The Truth about Tequila

Be honest now. You thought it was made from cactus, didn’t you? Read on, gringo.

September 1975By Comments

I leaned sidewise against the bar, which was on the same side of the room as the orchestra stand. I was turning a small glass of tequila around on the top of the bar…

The bartender leaned beside me, on his side of the bar… “Do you like that stuff straight,” he said, “or should I smooth it out for you?”

“Smooth it out with what?” I said. “You got a wood rasp handy?”

He grinned. I drank a little more of the tequila and made a face.

“Did somebody invent this stuff on purpose?”

from Finger Man by Raymond Chandler

Although Finger Man was written in the late Thirties, its attitude toward tequila persisted until the present de­cade. Tequila was thought of as some sort of Mexican cactus juice, probably dangerous, whose intoxicating effects were legend but whose other rumored effects were said to include everything from a convulsed stomach to hallucino­genic visions. Universal opinion held that the stuff was horrible—tasted bad, smelled bad, came in odd-looking bot­tles, was probably unsanitary—and that its only possible use was as a gasoline substitute or a cleaning fluid. My father was given a bottle once when I was in grade school and it stood well back in a cabinet shelf, unopened, until long after I was old enough to vote.

In college here in Texas, not quite ten years ago, drinking tequila was a stunt primarily practiced by sophomores. We were young enough that a drink of even the mellowest Kentucky bourbon could at the same time singe the upper half of our brains and the lower half of our stomachs; so when we passed a bottle of tequila around a dormitory room and took huge swigs, any amount of gasping, choking, retching, coughing, turning red, or passing out was acceptable, even ex­pected. On the other hand, any sopho­more who could swallow his drink without any change of composure or expression was considered, by virtue of that feat alone, to be a man indeed.

The only justification for tequila oth­er than as a testing agent for manhood was that it was a necessary ingredient in margaritas. If it weren’t for this drink, tequila would have taken its place among other foreign liquors, like saki from Japan, that are more honored in America by legend than by consump­tion. Yet in spite of the continued and growing popularity of margaritas, the American palate remained otherwise un­accustomed to tequila. The liquor’s strong taste seemed to preclude its being mixed in any other way.

But shortly after the Seventies began, tequila became a fashionable under­ground drink. In 1971 U.S. tequila im­ports rose by more than 21 per cent after several years of five to ten per cent increases. Certainly, part of the rea­son is the renewed interest in Indians, magic, ancient rituals, pre-Columbian art, turquoise, and similar trends. Te­quila, whose origin lies in the Indian civilizations of Mexico, is the one liquor generally available in the U.S. which, because of origin, has about it an aura of magic and mystery; and this gives it an implied affinity with the drug culture. Had mescaline or even marijuana been a liquor, they would certainly have been tequila.

In 1972 the Rolling Stones toured America. The rock and roll press cov­ered their doings in exhaustive detail. Far from lost in these lengthy chronicles was the news that throughout their tour the Stones were drinking tequila sun­rises, a drink made with tequila, orange juice, and grenadine. Stones fans tried the drink and discovered, perhaps to their surprise, that it was wonderful. The news spread rapidly. Tequila im­ports rose another 56 per cent that year and 70 per cent in 1973, which is the last year for which complete figures are available. In 1968 the total volume im­ported was 2,920,000 liters (a gallon is 3.79 liters); by 1973 it was 11,263,000 liters, an increase of about 400 per cent in only five years. One age group, those 25 to 35, young enough to be interested in the Stones and old enough to be in­terested in hard liquor, was singlehandedly responsible for the increase.

Encouraged by the knowledge that tequila mixes well with lime juice and orange juice, aficionados soon discov­ered that it was delicious with every other citrus juice as well. Then came tequila sours, tequila gimlets, tequila martinis (awfully strange), and wonder of wonders, tequila straight—the cata­lyst of our sophomoric posturing—now served over the rocks with a twist of lemon or orange and drunk with neither bang nor whimper. The recalcitrant rebel from across the border has become a social lion.

Although we have learned how to drink it, almost no one in the United States knows what tequila is or how it is made. Finding the answers to those questions requires a little background information and a visit to a small town on a busy road deep in Mexico.

