Tequila. We’ve come a long way. (Book Review)

I am an avid book collector and every time I stumble across one in a second hand store I snaffle it up. I particularly like older books as I am able to compare them with the new publications in my collection and see how far knowledge has grown or changed in the intervening years.

My recent acquisition was this book the “Illustrated Encyclopedia : The Complete Guide to Spirits & Liqueurs”

This was the 2000 printing of a book created in 1998.

As is my wont I turned straight to the Tequila entry and was hilariously disappointed by the absolute rubbish printed in its pages. On my way to the Tequila entry I was first presented with Mescal.(1)

  1. or mezcal (from the Nahuatl mexcalli)

Of mescal this was said…….

“it is one of Mexico’s indigenous drinks”. If by “indigenous” they meant it came from México then they are correct. If they were referring to it as a drink created by the indigenous peoples of México then this is a little more problematic as the evidence of prehispanic distillation of spirits is contentious. There are arguments on both sides of the fence that say that the practise of distillation both did and did not exist prior to the arrival of the Spaniards. I will try to address this issue in a future Post.

They go on……

“it is a pale yellowish spirit made from the juice of a species of cactus called the agave”. Basic botanical error here. Not a big issue really although the difference between agaves and true cacti was well established before 1998.

“the heart is hacked away and the expressed juice – which is milky-white and extremely bitter – is fermented into pulque”. This is quite incorrect. Although the sap (or latex) that exudes from the plant when it is cut is in fact extremely bitter this liquid is not used to produce either pulque or mescal (or tequila for that matter). The white sap can easily cause contact dermatitis with symptoms of rash, itching and potentially blisters. It will burn the mucous membranes in the mouth if swallowed and can damage the eyes if care is not taken. Prolonged skin contact with the sap can also damage blood vessels under the skin.

“The pressed juice is fermented to make pulque”. Now we start to diverge in a major way from the facts. Pulque is not made from the pressed juice of the piña, or heart, of the maguey but rather from the juice that seeps from and is collected when the flowering stalk (or quiote) is removed from the plant. (1)

  1. This liquid is called aguamiel or honey water (in Nahuatl necuhtli or nectar). See Posts Pulque; Pulque Production and Nutritional Value of Aguamiel for further information on agave “sap”. A potential cross over error that may have occurred here is that the juice collected from the baked (or steamed) agave hearts that is briefly fermented before being distilled is also called aguamiel. This however is a very different liquid than the fresh aguamiel that is fermented to make pulque.

Aguamiel (for tequila)

Aguamiel (for pulque)

“It is then distilled once to produce mezcal”. Major error here. Pulque is not distilled to make mescal. Mescal, like tequila is made from the juice that is collected when the piña is trimmed of all its leaves (pencas), cooked and then crushed. This juice is then fermented briefly and then distilled. Tequila and Mescal are made from different species of agaves. (1)

  1. See Posts Tequila and Mezcal : A Primer : How to read a tequila or mezcal label; Destilado de Pulque and All Tequila is Mezcal BUT not all Mezcal is Tequila for some information on the differences.

There is however a product called destilado de pulque that is produced by the distillation of pulque.

Juerte Destilado de Pulque is made by fermenting the aguamiel (agave sap) of the maguey pulquero (agave Salmiana) and then distilling it. When the Salmiana reaches maturity, a large hole is carved into the top of the piña. The plant’s natural reaction is to secrete its aguamiel into the hole. Once the aguamiel is removed, the inside of the hole is scraped with a metal scraper to agitate the plant into secreting more aguamiel. An agave can produce up to 10 litres of aguamiel per day. The aguamiel is then fermented for about a week, with a small amount of pulque madre (pulque left over from a previous batch) to kick off fermentation. Once fermented, the aguamiel is single distilled in a stainless steel still.

….back to the book…

“a second distillation removes more of the off putting impurities in the spirit and results in the more highly prized tequila”. What??? Now we are waaaaay off base. Distilling mescal a second time DOES NOT make it tequila. It makes it a double distilled mescal.

This did not bode well for the entry on tequila.

Image from book

The entry on tequila gets off to a more auspicious start. “Tequila is the national spirit of México”. So far so good. “It is one stage further down the road to refinement than its fellow cactus based spirit, mescal,” (we’ve already discussed this point) “but several leagues ahead in terms of drinking pleasure”. This is a bit of a misnomer. Even within México it may have been generally believed that mescal was an inferior product to tequila (particularly in the 1990’s) but this belief was widely held outside of México largely due to a lack of understanding of mescal. The worm did not help. Only the pretentious disparage mescal as a lesser form of tequila.

