If the goal is making tequila, a sightseeing trip to Mexico may very well be the best place to gather information. After all, Mexico is famous for its tequila. In one form another tequila has been associated with South American countries for hundreds of years. Native Americans made a fermented beverage called pulque. When the Spanish arrived they stepped it up a notch and applied distillation to make the upgrade to Tequila.
According to Mexican regulations true Tequila can be made by only one species of the agave plant. All Tequilas are technically Mezcals, but not all Mezcals are not Tequila. Tequila is made from the Blue Weber species of the agave plant. The agave plant looks like a large spiked aloe vera plant and it is closely related to the lily. Top quality tequila is made from 100% agave, the law allows it to keep the name with 51 percent agave.
It takes from 8 to 12 years for the agave plant to mature so that is can be used in the production of tequila. Harvesting the plant kills it. This is not a renewable option, like harvesting grapes for wine. The core of the plant called the pina is removed. In appearance this pina looks like a sort of over-sized pineapple. They can weigh from 60 to many hundreds of pounds.
The next step is to split open the pena are either baked in traditional stone ovens called hornos or commercially steamed to convert the starches to fermented sugars. The juice is fermented and produces what is called agave wort or mash. Yeast is added to create the perfect blend. The wort is then distilled 2 or 3 times to about 50 to 60 percent alcohol. Pot stills are the most common.
Some raw Tequila is aged in steel tanks or oak barrels to reach the quality the maker is looking for. If left in oak barrels too long the oak flavors will mask the flavor of the agave. It is takes a master to get it right.
It seems like something should be said about “the worm”. The agave worm, is actually a butterfly larvae. Jacobo Lozano Paez created the idea of putting one of these in each bottle of mescal. There were plenty in the mash so it was easy enough to do. It is and was simply a marketing gimmick that worked really well. It is proof positive that Gringos will believe anything.
There are three basic varieties of 100% agave tequila. They are Blanco, Reposado, and Anejo. It’s all up to you what you want to try.