The most persistent and common be­lief is that tequila is distilled from a fer­mented cactus juice drink called pulque. That persistent belief is wrong; it is as mistaken as believing Irish whiskey is distilled from Guinness stout. Nor is pulque cactus juice, fermented or other­wise. Pulque and tequila are produced by completely different methods in completely different parts of Mexico. The confusion undoubtedly arose because pulque and tequila, along with mezcal, another native Mexican drink, are the products of different species of the same plant—the agave.

The agave is frequently called the maguey in Mexico. In the United States it is known as the century plant, be­cause pioneers in the Southwest thought it bloomed only once in 100 years; usu­ally it takes about ten. Common be­lief, mistaken here again, holds that the agave is a cactus. While its exact classi­fication is still a subject of debate among botanists, the agave is more closely related to the yucca, sansevieria, lily of the Nile, and amaryllis than to any cactus. The agave is a succulent plant with long, broad leaves growing in a crowded pattern from the plant’s round core. The leaves are very thick and stiff with a sharp thorn at each pointed tip and a row of thorns running along each edge. In many species of agave the leaves become so long and so thick that the plant grows taller than a man and the leaves form a circle as much as ten or fifteen feet in diameter.

The agave grows naturally in most of Mexico and in parts of the southwest­ern United States. Its leaves were used by the early Mexican Indian civiliza­tions for thatching and for fuel and the thorns were used for needles, nails, and as spikes for punishing lawbreakers and as self-lacerating instruments in religious ceremonies. Fiber in the leaves made good twine, sandal soles, and serviceable cloth. The Indians also roast­ed the roots and core to make food, sugar, candy, and vinegar. New uses for the agave are still being found. Two re­cent experiments are pleasingly bal­anced—Mexicans are trying agave fiber as mattress stuffing and Swedish re­searchers are developing a birth control agent extracted from the plant.

Pulque—derived from the agave—was the one alcoholic drink known to the early Indian civilizations. They con­sidered it a sacred substance and re­stricted its consumption. Except for a privileged aristocracy and the sick or aged, all of whom were allowed three cups a day, the population could drink pulque only during certain religious fes­tivals. Otherwise public drunkenness was punished severely; a third offense meant death. The gods of pulque were pictured as rabbits. There were 400 of them, one for each of the 400 forms of drunkenness pulque could produce.

Pulque is still made more or less the way the Indians made it. Just before the agave is ready to flower the top of the plant’s central core is cut off—called “castrating” the plant—which prevents the flower from growing. The cut heals, which traps in the core the juices the plant has produced in order to flower. In a few months workers open the cut again and carve a cavity in the core. The trapped juice, called aguamiel (which means honey water), flows into this cavity and is collected by field workers who use a long-necked gourd to siphon it off, just as the Indians did. Each plant produces about a half gallon of aguamiel daily and continues to pro­duce for five or six months.

Pulque, because of the fermenting agents naturally present in the aguamiel, is very unstable and turns sour very quickly. It can’t be bottled—it leaves the factories in large barrels—or shipped very far from where it is made. Consequently pulque is a regional drink con­sumed primarily in an area surrounding Mexico City which extends north to Hidalgo and south almost to Oaxaca. Nevertheless, about one-fourth of the alcohol drunk in Mexico is pulque.

The Indians made neither tequila nor mezcal. The Spanish conquerors, who knew how to distill hard liquor, invent­ed them both. When the supply of rum and brandy they brought to Mexico ran out, they began to look for a native plant from which to make a distilled liquor. If they had chosen corn, they might have developed bourbon. Instead, aware that pulque was derived from the agave, they began experimenting with various species of that plant until they found which species produced a distilled liquor that was more or less palatable. This was, and is, mezcal. The agaves used to make it have narrower leaves, are small­er, and grow better in lower altitudes and hotter temperatures than the pul­que agaves.