The mescal “worm” is the larvae of one of several species (there are red and white varieties of worm) that can be added to bottles of mescal (there will NEVER be found in tequila – due to strict manufacturing requirements). There are several theories as to how the worm ended up in the bottle. These range from it being a marketing ploy to it being a legitimate flavouring agent. One thing to be sure of though is that the worm is not hallucinogenic.

The book continues “It starts its life as pulque, the fermented beer-like juice of the agave plant” (point previously discussed) “and is distilled twice before being aged in cask.” This point is accurate (1). “It comes in two versions,” (2) “clear like vodka and golden (or Oro), which spends a longer time in the barrels” ???Whaaaa???? Now we deviate from tequila in a major way. Oro varieties ARE NOT aged in barrels for longer (or at all for that matter). Oro varieties are generally considered to be a less sophisticated tequila. These varieties are often a blend of tequilas (some may be aged) but generally speaking they may have other non-agave sugars used in the blend and are given their golden colour by adding a caramel colouring agent (3). These are the tequilas you use to make mixed cocktails.

  1. except for silver/plata varieties of course as these are unaged
  2. well actually three – silver, anejo and reposado – you could consider gold/oro (sometimes called joven or mixto) varieties a fourth type (and extra anejo a fifth I guess but this type is relatively new and was certainly unknown in the 90’s)
  3. Gold tequila often refers to mixto tequila, which is made by adding sugar, colourings, flavourings, oak extracts or glycerin in order to emulate aged reposados and añejos.

This is just shoddy research on the behalf of the author (and editors). The rules for tequila production have been around for a long time although it has only really been within the last 50 years or so that these rules were standardised.

The next point that absolutley horrified me was the description of the distillation of the drink.

“Like mescal, tequila is distilled from the chopped, pressed and fermented hearts of the agave plants” This is actually quite correct although it does differ in a major way from the previous explanation that tequila (and mescal) were derived from distilled pulque. ” It is distilled a second time in a pot still,” (1) ” and then matured in wooden casks,” (2) “briefly for the white version, and up to 5 years for the Oro” ????Whaaaa??? White (silver/plata) varieties are not aged. This variety is fresh from the still. It is said that (much like wine) that an experienced drinker can taste the land the agave was grown in when drinking a plata. This is not true of the wood aged varieties as the longer it sits in the wood the more flavours it absorbs from the wood and the terroir (3) begins to fade. Gold varieties, as previously noted, are not aged in wood. (4)

  1. this is quite true. Tequilas production rules require double distillation (mescals do not)
  2. also true
  3. This is usually attributed to wine. Terroir is the unique flavour and aroma of a wine that is attributed to the growing environment of the grapes.
  4. Reposado tequilas are are tequilas that see two months to one year in oak barrels, Anejo varieties aged for one-to-three years in oak and the newest kid on the block , Extra anejo (ultra-aged) tequilas, are aged longer than three years (sometimes as many as 10 years) and are the newest ultra-premium variety of tequila. This category of tequila was established only in March 2006

Extra anejo varieties of tequila can be VERY expensive. This bottle is $US 575 (the equivalent of over $800AUS)

Having said what I have about gold/oro varieties of tequila (and considering them to be a “lesser” form of the drink” there are now distilleries making gold varieties by aging them in wood. These varieties are essentially reposado varieties of tequila.

Oro de Jalisco reposado

The knowledge of tequila (and all its cousins) has come a long way since the 90’s and it appears to be still constantly evolving. I look forward to seeing what it looks like in the next 20 years.

  • Namazie, Giselle MD; (2018) Agave Dermatitis : CLINICAL VIGNETTE: Proceedings of UCLA Health -VOLUME 22
  • Salinas ML, Ogura T, Soffchi L. Irritant contact dermatitis caused by needle-like calcium oxalate crystals, raphides, in Agave tequilana among workers in tequila distilleries and agave plantations. Contact Dermatitis. 2001 Feb; 44(2):94-6. PubMed PMID: 11205412
  • Torrijos, Elisa & Gómez, Alejandro & Gonzalez Jimenez, Oscar & Romo, Juana & Cañas, Alberto & Rodriguez, Rosa. (2020). Allergic sensitisation to the irritant sap of the variegated century plant in a gardener. Contact dermatitis. 84. 10.1111/cod.13702
  • Walton, S (2000) . Illustrated Encyclopedia ” The Complete Guide to Spirits & Liqueurs”

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