What Is Tequila?
Tequila is an alcoholic spirit produced from Weber Azul, a cultivar of the blue agave plant. This succulent monocot is a relative of yucca and aloe and native to the Jalisco region in Mexico.
Indeed, tequila is produced under a Mexican designation of origin. Therefore, it is made only near its eponymous hometown as well as a few selected areas across the Sierra Nevada Trans-Mexican Volcanic Belt.
Best known for as “blanco” and “plata” clear spirits, tequila can also be aged in oak barrels and sold as an “Añejo” or “Reposado”.
Furthermore, the best tequila is made from 100% blue agave. However, Mexico permits “mixtos”, which consist of at least 51% agave mixed with other sugars.
To learn more about the Weber Azul cultivar and the Jalisco tequila-producing region, head to our detailed guide on how tequila is made.
Before the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors, fermenting agave sap to make pulque had been a common Mesoamerican practice for millennia. It is still produced today from six different varieties of maguey or agave. However, the sap was often taken from the stem whereas tequila uses the heart.
Nevertheless, the initial process is quite similar and the agave is roasted in earthen pits, which allows it to break down and soften for fermentation. Although tequila usually employs stone and autoclave ovens, traditional mezcal still follows the more traditional methods.
Pulque was regarded as an elixir of the gods as it was said to have been discovered after lightning struck an agave plant, which cooked and released its juice. Therefore, it was a significantly religious beverage and its sacred consumption was limited to few people.
Spain was introduced to distillation during the 8th century following the Umayyad conquest of Hispania. Consequently, the Spanish were among the first Europeans to have adopted distillation.
Additionally, the Spanish Conquest of Mexico resulted in a more secular culture, which allowed for more extensive alcohol consumption.
After running out of their own alcoholic spirits, the conquistadors sought a substitute. Therefore, they began experimenting with the distillation of pulque. Eventually, the heart of the plant was cooked and crushed rather than the sap. Nevertheless, the results were closer to modern-day mezcal rather than tequila.
Although sugar and grapes had been introduced to the Americas from Europe, the Spanish monarchy outlawed their distillation to avoid a decrease in exports. However, distilling native resources was encouraged in order to generate tax revenue.
Tequila Is Born
Don Pedro Sánchez de Tagle, the Marquis of Altamira, is often regarded as the first full-scale producer of tequila, which was taxed by the colonial government from 1608.
His factory was based in present-day Jalisco and the product was then known as Vino Mezcal de Tequila. Therefore, the beverage was still closely associated with mezcal but had started to develop its own geographical identity.
By the 18th century, production had greatly increased and the Spanish Crown issued commercial licences to distillers. However, it wasn’t until the late-19th century that tequila was imported by the USA. The Tequila Municipal President, Don Cenobio Sauza, owned a distillery and wished to access a greater market.
Therefore, he shortened the name from “Tequila Extract”, which had already replaced “Vino Mezcal de Tequila”, to simply “Tequila”. Through his family’s marketing, they had enforced the belief that only authentic tequila came from the Jalisco region.
In 1974, the Mexican government declared the term “tequila” as its intellectual property. It was the country’s first move to standardise and protect the name by preventing illegal counterfeits labelled as “tequila” but were made elsewhere from sugars of agave-like plants.
An official denomination of origin soon followed in 1978 before the World Industrial Protection Organization. As its denomination has been updated several times, the regulations are now quite detailed.
Mexico has since negotiated with a number of governments with various trade deals like NAFTA to help protect tequila. It has developed individual agreements with the European Union and more recently China. The latter took place during China’s accession negotiations to the World Trade Organization.
Tequila Vs Mezcal
Mezcal has already been mentioned numerous times above as a precursor to tequila. However, it still very much exists today. Although tequila quickly dominated the international market, mezcal arguably has a far richer culture and heritage.
