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Tequila Crazy

Mistaken Identity

Here's the way the story goes. A long, long time ago, the Spaniards landed in Antilles, in the West Indies, with a couple guys in bad shape. Nothing extreme, but some cuts and scrapes from a good day of marauding and pillaging. The locals were pretty helpful, fetching a succulent plant to rub on the wounds. An aloe plant, to be exact. To the Spanish ear, the local name of the plant sounded something like mah-gay, written today as maguey.  As the Spaniards continued on, spreading the cross and disease throughout the New World, they called all similar vegetation by the same name. All told, there are more than 400 different species in the family. Although some resemble cacti, and often share habitats, they are not considered such. Around the middle of the 18th century, Swedish scientist and plant-namer Carl von Linne gave the maguey family the name Agavaceae. The name agave comes from the Greek word for noble.

Meanwhile in Mexico

Actually way before Cortes ever enlightened the Americas, the people of the New World had discovered the secrets of the maguey. One particular variety of the plant grew particularly well in the high plains of modern day Mexico. Taking up to twelve years or more to reach maturity and growing at times to heights of 4m, the maguey of the area today known as the state of Jalisco provided the ancient cultures of Mexico with a nutritious drink called aguamiel, or honey water. This liquid is extracted from the piña, or heart of the plant. The nutritious liquid would easily ferment in little time. The fermented product is known as pulque. Additionally, the fibers of the plant are used for textiles.

After the conquest, many indigenous Mexican people found escape in pulque.  Their gods had been banished, their temples destroyed, and their order crushed. Of course, the Spaniards also appreciated this release, and demand for pulque became quite great. Plantations advanced the process, taking the cultivation and beverage production one step further towards industrialization. Taxation of the beverage proved to be of great income to the state. The added process of distillation changed the beverage of pulque, taking it one step closer to what we recognize today as tequila.

The greatest advances in distilling and production output were realized in the state of Jalisco in an area surrounding a dormant volcano called Tequilán. The town at the foot of this volcano is known as Tequila.It is said that the word tequila means cutting rock and that the beverage of the area fits this name as well for its burning sensation in the mouth. Large deposits of volcanic obsidian found in the area, often used as cutting tools by ancient peoples, seem to likewise support this theory. For several centuries, the area produced its namesake beverage, all the while improving yields through select harvesting and species control.

100% Blue Agave

In 1896, German naturalist Franz Weber arrived in Mexico. After establishing a relationship with a predominant tequila producing family, Weber set out to study and select the best plant of the various species used for the production of the firey drink. Finally, near the beginning of the 20th century, he concluded that the so called Blue Agave plant produced the best results of all the abundant varieties. He proudly named this species Agave tequiliana weber, var. azul. Today, this is the only variety grown (and government approved) for the production of tequila.

So What is Mezcal?

Mezcal (from the Nahuatl, Mexcalmetl) is considered to be any distilled beverage of the maguey(agave) family of plants. So tequila is a mezcal. But not all mezcals are tequila, as the government of Mexico has established strict norms for who can make tequila, where it can be made, and which species of agave can be used in its production. Strict Mexican rules sounds like an oxymoron, but this country is certainly serious about its national drink. So, mezcal can be made from the same plant, by the same process, but it may not carry the name tequila if it does not originate from an authorized distillery in an authorized geographical zone. Actually, many finely crafted, distinctly flavored mezcals are produced in the state of Oaxaca, south of Mexico City.

Piñas destined for mezcal are baked in a conical stone pit oven (a palenque) over hardwood coals, and covered with layers of palm fiber mats, then buried. This gives mezcal a strong, smoky flavor. It is normally only distilled once, so it is somewhat less ‘pure' a drink than tequila, which is normally distilled twice or more.

Enter the worm...

First off, let's get one thing straight. It isn't even a worm! Its a caterpillar. Hipopta Agavis to be specific. Sometime around 1950, a mezcal bottler in Mexico City noticed a distinct flavor in a batch of mezcal he had purchased from a Oaxacan supplier. A harvest of ‘worm' infested magueys had been used with a not unpleasant result. The supplier decided to include a small bag of ‘worm salt' consisting of dried ‘worms,' chile and salt with each bottle. And of course, he placed a ‘worm' in each bottle- pure marketing that went on to characterize the Gusano Rojo brand of Oaxacan mezcal.

Read the Label

Tequila comes in two basic types and four classifications.

Alcohol is formed by fermenting sugars. A tequila that derives all of its sugars from the agave plant may be labeled 100% Blue (azul) Agave. This is tequila as God intended it to be. If the bottler stretches the agave sugars with some others, say from grains or corn, the tequila is considered a mixto. A mixto may have up to 49% of its sugar come from non-agave sources. Normally, if the label does not claim to be pure agave, it is a mixto, and not worth a try-o.

The four classifications of tequila are as follows:

Joven (young) - Tequila which is almost always a mixto, and to which colorings and flavorings may be added. This is often called gold tequila. This is the stuff you drank in college.

Blanco - Also referred to as plata, silver, clear, or white tequila. This is tequila bottled after double distillation with only a brief resting period, but no aging, and typically no exposure to wood (i.e. stored in plastic or steel containers). Blanco can be excellent tequila, or it can taste like paint thinner. A blanco can be 100% blue agave.

Reposado - Tequila placed in pine or white oak barrels for at least two months and no more than one year before bottling. It is normally a light straw color.

Añejo - Tequila aged in wooden barrels for at least a year before bottling. Usually darker than reposado and often lighter than Joven Abocado.

Now that you have the background and the basics covered, you are ready to hit 5th Avenue and try some drinks.

OK, here it is. You want to buy tequila while in Playa? With the recent opening of Sams on the highway, we have a new best bet for buying tequila. If you don't want to head out to Sam's (it's a bit of a drag to get out to it) then there's only one place to go: Covi on the corner of the highway and Constituyentes. It's best for local booze. You will pay about half of what the boutiques on Fifth Avenue charge, and probably about 25% less than the supermarkets or liquor stores in town. You should save enough to invite us out for a drink.