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Tequila Sunrise

How a New Upscale Day Dawned for Mexico's Ancient Firewater
Jonathan Kandell
From the Print Edition:
Chuck Norris, Jul/Aug 98

(continued from page 2)

The rainy season has left the undulating terrain bright green and the blue agaves more intensely azure. By law, Tequila can be produced only from blue agaves; the plants, which look like inverted, spiny-armed octopuses, must come from a few government-specified districts--most of which are in Jalisco--and the fermented agave juice must be distilled twice and account for at least 51 percent of a Tequila bottle's content. The most upscale Tequilas are 100 percent blue agave distillates.

These regulations, known as the Normas, are cited as evidence that Tequila enjoys the same state-sponsored and time-honored cachet as Cognac and Champagne in France. But in fact, the Normas date back only to 1978. At the time, Margaritas, mixed mainly from cheap Tequila brands, were becoming one of the most popular drinks in the United States. The Mexican government wanted to ensure that this new source of export revenue wasn't threatened by adulterated or downright toxic Tequilas. So, in effect, the Normas were intended to make drinking Margaritas safe for American college kids and other young bar patrons. According to the regional chamber of commerce for the Tequila industry, Tequila was poured into an estimated 600 million Margaritas north of the border in 1996.

Nowadays, the publicity for superpremium Tequilas often suggests that they are rooted in an ancient, noble, even sacred past. It's true that before the Spanish Conquest, Tequila's predecessor, pulque (or octli, in the Aztec language), a fermented agave juice, was consumed during religious rituals by priests and aristocrats. But for the most part, the Aztec ruling class preferred to drink chocolate, sometimes as a fermented brew. The illustrated histories handed down from the Aztec era include many complaints about widespread consumption of pulque among commoners.

It was the Spaniards who introduced distillation into the New World, and turned agave juice into chest-thumping Tequila. According to Grassl, an inveterate collector of Tequila lore, the first mention of the distilled juice occurs in the 1600s. "Back then it was called vino de mezcal," says Martin, explaining that the distinction between Tequila and mescal is a recent one. As late as the 1800s, it was still known as vino de mezcal and peddled as a cure for all sorts of illnesses. "Even syphilis," says Grassl.

Arriving in the town of Tequila, population 20,000, we are greeted by an oversized statue of a jimador, or agave harvester. Standing astride Tequila casks, he is wielding the long-handled blade used to chop off the saw-toothed agave leaves and get at the pineapple-shaped core, or piña, which holds the juice.

The prosperity that recent sales of Tequila of all prices has brought the town is evident in the newly paved streets and freshly stuccoed façades of the two-story buildings along the main thoroughfares. Both Cuervo and Sauza have built Tequila museums, with displays of harvesting tools, production devices, and historical photos and posters. On the town's outskirts rise scores of Tequila distilleries cheek-by-jowl.

We drive through the massive portal of a fortress-like distillery that Grassl has used in the past and plans to rent in the coming months. The factory doesn't appear to have changed much since it was built in the 1880s. An enormous pile of agave piñas, each more than 100 pounds, lies on a sheltered outer terrace. Inside the distillery, more piñas have been quartered and crammed into ancient ovens, where they are steamed for 12 hours and then allowed to cool for half a day.

Their juice is filtered, and this aguamiel, or honey water, is allowed to ferment in metal vats. It is then heated in huge, century-old copper stills. The vapors are collected and condensed in copper coils. The process is repeated, producing a twice-distilled Tequila that is colorless and more than 70 percent alcohol. It is then usually diluted with water to 40 percent alcohol, or 80-proof Tequila.

After sitting for two to four weeks in large oak vats, this most common Tequila is ready for sale. If the Tequila is allowed to repose in smaller oak barrels from two to 12 months, it has the legal right to be sold as reposado. Tequila that is oak-aged for more than a year is called añejo (or muy añejo, if aged more than two years) and has an amber color.

"In this industry, there are no great secrets--just successful work formulas that might cost more or require more effort," says Grassl. "If you want the best Tequila, you buy piñas from riper agave plants--more than seven years old. You let the aguamiel ferment longer and at lower temperatures. You distill for two and a half hours, instead of just an hour, and you go through a triple distillation to remove the impurities that cause hangovers. For the reposados and añejos, you use only 100- to 200-liter barrels--instead of the 500-liter barrels--because the more exposure the Tequila has to the oak, the better it will be."

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