Like tequila, mezcal has both a geographical indication and appellation of origin. These regulate how mezcal can be made as well as the permitted areas. While tequila is chiefly made in Jalisco, mezcal can be produced in Oaxaca, Guerrero, Durango, San Luis Potosí, Puebla, and Zacatecas.
However, there are other differences, too. For instance, tequila may only be made using blue agave. Meanwhile, over 30 varieties of agave can be cultivated for mezcal of which Oaxacan espadín and arroqueño are among the most common.
Furthermore, true artisanal mezcal consists of roasting the agave piñas in earthen pits that are lined with hot rocks. As a result, it tends to be smokier than tequila, which uses brick or autoclave ovens.
Afterwards, tequila and mezcal production may converge if traditional methods are used. The roasted piñas are then ground with stone “tahona” wheels, which is quite rare for tequila even if the practice has continued.
The resulting juice is fermented usually in clay or copper pots instead of steel or wood for tequila. Afterwards, both spirits are double-distilled but mezcal will always use alembics while continuous column stills have become common for tequila.
Finally, there is one last difference, which involves a certain worm.
Does Tequila Have A Worm In It?
It is a common misconception that you can find a worm at the bottom of a tequila bottle. Indeed, the Mexican Normas Oficiales prohibits adding any insects or larvae to tequila!
In fact, it’s mezcal, which may occasionally have a creature in the bottle. However, it’s never a worm but a Mariposa moth larva.
Also known as “gusano de maguey”, the larvae are known parasites that feed off agave. There are two varieties of gusano de maguey. The gusano de oro (gold larva) simply eats the agave’s leaves. Meanwhile, the gusano rojo (red larva) will live in the heart.
Since it’s more than likely that the occasional larva got accidentally roasted with the piñas, it’s possible that producers felt that their presence even enhanced the flavour.
Nevertheless, the practice wasn’t particularly well known until the late 1940s. In fact, it’s believed that it was used as a form of marketing so mezcal could differentiate itself from tequila.
It was argued that the meatier gusano rojo that lived off the heart would add flavour as well as promote virility. Furthermore, it was suggested that it showcased the mezcal’s purity if the larva didn’t disintegrate.
Can You Eat The Tequila Worm?
Fried Gusano de Maguey
Not only are gusanos edible but they are a delicacy in Mexico! As the larvae are quite scarce, they’re quite expensive and usually enjoyed but a wealthy minority.
Usually, the worms are carefully harvested from the heart of agave after rainy seasons. Only a few can be extracted at a time or the plant may die. Typically, the gusanos rojos are fried and served in tacos.
Therefore, you can rest assured that the so-called “tequila worm” is perfectly safe to eat. Buen provecho!
How Does Tequila Taste?
Although most tequila production has been significantly industrialised, it’s a surprisingly diverse beverage. While most convenience store tequila can have a relatively plain taste, there is a rich variety of high-quality sipping tequila.
Furthermore, tequila effectively operates from a few different terroirs. As a result, each area can produce unique flavours. Generally speaking, these are divided between the fruity and sweet highlands and the earthy and herbaceous lowlands.
Similarly, ageing tequila in oak barrels is a common practice. In this case, the wood imparts its flavours, which allows the tequila to mellow. The process can take place in either American or French new oak barrels.
Additionally, the latter may be charred first, which can develop a subtler smoky profile while reducing the wood’s influence.
Reposado tequila may be aged for up to a year, which results in an amber hue and subtle caramelised flavours. Meanwhile, añejo tequila is aged for longer, which means that the wood has greatly altered its fragrance and textures.
In all cases, tequila will have a distinctive and unique agave taste. However, depending on where it was made and how it was aged, this property can be expressed in many different ways.
How To Properly Drink Tequila
Although tequila is best known as a popular cocktail ingredient, it can be enjoyed in lots of different ways. Nevertheless, there is no wrong way to drink an alcoholic spirit as long as you enjoy it.
Traditionally, tequila is served neat in a shot glass. Although it’s rare in Mexico, it’s often consumed in the rest of the world in the form of a “tequila cruda”.