Most mezcal comes from one of four distinct regions: a large, roughly oval­-shaped area on the central plateau bounded by Torreon in the north and San Luis Potosi in the south; a wide strip along the western coast running from Manzanillo to well south of Aca­pulco and including Oaxaca; a small­er area in the far southern state of Chiapas adjacent to the Guatemalan border; and an area centered around Guadalajara that includes the whole state of Jalisco and a portion of Nayarit just to the north. It is only in this fourth area that tequila can be made. Tequila and mezcal are produced by exactly the same method, but the distinction between them is the same as between cognac and brandy. Tequila is mezcal, but not all mezcal is tequila. By Mexi­can law, only mezcals made in the officially sanctioned region around Gua­dalajara can be called tequila, just as the name cognac guarantees that that liquor comes only from a specific area of France. The analogy can be carried still further. Just as the cognac region came to be defined and protected by law be­cause of the quality of grapes grown in that soil, so too is tequila ideally the product of only one species of agave which, if grown in other places, won’t produce liquor with the unique and spe­cial taste of tequila. That species of agave, Agave tequilana, is sometimes called the blue agave because of its blue-green, almost metallic looking leaves. Mezcals other than tequila are, as a rule, not exported but are drunk in the region where they were made. Some of the most famous are San Luis from San Luis Potosi, Zotol from Chi­huahua, Bacanora from Sonora, and Olla from Oaxaca. A bottle of mezcal traditionally has a dead worm lying on the bottom and a small bag of salt tied around the neck. The salt is placed on one’s tongue while drinking the mezcal, but the reason for the worm is obscure. Legend has it that the worm is of a spe­cies that spends its whole life from birth to death in the agave. While this may be true, it still doesn’t explain what the worm is doing in the bottle. Tradition demands that the worm be there, but evidently the reason for tradition’s de­mand has long been lost.

There are 48 distilleries who have the right to call their mezcal tequila; 44 are in the state of Jalisco and the remaining 4 are in Nayarit. The town that is the center of tequila manufacturing is 36 miles northwest of Guadalajara. It has about 10,000 people, the world’s two largest tequila distilleries, and at least ten smaller ones. The town is named… Tequila… after an Indian tribe that long ago lived nearby. Town rec­ords show that in 1873, the year of the first recorded shipment of tequila into the United States, there were six­teen distilleries in Tequila making what was then known as “mezcal wine” or “Tequila wine.” By the beginning of the twentieth century “mezcal wine” had come to be known simply as tequila.

The road between Guadalajara and Tequila is heavily traveled. It is the main thoroughfare to Guadalajara from Mazatlan in the north and Mexico City to the southeast. During all hours of the day trucks filled with factory goods, ag­ricultural products, or building supplies labor up and down the road’s slight hills and around its occasional tricky curves. The large factories that line the road near Guadalajara soon give way to farm land that is dry, brown, and desolate until the rains, which usually begin early in June, bring the countryside alive. Along the way are a few isolated, mod­est, but comfortable-looking houses and more frequent brick and stone hovels, and even, from time to time, an American retirement village with its cluster of low houses, green lawns and green trees, adjoining golf course, and a name over the fenced entrance like Rancho Contento.

The first field of agave is about nine­teen miles from Guadalajara, not far from a large chicken hatchery. At this point the road dips down, curving around low, brown hills with occasional low, wiry trees growing at odd angles on the hillsides. The trees’ twisted roots seem to be clinging for dear life to the rocky soil. The fields worth planting here are very small, sometimes only a few acres; but when the road comes out of the hills, it enters a long, wide ex­panse of rolling country surrounded in the distance by mountains, and this is where the large fields of agave begin. Tequila and Amatitán, a smaller neigh­boring town where tequila is also made, are roughly at the center of this large valley.

The blue agave matures somewhat faster than the pulque agaves. It nor­mally takes eight to ten years, but major distillers are constantly trying to reduce the growing time. Some tequila is now being made from plants that are as young as five years. Agaves are grown from seeds and from sprouts that grow from runners sent out through the soil by mature plants. Since agave takes so long to grow, farmers partition their fields and plant each section in succeed­ing years. That way a portion of their crop is ready to be harvested every year. Most distilleries own farm land and grow their own agave, but nearly all must supplement their supply with crops bought from independent farmers. Well over 60,000 acres are under cultivation in the tequila region. Each plant needs about six square feet to grow properly. That means about 435 million blue aga­ves are slowly growing in the state of Jalisco.

