Before you even think about licking your hand, sprinkling some salt and downing a shot of tequila, there is something you need to know: that’s not how you’re supposed to drink tequila.
Downing tequila in that way was common when cheap tequila dominated the market, but things have changed our tequila options have improved to the point where we can slowly sip the better tequilas.
And if you knew where tequila came from, you might give this Mexican liquor a little more respect. There’s a whole lot of work that goes into making tequila back breaking work, too. And it all starts with the most impressive of all succulents, the blue agave plant that famously grows in the state of Jalisco, Mexico. (It also grows in the states of Colima, Nayarit and Aguascalientes, but the majority of Mexico’s agave comes from Jalisco.)
Blue agaves are large plants that thrive mostly in the highlands of Jalisco, where 80 percent of Mexican blue agave grows, and where most of the country's tequila distilleries are located.
The pina protected by tall, spiny leaves is the heart of the blue agave plant. A mature pina, once the leaves are removed, can weigh anywhere between 80-200 pounds. The high production of sugars in the core of the plant is why this plant is used in the production of alcoholic beverages. (Blue agave is also used to make mezcal.)
A jimador is not only skilled at harvesting the pina, but also at identifying which pina is actually ripe. This is a difficult task since the pina is surrounded by thick, spiny leaves and because agave plants mature at different rates. The jimador uses a coa, a long wooden handle with a sharp circle cutting blade at the bottom, to cut the leaves off of the agave plant and harvest the pina.
Steaming not only softens the pina making it easier to mash and extract the juice from the fruit but it also converts complex carbohydrates into simple fermentable sugars.
The juice is what's later fermented to make tequila. Some premium tequilas still use the “tahona” process a 2 ton volcanic stone that crushes the shredded, cooked agave but mechanical processes are commonly used these days to separate the fiber from the juice.
The agave juices ferment for several days, allowing the sugars to convert into alcohol. After that process, the liquor is distilled at least twice amping up the alcohol content and making it the tequila we know and love.
After the distillation, tequila is bottled and ready for sale. Quality tequila should not be taken back as a shot, masked with salt and lime, but sipped and enjoyed for the robust liquor that it is.