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PLANETA FEATURE

Tequila 101
by Ron Mader

FOOD FORUM

For centuries before the Spanish arrival, indigenous peoples, and in particular the Mexica, consumed various drinks made from agave plants, most notably pulque.

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However, this process did not include distillation. When the Spanish arrived in Mexico they distilled the agave juice, naming the product mezcal -- widely available in Oaxaca. The next step was selecting a specific agave for further refining and this high quality drink is known as "tequila." So, here's a toast to Mexico's best-known libation now exported to nearly 100 countries.


WHAT IS TEQUILA?

Tequila is a liquor produced from the Blue Agave Tequilana Weber plant, grown in the state of Jalisco. The plants cannot be harvested quickly as they take between 6 and 10 years to mature.


When the plants mature, they can weigh from 50-100 pounds. The agave is harvested, the heart steamed until it produces a starchy sugar juice, which is then pumped into fermenting tanks. The juice is then mixed with yeast which converts the liquid into alcohol.

The town of Tequila leads the production of the liquor due to the abundance of the Blue Agave, which cover nearly 40,000 hectares. The town of Atotonilco, or Los Altos, produces a better quality and higher grade of the agave plant due to the soil and elevation in the area.

TEQUILA IS NOT MEZCAL

Don't confuse tequila with mezcal, another liquor produced from the agave plants. Tequila undergoes additional distillation and never has a worm in the bottle.

IS THERE A TEQUILA SHORTAGE?

Tequila producers are being squeezed by a shortage of the Blue Agave plant. A 1997 fungus plague destroyed many of the plants. In addition, exports shot up 600 percent between 1995 and 1999 while production rose 300 percent. You can still find tequila, but it is becoming more and more expensive and often diluted. If you want a quality tequila, make sure the label reads "100% Agave."


TEQUILA CATEGORIES

The Mexican government has specific requirements for what makes tequila and how varieties are designated. In order to receive the NOM (Mexican Government Standard), tequilas must be made from natural ingredients. According to Mexican law, every bottle must contain distilled juices from at least 51 percent of the Blue Agave, or it cannot carry the tequila name.

Here's your key to tequila!

White: Bottled soon after the distillation process

Gold: A white tequila colored with caramel

Reposado (Aged): Aged in oak barrels for at least six months. This "resting" mellows the tequila and produces a smooth drink.

Añejo (Aged even more!): Aged in oak barrels for more than one year


AUTHOR

Ron Mader is the ecotourism and responsible travel correspondent for Transitions Abroad and host of the award-winning Planeta.com website.


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