The field hand that harvests the ma­ture plant is called a jimador, taken from the Indian word jima, which means to harvest the agave. The jima­dor uses a tool called a coa, which was also used by the Indians. It has a long wooden handle and a metal head that is shaped much like a broad, flattened spoon. The jimador keeps the edge very sharp with a small file he carries in his belt.

To harvest the agave the jimador first chops away the leaves from a nar­row strip on one side of the core. Then, he places one foot on top of the core and, using the coa, chops at the bottom of the core to separate it from its roots. As he chops deeper, he pushes harder and harder against the top of the plant with his foot to widen the cut. It takes the jimador about one minute to topple the plant. He then chops off the rest of the leaves, working from bottom to top and turning the plant to expose new leaves. This takes another minute and a half. The core, which is left on the ground to be loaded into trucks, is called a piña or pineapple because it looks like a large-scale version of that fruit. Agave piñas weigh 50 to 100 pounds, sometimes more, and their in­sides have about the same texture and color as the inside of a turnip. They have almost no taste but are very juicy. This juice is mildly toxic and causes a burning sensation if left on the skin.

Work goes on all year round. On the average one jimador can harvest about a thousand pounds in an hour. They begin working early in the morning and stop about noon when the sun becomes too hot. The piñas bring about two cents a pound on the open market, although the price varies according to grade and market conditions. Sauza, the largest distiller, uses 180 tons a day and yearly consumes a little more than 30 per cent of the total agave production in Jalisco. José Cuervo uses something over 20 per cent and no other distiller uses more than 7.

Every step of the tequila making process is taxed. The agave seeds are taxed, the tequila produced is taxed, the tequila bottled is taxed (8.65 pesos—about 69 cents—per fifth), the tequila exported is taxed, and the tequila kept at home is taxed when it’s sold. But the town of Tequila shows few signs of hav­ing provided so much revenue for gov­ernment coffers. It is a gray, peeling little place, listless, dull, slow moving. The zócalo (plaza) has a statue of Juarez at one end and an ugly cathedral at the other. In spite of the armadas of trucks that daily bring three to five hun­dred tons of piñas to Tequila’s distil­leries, the streets are little more than cobbled ruts with pools of standing water and deep chuckholes. These streets twist through a maze of high, sunbaked, gray and brown stone walls which effectively conceal the daily life of the town. Behind the walls are poor households and magnificent haciendas built and maintained by wealthy distil­lery owners. There are some amenities—a health clinic, a library, a new school—but Tequila has reacted to its native industry by becoming a very restrained, straight-laced little village. The only concession to anything remotely sinful is a room in one corner of an ancient building on the zócalo where on certain nights movies are shown. There are no cantinas anywhere.

The Sauza distillery is not far from the zócalo in Tequila. Like most tequila companies, it is owned and operated by a single family. Sauza was founded in 1873 by the grandfather of Francisco Javier Sauza, the current president of the company, who took over from his father, the company’s second president, many years ago.

Their distillery, like most things in Tequila, is behind high walls. Trucks bringing piñas enter through wide metal gates and unload their cargo in a large, open courtyard. Workers wade through the piles of piñas chopping the larger ones in two with machetes. This is the last thing that is done by hand at Sauza. Their distillery makes more tequila than any other in the world and, despite te­quila’s magical aura, this distillery is very definitely a smooth, modern, effi­cient industrial operation.

The piñas in the courtyard are picked up in the shovel of an earthmover and loaded into huge, cylindrical auto­claves—the industrial equivalent of a pressure cooker—where they are steamed for about fourteen hours. The cooking turns the piñas to the color and consistency of a baked yam and changes some of their acids and starches into sugar. At this stage they are de­liciously sweet, though a little stringy, and are frequently sold as candy in local markets. They also emit the sweet, heavy, overripe smell typical of all tequila distilleries. If it is unpleasant, it is only because it is so rich and per­vasive. Sauza Extra, if you ignore how volatile the alcohol makes its bouquet, has a smell reminiscent of the distillery it came from.

The cooked, sweetened, darkened piñas are dumped out of the autoclaves onto a conveyor belt leading to a se­ries of shredding and milling machines which squeeze out the piñas’ juice and wash it away with water into tile troughs at the bottom of the mills. The troughs lead the liquid to adobe fer­menting vats.

