he kick of caeine was allegedly
discovered aer humans witnessed
twitchy, spasmodic goats dancing at
what some consider the world’s rst rave party.
ose hirsute revelers had, minutes before the
imaginary techno beats commenced, gorged on
wild coee beans.
Similarly, Tequila may be the end result of
our surveillance of a seriously tipsy opossum.
Certain desert plants, known as agaves, go
through a reproductive cycle wherein a very large
stalk is shot toward the sky. In this process, some
sap typically seeps out, and natural yeasts and
bacteria in the air ferment the ooze. e greedy
little hands of the opossum can scoop up those
juices. Hello, drunk opossum. Clearly then, goat
is to a Venti Carmelattelzino Espresseranto as
opossum is to Jose Cuervo Gold.
Imagine 16th-century Spanish conquistadors
riding westward across Mexico, sunburned, dirty
and driven; their horses foaming with sweat.
ese mobile hordes forged long trails of blood,
dust, murder and…progress. e technologically
advanced conquerors brought knowledge to the
lands they plundered, including one that the
Mexicans would embrace and perfect—the art
of distillation. e world of drink was forever
changed on the exact day that their fatigued
knives, innovative ideas and inebriation
appreciation arrived at the town of Tequila.
e natives there had known for many years
that agave plants that grew in their rich soil
could be fermented to produce an intoxicating,
distinctly avoured brew called Pulque. e
Spaniards taught the natives how to distill it.
Other visionaries decided to try making spirit out
of the heart, not just the sap, of select agaves.
And the rst version of what we now
call Tequila was born.
Never has a spirit produced such misunderstanding.
e words Tequila, mezcal, Pulque, agave, cactus,
By Dr. Keith B. Homan
worms, butteries, larvae, and hallucinations all
group together in a federation of bewilderment.
e following notes are designed to enable you,
my booze-savvy reader, to sort out the true
relationships in that vocabulary collection.
Believe me, most of the world cannot.
Pulque is a native drink made from the juices
seeping from an agave, or related plant, that
has successfully sent up a reproductive shoot.
e plant continues to feed the stalk with rich,
fermentable, sugars (which our opossum friend
found out long ago). is sap-derived ferment is
in contrast to both Tequila and mezcal, which are
made from the rich sugars found in the heart, or
‘piña’, of agave plants that have not yet hoisted up
their own breeding appendage.
Agave is not a cactus, and as far as I know,
there is no spirit made from cactus. However,
given that I once made a spirit from avocados in
high school chemistry class—I’m sure it can be
done. Agave, as a matter of fact, is actually more
closely related to lilies than any cacti. It comes
in many varieties, the ‘blue’ agave is the specic
plant used to make Tequila.
Spirits made from dierent agaves, but not
the blue variety, are generally called mezcal in and
around Oaxaca, Sotol, Raicilla, or Bacanora in
other regions of Mexico.
Tequila, like Champagne, is named for a
specic region and is the rst distilled spirit of
North America—a nice distinction to have. e
Tequila region surrounds both the city and the
volcano of the same name, and encompasses the
central-west state of Jalisco and parts of other
neighbours. So, as with Champagne, even if you
make a spirit with pure blue agave, but you did
this outside of the Tequila region, well… by law,
you could not call that ‘Tequila’.
Finally, to be called Tequila, the spirit must
have been made, 51-percent or more, from the
sugars of the blue agave. e stu you really
want to drink is pure, 100-percent blue
agave Tequila.
e worm is actually a buttery
larva, and there is absolutely nothing
traditional about the practice of plunking
one into a bottle. e larvae are never put
in any self-respecting Tequila, but they
are sometimes put into Mezcal purely as
a marketing ploy. One cannot help but
think the Mexicans are having some blue
fun with green tourists here.
Sadly for some, both Tequila and
mezcal are devoid of any mescaline,
and hence, no matter how many
shots you had during college, those
hallucinations you had were not
from some magical compound.
Mescaline is a mind-bending
chemical from the Peyote plant.
As soon as someone makes a spirit
from Peyote, I’ll volunteer to write
about it.
Blue agaves are cultivated in the
dark red soils of the Tequila region.
Eight to 12 years later the small
plant matures into a beast of long
sharp spikes. Harvest timing is
critical as the rich soup of sugars
inside the massive piña conspires to extinguish
itself in a reproductive detonation. Evolution has
given those coveted sugars one role and one role
only—to fuel the rapid, and fantastical, up-thrust
of a single seed-cloaked stalk, seven to 10 meters
in the air. ere is, however, a formidable foe to
this process—the agave farmer, and his mission
is to strike down, split, burn, and mash that
agave heart moments before the procreation pole
pierces the sky. e best farmers can time this
impeccably. e closer they time it, the higher
the content of sugar, and hence, the higher the
output of spirit.
Once the piñas are split, roasted, and their
juices fermented for two days, the distillation
process is akin to other spirits. e rst clear run
of distillate is the pure essence of the blue agave—
it is called ‘Silver’ or ‘Blanco’ and should be
perfectly clear. To achieve ‘Oro’ or ‘Gold’
status the Blanco is typically adulterated with
colourants such as caramel or cane sugars.
If one ‘rests’ Blanco for two to 12 months in
an oak barrel a ‘Reposado’ or ‘Rested’ Tequila
results. e Reposado gets its colour from the
wood, not articial colourings. e aging, as
with most spirits, mellows the alcohol sting
and imparts complex avourings. Another
category, the ‘Anejo’ or ‘Aged’ Tequila,
comes from barrelling for over a year,
while the ‘Reservada’ is a rare Tequila
aged for eight or more years.
Down Mexlco way, a pro spllfs fbe plóa.
An agave Feld ln 1equlla beFore barvesf. 1be evenfual necfar ls rlcb and complex, and sbouldn'f be 'sbof'.
• Skip the salt.
• Try to always stick to 100-percent blue
agave Tequila.
• Avoid the Oro, or Gold, Tequilas,
whenever possible.
• A little nibble of lime prior to drinking,
not aer as is commonly practiced,
is perfectly acceptable, and sometimes
downright required, to counter the
troubles of non-premium Tequilas and mezcals.
• Try Tequila in stages. A Blanco rst, then
a Reposado then an Anejo. Preferably
right in a row if it is your rst tasting.
Slowly now, don’t shoot them. Shooting is
for crappy Tequila.
• Good Anejos and Reservadas should be
sipped leisurely, never with a lime, and
enjoyed in a glass that brings their aromas
to your nose. Scotch glasses are a good t,
and some glass manufacturers are now
even making special Tequila sniers. e
rich, multi-layered tastes are imparted by
similar wood inuences as those found in
excellent Scotch. Accordingly, if a quality
cigar is nearby, it should be ignited.
• Toast the tipsy opossum.