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Tequila

Tequila. No other libation is surrounded by as many fantasies, myths, and legends. As North America’s first distilled drink, and its first commercially made alcohol, tequila’s history is long and rich. It began when the Aztecs would make fermented drinks from the sap of agave plants. It was when the Spaniards were introduced to this Pulque in the early 1500’s that tequila was first produced by distilling the agave. According to Mexican law, in order to be called "tequila", the agave must be sourced from the Weber blue agaves grown in one of five states: Guanaiuato, Jalisco, Michoacan, Nayarit, or Tamaulipas. The tequila is specific to this region because around 100K BC, there was a giant volcanic eruption that spewed rock and ash in a several hundred-mile radius. From this, a new species of Mezcal plant was born – the Weber Blue Agave. Today, the soil in the area remains particularly ideal for growing the blue agave and more than 300 million of the plants are harvested each year to produce tequila. Harvesting the agave plant remains a manual effort, unchanged by modern farming technologies. "Jimadors" are responsible for the planting, tending, and harvesting of the ripe agave. It takes 8-12 years for an agave plant to be ready for harvest. Jimadors are an exclusive group of men who have passed on their knowledge of agave farming from father to son, family member to family member, with pride and tradition. When the agave is ready for harvest, the Jimadors cut it away from the earth with a koa. This tool is also used to strip away the leaves. What remains is the “pina”, named for its resemblance to a pineapple. The pina is then taken to the distillery, where it is cooked, crushed, distilled, and then placed into barrels for aging.

Categories of Tequila:
Mixto: Made using a minimum of 51% agave and 49% other ingredients
100% agave: Produced using only the sugars from the Weber blue agave

From these 2 categories come 5 types of tequila:

Blanco (white/silver)
Whether it is called blanco, silver, or plata, this clear, unaged tequila is usually bottled right after being distilled. Most blancos pass directly to the bottling plant, however, some producers allow the tequila to settle and finish for a few weeks in the tanks before bottling. Although rare, it is acceptable to allow a blanco to rest for up to 2 months in a wood barrel.

Joven (gold)
This tequila has a blanco base, not rested or mature, with added colorants and flavorings such as caramel, oak tree extracts, glycerin, or sugar syrup, that are added prior to bottling. These tequilas are normally made with a mixto. Blending a silver tequila with an aged or extra aged tequila is also considered a gold or joven tequila.

Reposado (rested or aged)
The first definitive level of aging is termed reposado or “rested”, and is mandated by the Mexican government that the tequila remain in wood for a period of two months but no longer than 12 months. Based on the desired flavor of the finished product, each tequila distiller chooses the appropriate type of barrel for aging. The barrels are typically previously used oak barrels from 3 different regions: the United States, France, or Canada. Some distillers choose to char the wood for a smoky flavor, or use barrels that once held a different kind of alcohol, such as whiskey, scotch or wine. The type of barrel used and the resins and tannins exuded have a dramatic impact on the finished product and produce the subtle nuances that distinguish one reposado from another.

Anejo (extra aged)
Anejo, which means “vintage”, can only appear on bottles that contain tequila, aged in oak barrels having a maximum capacity of 600 liters, for a minimum of one year. This is a requirement of the Mexican government. Once a tequila ages past 12 months, it is considered an anejo. Anejos can age up to 3 years. The flavor profile created by the distiller determines the amount of time the tequila rests.

Extra Anejo (ultra-aged)
This is the newest classification of tequila as defined from the October 28, 2005 meeting of the National Committee on Standardization. Ultra-aged or Extra Anejo has been aged for a period of at least three years in direct contact with the wood of oak (holm or holm oak) or Encino oak containers with a maximum capacity of 600 liters.

There is so much to learn about tequila that aficionados study until they are as educated as sommeliers. And while the average drinker doesn’t need quite as much information – the more you know, the more you will appreciate the complexities of the oldest alcoholic beverage in North America.

It is centuries of knowledge and generations of masters, pride, and heritage that brings this aromatic elixir before you. Sip it. Savor it.
Salud!