Fermentation is a natural process which occurs when sugars are combined with certain yeasts or bacterias. As the yeasts or bacterias, both living organ­isms, feed on the sugars, the sugars are changed into alcohol, and carbon dioxide is released as a byproduct. Although the liquid from the piñas contains natural fermenting agents and sugars, most dis­tilleries add sugars to accelerate the process. While fermenting, the liquid is deep brown, very thick and murky, and swirls and bubbles like witch’s brew. However, this bubble-bubble-toil-and-trouble impression is diluted by the dis­tillery’s clean concrete floor, the metal catwalks winding around the fermenting vats, the rows of pipes leading to and from the vats, all of which give the dis­tillery its organized, no-nonsense tone.

The fermented liquid is carried by pipes to two copper stills, about twenty feet tall, where it is distilled. All this means is that the liquid is heated until it escapes as a gas, leaving impurities be­hind. The gas is collected in a condenser where it is cooled and changed back to liquid. Sauza distills its tequila twice. The first distillation produces tequila ordinario, not an appealing drink, but the second distillation refines away the lingering impurities. The tequila pro­duced at the beginning and the end of the distillation is discarded because it also contains too many impurities. The finest grades of tequila are the products of the middle of successive distillations.

The tequila is piped from distilling tanks into immense vats of white oak, where it is kept for 30 to 60 days before being taken to the Sauza bottling plant in Guadalajara. Since the tequila that comes from the distillery is about 110 proof, distilled water is added during bottling to lower the alcoholic content to the more palatable and common 80 proof.

On a wall at the end of Sauza’s tiled courtyard flanked by the two rows of distillery offices is a mural painted in 1969 by Gabriel Flores. Half of this mural shows the way tequila was made during the last century. The dis­tillery is pictured as a dungeonlike room with a vaulted ceiling. The piñas were milled by a round stone weighing sev­eral tons, which was mounted through the center on a wooden spoke and pulled around and around in a circle by two mules. A naked man stood in the pile of piñas raking them under the stone and moving the stone up and down the spoke so that every last shred of piña would come under the stone’s weight. The juice was collected by hand in buckets and carried to the ferment­ing vats. From there it was again carried by buckets to the distilling tanks and from there placed in wooden barrels to be aged and stored.

The other half of the mural shows rich men in formal attire drinking te­quila at a decadent party with easy, painted women in scarlet dresses. This half of the mural is something of an em­barrassment to the distillery. An official, noticing a visitor looking closely at it, whispered, “We don’t have parties like that here.” The visitor shook his head. “Too bad,” he said.

The Herradura factory in the nearby village of Amatitán still retains its old distillery, which very much resembles the one in the Sauza mural, although it is no longer used. It too is in a stone building with vaulted ceilings. There is iron grillwork on the windows and cob­blestone floors; the rough walls and tall ceiling seem to hold in repose the memory of all the stifling, hard, hot work that was once performed there.

The Herradura distillery is as charm­ing and traditional as the Sauza distillery is modern and efficient. It is built around a cobblestone courtyard with a tall, gnarled Indian laurel tree in the center. The distillery buildings form two edges of the courtyard and the third is a hacienda, used as a residence by the owner’s family and still maintained and furnished in the style of the last century. The hacienda grounds, several acres in size, are covered with blooming flowers and trees and populated with sheep, deer, and horses. The distillery was founded 103 years ago by Ambrosio Rosales and passed from him to his nephew, then to Ambrosio’s son David, then to David’s sister Ester, and finally to the present owner. Ester’s daughter Gabriela, whose married name is Romo. She lives in Mexico City. The family representative at the distillery is Gabriela’s son, who lives in the hacienda with a dog incongruous with the aristo­cratic Spanish atmosphere—a friendly, goofy weimaraner.

Herradura is a much smaller distillery than Sauza but produces the one tequila made completely with ingredients from the blue agave. No additional sugars or fermenting agents are added during the process. The ovens where the piñas are cooked are not metal but adobe strength­ened with agave fiber—so that the fla­vor will not be affected by anything foreign. The pipes that carry the liquid from the mills to the fermenting vats and from the vats to the stills are glass, again to protect the flavor, and the te­quila is distilled three times for maxi­mum purity.

