The origin of Tequila: the agave fields in Jalisco, Mexico
THE BLUE AGAVE
Tequila, the national drink of Mexico, is produced in accordance with strict laws drawn up by the Mexican government, solely using the heart of a special kind of agave, the blue agave – Agave tequilana Weber.
The name of the liliaceous plant, which is related to the Aloe vera plant, can be traced back to Agaue, the Greek goddess of illustriousness and daughter of Harmonia. In the mythology of the Meso-American civilisation, the deity Quetzalcoatl fell in love with the beautiful goddess Mayahuel and abducted her to his kingdom.
From there she was brought back to Meso-America and paid for her liaison with her life. Quetzalcoatl’s mourning over the loss of Mayahuel gave people the ability to love. Watered with his tears, the agave grew from the spot where her body was buried.
EL CONSEJO REGULADOR DEL TEQUILA
To guarantee the best quality and set it apart from other spirits, the Mexican government resolved to protect its national drink from poor quality imitations by setting up its own authority to monitor compliance with these quality standards, the CRT (Consejo Regulador del Tequila).
The CRT was founded in 1933 under a different name. Since the 1970s, a regulation has stated that tequila may only originate from certain protected regions in Mexico. Since 1994, the CRT has been operating under this name and monitors and checks tequila production around the world.
Only destilerías which meet the strict requirements relating to quality and origin receive their individual control numbers – the Número de Orígen Mexicana (NOM) and the Denominación de Orígen Tequila (D.O.T.).
Thus, the CRT, among others, has specified that only the distillate obtained from this special kind of agave – the blue agave – and originating from the specifically defined area of cultivation may carry the ‘tequila’ certificate of origin.
THE AGAVE FIELDS
The regions specified by the CRT for the cultivation of Agave tequilana Weber azul are Jalisco, Nayarit, Guanajuato, Michoacán and Tamaulipas. Around 90% originates from the Jalisco region – the main cultivation area for tequila.
At altitudes ranging from 800 to more than 2,500 metres around Guadalajara – the capital of the Jalisco province and thus the capital of tequila – the Agave tequilana Weber azul grows from which tequila is produced.
There are two different kinds of agave field locations: the highlands are known for their intensive, mineral-rich red soil and an ideal mixture of intense sunlight and steady precipitation during the rainy season.
The agave plants in the lowlands around the city of Tequila grow somewhat faster in darker, volcanic soil. Particularly in the mountain ranges around the Tequila Valley, the fertile and high-quality black soil combined with the elevated location of the fields ensure magnificent growth.
The different textures of the earth influence the way in which agave plants grow. The various nutrients also effect the taste and intensity of the plants. Lowland agave plants tend to give the tequila a smokier note than the fruitier variants that grow in the highlands.
The high-quality blue agave plants are only ripe enough to be harvested 8–12 years after cultivation.
The hearts of the agave plants can be distilled twice using traditional methods in typical copper kettles (alembics) known as the pot still process. This is a particularly gentle process and the distillate has an intensive taste. Another distillation method is column distillation. Here, a higher gravity (alcohol vol. %) can be achieved. The intensity and fruitiness of the tequila is often diminished.
SPECIFICATION: TEQUILA AND 100% DE AGAVE TEQUILA
- Tequila must contain at least 51% agave juice.
- Sugar (e.g. from sugar cane) from the Jalisco region is added before the obligatory double distillation process starts.
- 100% de Agave tequilas have a more intensive agave taste and are particularly suitable for pure consumption. According to the norma del tequila (Mexican standards that regulate production), they must be bottled in Mexico.
The taste depends on whether it‘s tequila or 100% de Agave tequila. Internationally, tequila is preferred by many consumers due to its somewhat milder agave taste.
Storage follows distillation. The length of the storage period depends upon the category of tequila.
However, besides the length of the storage period of the tequila, other factors as well influence the maturation process of tequila. For instance, the type of wood used to build the cask can be a significant factor, and even the size of the cask can influence the intensity of the maturation.
In summary, the following crucial and strictly monitored elements and rules must be observed during the production of tequila:
- From more than 200 types of agave, only one may be used to make tequila: Agave tequilana Weber azul.
- Tequila must always have an agave content of at least 51% (the rest in sugar cane).
- 100% de Agave tequila must always be made solely using the blue agave.
- Designated cultivation areas: the tequila agave plants may only be cultivated in the areas of Jalisco, Nayarit, Guanajuato, Michoacán and Tamaulipas.
- Depending on the tequila category, storage can only take place in casks of a certain size. For example, a reposado tequila may only be stored in casks with a volume of up to 700 litres.