Also known as “training wheel” and mistakenly referred to as a “tequila slammer”, which is actually a cocktail, it consists of licking salt, taking a shot of tequila, and then biting on a slice of lime. Nevertheless, combining lime with tequila is quite common as it’s believed that the sour fruit neutralises the alcohol’s burn.
Good-quality tequila is usually served at room temperature. However, flavoured and low-quality mixtos are typically chilled to hide the impurities.
In comparison, aged cognac is often enjoyed like brandy where it is slowly savoured in a tasting glass. In this case, salt and lime isn’t recommended as it will distract from the beverage’s flavour!
What Glasses To Use For Drinking Tequila
Margarita and shot glasses are probably the most common glassware used for consuming tequila. In Mexico, it traditionally served in tall caballito shot glasses. Nevertheless, you may want to consider something a little more refined when sampling high-quality or aged tequila.
Large balloon-shaped brandy snifters are the most prevalent for añejo tequila. Yet, fine tulip glasses are best for tasting. Furthermore, tulip glasses or even schnaps glasses are perfectly adapted for sampling clear tequila.
Brandy snifters tend to be bulky and large. As a result, they’re great for relaxed sipping with a cigar. Meanwhile, tulip glasses have long stems, which prevents heating the liquid, as well as a carefully curved shape, which captures the aromas.
Learn more about the best glasses to use with our full glassware guide.
Similar Drinks & Tequila Substitutes
As mentioned above, mezcal is one of tequila’s closest relatives and the two are often confused. Similarly, there are other local spirits that share a lot in common with tequila.
For instance, Raicilla is made from wild agave and is only produced in Jalisco. Meanwhile, Bacanora is essentially a tequila moonshine that has been legalised since 1992. Alternatively, there is Sotol, which is made from a plant of the same name that’s smaller and pricklier than blue agave.
Needless to say, the above alternatives are quite obscure and harder to find than tequila. Therefore, they might not be the best candidates if looking for an alternative.
We would first recommend gin, which is an alcoholic spirit with its own distinctive taste of juniper rather than agave. However, we would sooner recommend grappa, which is more flavoursome than gin with a more vinous character.
Furthermore, grappa can be aged like tequila or even cognac. Yet, grappa’s distillation and shorter ageing period mean that it has more in common with tequila than cognac.
Otherwise, both gin and grappa enjoy a certain herbaceous character, which renders them the best candidates for cocktails instead of something like vodka.
What Are The Benefits Of Drinking Tequila?
Although tequila was never produced as a herbal remedy like some alcoholic spirits, there are some who believe that it can provide you with health benefits.
Firstly, agave contains large concentrations of iron, potassium, magnesium, and calcium. As such, it is supposedly good for bone development and strength. However, much of the nutrients are stripped away when distilled. Therefore, it’s not certain how beneficial the tequila really is.
Additionally, the presence of inulin is meant to aid digestion. Similarly, fructans, which are mostly removed during distillation, are probiotic. Consequently, tequila is often consumed after a meal as it can help the stomach.
Finally, a unique sugar called agavin is an appetite suppressor, which can help in weight loss. As we’ll mention below, it’s extremely low in calories, too. However, you should refrain from making it the basis of your meal plan!
Gluten, Carbs, & Calories In Tequila
As long as tequila is 100% blue agave, it will be gluten-free and perfectly safe for people with either Celiac disease or any other sensitivity to the protein. However, cheaper mixto tequila can use other sugars and flavourings. Therefore, they may not be free of any gluten.
Similarly, true 100% blue agave is extremely low in sugar as it can contain no additives. In fact, it’s one of the leanest spirits with only 70 calories in a shot. As a result, it’s even lighter than vodka or rum!
Finally, as it has been thoroughly distilled, tequila should contain no carbohydrates or fats.
Now that you have read our introductory guide to tequila, let’s dig deeper and learn more!