Herradura has just signed a contract with an importing company headed by Bing Crosby and will soon be available in the United States. Unlike other dis­tillers who export their tequila in bulk to be bottled here, Herradura will ex­port theirs already bottled so they can maintain control over the whole process. It is generally regarded as the best te­quila made anywhere. Sauza has a spe­cially distilled and aged tequila named Conmemorativo that rates very high and is available here. Tequileno, a tequila sold only in and near Jalisco, is the choice of many knowledgeable drinkers. Tequila, like any other liquor, is judged by its purity, bouquet, and flavor. But there are no universally recognized standards or vocabulary as there are in judging wine.

Tequila is still basically a lower class drink in Mexico. Drunk in cantinas, it is very cheap—what here would be a double shot costs a peso—eight cents—and yet gets the job done very well. The drink of the upper classes is scotch; if they serve tequila at all it would be mixed in a drink like a margarita. Though there is considerable pride in things Mexican, that pride has not yet significantly spilled over onto tequila. A middle-class Mexican, who would not hesitate to serve a special guest tortillas during dinner, would not serve that guest tequila before dinner. That would be identifying with a lower social class and reverse snobbery has yet to arrive in Mexico. He would instead bring out his good stuff, his scotch or his bourbon.

But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t drink straight tequila if you enjoy it, even in Mexico. There seems to be con­siderable confusion about just how te­quila should be drunk straight. Many gringos have adopted the habit of lick­ing salt from the base of their thumb and biting a lime before tasting the te­quila. This is not the way it’s done in Jalisco. They use the far simpler and tastier method of sprinkling some salt on the lime itself and sucking on this combination before downing the shot. In that part of Mexico, straight tequila is always served with sangrita, a chaser made with various citrus juices, a little hot sauce, salt, sometimes a little to­mato, sometimes a little red wine, some­times a little grenadine. I say sometimes because there is no commercial sangrita worth drinking and in Jalisco most bars make their own.

Most distilleries make three basic grades of tequila: clear tequila, fre­quently described as joven (young) on the label, which is the cheapest and the grade to use in mixed drinks; a light brown grade, usually described as anejo (aged) or extra, which has been allowed to rest in wooden casks long enough for the tequila to absorb the flavor of the casks and is slightly sweeter tasting than joven; and a more expensive special dis­tillation that is intended to be drunk straight or over ice.

Since tequila has become so popular, it is sometimes sold in bulk by various distilleries to be bottled in the United States under brands and labels owned by the bottler rather than the distillers. There is no telling what this tequila really is. It may be a blend of different tequilas, or a bona fide distillation sold in bulk, or the refuse of some distillery who doesn’t mind selling it because it knows the stuff won’t be sold under its own name. It may taste wonderful or awful; there isn’t any way to tell until you open the bottle. But to avoid these problems look for the letters DGN (which stand for Direction General Normas) on the label of the bottle of te­quila. These letters are the mark of the government bureau which oversees all tequila production and signify that the tequila in that bottle has met all their specifications. This tequila will be of consistent quality from bottle to bottle and will be the product of one distillery made by them to be sold under their label. No other seal of quality, no mat­ter how fancy it may look, carries that guarantee.

Before I left to research this story a friend of mine, very interested in te­quila, gave me a list of questions he would like to have answered about it. The last question was “How much te­quila can a man drink and live?” It in­terested me, too, but it was a question that needed the right moment to be asked and certainly needed the right moment to be answered. That moment never quite arrived. I did the best I could in personally researching that question myself, but without success; al­though I did discover how much tequila a man can drink and not want to live. On my way out to the airport in Guada­lajara the question was still on my mind. The cab driver was talking about his family, some of whom now live in Texas. In one pocket I had a small sam­ple bottle of Conmemorativo, and when we got to the airport I gave it to the driver as part of his tip. He laughed broadly. He cradled the small bottle for a moment in his two hands, then raised it to his lips and kissed it passionately. And that was when the answer to the question came to me: amount is noth­ing, attitude is everything.

Related Content