"One tequila, two tequila, three tequila, floor." - George Carlin.
For a lot of people I've met over the years, Mexico's national spirit conjures up memories of nights best forgotten after too many shots of Tequila, salt and lime. Outside of Mexico this combination is considered the normal way to consume Tequila. Along with the view that Tequila is to be drunk as quickly as possible is the other misconception that bottles of Tequila contain the "worm".
As such a lot of people are put off drinking Tequila, which is a shame as if you're willing to pay the money, you'll find a drink which has as many subtleties as a fine Cognac and as such deserves to be drunk in the same manner. Good Tequila is smooth and can be drunk straight with or without ice. The need to take it with salt and a wedge of lime comes more from the selection of a lower quality inferior tasting Tequila and therefore this combination is used to make the taste of the drink more palatable. And you will certainly never find a worm in a bottle of actual Tequila. The worm is to be found only in certain Mezcals and even then it was only started as a marketing gimmick in the 1940s.
Often believed to be made from a form of cactus, Tequila is distilled from the fermented juices of the Blue Agave plant, which is from the family of plants called the Agavaceae. Other varieties of the agave plant are used to make the alcoholic family of drinks called Mezcal. While Tequila is technically a Mezcal, it differs in that it can only be made from a minimum of 51 percent of juices from the Blue Agave plant and has to be produced in one of the five approved regions. These regions are approved by the Mexican Government and include the entire state of Jalisco and certain villages in the states of Guanajuato, Mihoacán, Nayarit and Tamaulipas.
Taking between 8 and 12 years to grow, the harvest (Jimar) of Blue Agave is carried out by the Jimador and remains relatively the same today as that of 100 years ago. Tending the crop of Blue Agave throughout its growth is one of the important tasks of the Jimador, along with the extraction and seeding of the sprouts after about 4 years growth and the actual harvesting of the 80 to 150 pound weighing hearts (piñas). The piñas are then pressure cooked for a day or so to convert the plant's starches into sugars. During the cooking, juices that are known as honey water (agua miel) are released and are collected for later use in the Tequila production. After cooking, the piñas are more fibrous and are easier to pull apart to extract even more agua miel. Once all of the honey water is collected, production moves to the fermantation stage.
If the Tequila is to be Mixto (see below for more details), additional sugars are added to the agua miel, otherwise only yeast and some heat are added to start the fermentation process. Once the fermented juice (mosto) begins to bubble, with a light brown creamy coloured foam on the surface, it is ready for distillation. Tequila must be distilled twice, during which the approximate 5 percent alcoholic mosto will, after its first distillation be known as Ordinario and will contain between 20 and 30 percent alcohol by volume. It is only after the second distillation of the good portion of the ordinario that the Tequila will reach an alcoholic volume of at least 80 proof or 40 percent. Cheaper Tequila's may have been distilled to a higher alcohol content and will be diluted with purified water prior to bottling. After the second distillation, the Blanco Tequila can be bottled or mixed with colouring and flavours then bottled or aged in wooden barrels for up to 3 years depending on the chosen category.
Tequila is categorized by both age and content of Blue Agave spirit, with 100 percent varieties being considered the premium choice over the "Mixto" or mixed Tequila's whose Blue Agave content ranges from 51 to 99 percent. Both 100% Blue Agave Tequila and Mixto Tequila are available as Blanco (also known as Plato, Silver or White) which is not aged in wooden barrels, Reposado which is aged in wooden barrels for a minimum of 2 months and Añejo which is aged in wooden barrels for a minimum of 1 year. There is also an additional category of Gold where the Tequila is always of the Mixto variety, with the golden colour being achieved by the addition of colours and flavours such as caramel, as opposed to the more natural process of aging in a barrel.
To truly taste the flavours of the Blue Agave plant, try the 100% Blanco with its herbal and peppery "bite". For a slightly softer and smoother form of Tequila try the "rested" Reposado with its light golden colour. The short aging period in the wooden barrels imparts subtle hints of the wood into the Tequila taking some of the edge of the drink. The smoothest form of Tequila is the "aged" Añejo whose flavour and deeper golden colour has been brought about by the flavours of the barrel. Often these barrels are old 190 litre whiskey barrels from Kentucky, which were government-sealed for between 1 and 3 years. Añejo Tequila's are often the most expensive and are the more comparable to the Single Malt Whisky's and Cognac's that are often found on the shelves of the more selective bars.
All of the production, categorisation and labelling is strictly monitored by the Mexican government, under a set of laws called the Norma Oficial. The Norma Oficial dictates that every bottle of Tequila be labelled with a number issued by the government. The "NOM" indicates the name of the distillery where the Tequila was made.
On a final note, it is worth bearing in mind that Tequila doesn't age as well as other spirits such as Rum, Cognac or Whisky. As such don't buy an expensive bottle of Tequila at the birth of your child intending to crack open the bottle on their coming of age birthday as it will simply not taste as good as it would have when first bought.
The Tequila Distilleries pages provide details on the history of each Tequila Distillery, as well as write-ups on their currently available Tequila's. Resources provides a brief History of Tequila. Also included is a collection of Tequila Cocktails, where one or more forms of Tequila make up the ingredients and several links to websites devoted to the enjoyment of Tequila.