Tequila is true summer liquor. Maybe because it's made in the scorching heat of Mexico, or maybe because it's the base of that quintessential warm weather drink, the margarita, either way, tequila is unrivalled in its ability to evoke images of white sand beaches, azure skies, and turquoise waters. (OK, maybe rum comes close. Still, work with me on this.)
Tequila is made by distilling the fermented juice of the agave, a succulent plant native to Mexico. By law, tequila must be made from at least 51 percent blue agave, a species that yields the highest quality liquor; the best tequilas are 100 percent blue agave.
A prototypical tequila-like liquor was made by the Aztecs prior to the arrival of the conquistadores. Known as "octli" or "pulque," this crude beverage was essentially a form of agave wine—it was made from fermented agave juice. When the Spanish arrived and colonized Mexico, they brought with them the practice of distillation. The first version of tequila was made around the middle of the 16th century, and by 1600 it was being mass-produced by Don Pedro Sánchez de Tagle, the "Father of Tequila." Our contemporary style of tequila wasn't made until the early nineteenth century, however; José María Guadalupe de Cuervo pioneered this style, and his name lives on as José Cuervo, the biggest-selling brand of tequila in the world.
Tequila was first exported to the United States in 1873 by Don Cenobio Sauza, founder of Sauza Tequila, the second biggest tequila brand in the world. Though it became a fairly popular liquor throughout the US and, to a lesser extent, the rest of the world, sales grew significantly in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The beginning of the 21st century also witnessed the rise of several "ultra-premium" tequilas, especially brands that have celebrity involvement, including Patrón (Dan Aykroyd), Cabo Wabo (Sammy Hagar), and Tres Rios (Vince Neil).
Tequila production is limited to the Mexican state of Jalisco, in and around the aptly-named city of Tequila, where the vast majority of blue agave grows. (In contrast, mezcal is mainly produced in and around the Oaxaca area.) The centuries-old distilleries and fields of blue agave surrounding Tequila are recognized on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
A final word, about the infamous worm in the bottle of tequila: it's just a marketing scam. Supposedly this "tradition" started when one of these worms, which can infest agave crops, accidentally fell into a bottle of tequila. However, this just isn't plausible—during the initial stages of tequila production the worm would have been roasted and crushed along with the agave; it seems pretty impossible that an intact worm could have fallen into a bottle during the finishing stages. I advise you to stay away from any bottles that have creepy crawlies floating inside: if they have to use invertebrates to sell the product, the tequila is probably crap—not to mention they just look gross. V
There are several different styles of tequila, which differ based on their treatment after distillation:
Tequila is bottled immediately after distillation and is usually not aged in oak at all, giving it sharp flavours of fresh agave and making it a good base for cocktails and mixed drinks, especially margaritas.
Tequila is aged in oak for a minimum of two months and a maximum of one year. It is pale yellow in colour and a touch mellower than blanco, but still usually best served in cocktail form.
Tequila spends between one and three years aging in oak, which turns it a dark yellow and imbues it with rich flavours of caramel, butterscotch, dried fruits and coffee. These premium tequilas are best enjoyed on their own, either neat or on the rocks.
Tequila is aged for a minimum of three years in oak. It is an ultra-premium style with very rich, complex, sweet flavours—and it sure ain't cheap.
Oro tequila is a poor man's añejo—it is blanco tequila that attempts to replicate the añejo style with the addition of colour and flavour, so it isn't nearly as complex as a true añejo. However, you can sometimes find good values in this category.
1 1/2 oz tequila, blanco or reposado
1 oz fresh lime juice
1/2 oz Cointreau
Rim a margarita, martini or lowball glass with salt by running a lime wedge around the edge of the glass, then lightly dipping the glass in a saucer that's been lined with salt. Fill the glass with ice, then add the tequila, lime juice and Cointreau. Stir a few times until well chilled. Garnish with lime.
1 1/2 oz tequila, blanco
1/2 oz triple sec
4 oz orange juice
1/2 oz grenadine
Slice of orange
Fill a chilled highball glass with ice. Pour in the tequila, followed by the triple sec and then the orange juice. Stir. Tilt the glass and pour the grenadine quickly down the side—it should sink to the bottom of the glass and then slowly rise, making the drink look like a sunrise (hence the name). Garnish with the orange slice and maraschino cherry. V