MEXICO'S ICONIC SPIRIT Content Courtesy of Ian Chadwick of IanChadwick.com.
Harvested agave plants on the way to ovens
"Tequila is Mexico," said Carmelita Roman, widow of the late tequila producer Jesus Lopez Roman in an interview after her husband's murder. "It's the only product that identifies us as a culture."
No other drink is surrounded by as many stories, myths, legends and lore as tequila and its companion, mezcal. Tequila transcends simple definition by reaching into the heart of Mexico, past and present. It blends indigenous and Spanish cultures with Filipino and Arabian technology. The turbulent history of Mexico is paralleled in the stories of tequila and mezcal. One cannot fully appreciate Mexico without some understanding of tequila's place in its history and culture.
Tequila is easily the most evocative word in the lexicon of drinkers. It conjures images of Pancho Villa's men riding the dusty roads, of dry plains and sullen volcanoes, of brightly-dressed señoritas whirling in a traditional dance. But it also suggests images of pop stars, emerald margaritas, and endless parties.
At its most basic, tequila is an alcoholic, distilled drink made in the arid highlands of central Mexico, from fermented and distilled sap of one species of agave (also called a maguey), an indigenous plant (a succulent related to the lily family, not a cactus). Archeologists say agaves have been cultivated for at least 9,000 years, and used as food for even longer. The agave has woven its fibres through the entire course of Mexican history.
'Tequila wine' was first made by the Conquistadors within a few decades of their arrival. They discovered a fermented native drink made from the agave, called pulque, and soon found a way to distill the syrup of various agaves (aguamiel) into a stronger spirit. In almost 500 years following the Conquest, tequila has become an icon of Mexican nationality, pride and culture, recognized worldwide. Today, most of it is made in Jalisco state around the towns of Tequila and Arandas, using only one species of plant: the blue agave.
Tequila is an androgynous word, being written as both el tequila and la tequila in Spanish; masculine and feminine (although the masculine form is more commonly used).
Tequila is technically a mezcal, as are all agave spirits, but it is limited as to where it can be produced and where its source agave can be grown. Like cognac is a brandy from a specific region of France, tequila is a mezcal from a specific region of Mexico.
Many visitors to the east coast of Mexico - the Mayan Riviera and Cancun - get tours through what they believe is a "tequila" factory. It isn't. It may be a mezcal distillery, or it may produce another regional spirit. It is NOT tequila, no matter what the guide tells you. Tequila is not made in the states of Yucatan or Quintana Roo and the closest tequila factory is more than 1,000 miles away.
But tequila is not simply a drink: it is a culture, it is an emblem, it is a rallying call for Mexican identity. It is a tradition and heritage, it is about families and feuds, about land and politics, and it is an economic force. For all the marketing and the hype, the advertising and the promotion, tequila still retains its magic after its 400-plus year journey to get to this point.