped fruit in the center of the plants. After harvest, the plants are steamed or boiled, either in traditional wood ovens or in more modern stainless versions, to soften the plant, making sugar extraction easier. The agave is then crushed to separate the fibers from the juice. The extracted agave juice is distilled using steam for 1-2 weeks before being aged.

Pineapple-like core used to make tequila liquor. Photo by Stan Shebs, Wikimedia commons

Tequilas fall into one of three general categories; Tequila Blanco (“white tequila”) is a young beverage that has not been aged, Tequila reposado (“rested tequila”) has been aged in barrels, generally for 11 months to 3 years and finally, tequila añejo (“aged tequila”) can be barrel-aged for many years. The longer tequila ages, the darker and smoother – and, of course, more expensive – it becomes.

Tres Tequilas- the colors and flavors are based on the amount of time aged in barrels.  Photo by Troy Clarence, www.cotrippin.com If you are visiting Mexico, the Tequila Road can be a wonderful adventure. Located only four hours outside of Puerto Vallarta, there are numerous small family distillers, as well as larger producers that will happily give informative tours showing the process—along with a tasting or two. However, tequila can also be found in Puerto Vallarta itself. Touristy tasting rooms abound, but there are smaller, more intimate chances to try tequila if you know where to look. A great example is Once Letras. In addition to all three types of tequila, Once Letras also makes flavored tequila and liquors by blending tequila with flavored agave syrup. If you’re looking for a unique way to serve tequila for Cinco de Mayo, try a classic three shot “La Bandera” (which translates to “The Mexican Flag”), named for the green, white, and red colors of the three liquid beverages. It is traditionally served in three separate, tall shot glasses and sipped in sequence. The first glass contains lime juice, the second glass is filled with tequila Blanco. The third is sangrita, a traditional fruit beverage, usually made from orange, lime, and pomegranate, but can have other fruits as well. Chili powder is often added, which gives it heat and the reddish color.

"La Bandera" 3 shots in the colors of the Mexican flag, lime, tequila blanco, and sangrita with fruit and/or chili powder. Photo by Troy Clarence, www.cotrippin.com

However you choose to serve it, enjoy your tequila beverage knowing that you are partaking in the culture, history, and traditions of México. Feliz Cinco de Mayo.  

*headline photo by Jay8085 Flickr at Wikimedia commons

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