The Truth about Tequila

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

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

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