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Espiritu de Mexico
The term Mezcal has for years been used to describe the entire category of spirits, or distillates, created from the roasted heart [pina] of the agave plant [maguey] made anywhere in Mexico, and today, is also used specifically on the labels of the agave spirits of eight Mexican states, as protected by the Denominacion de Origen: Oaxaca, Guerrero, Durango, San Luis Potosí, Zacatecas, Guanajuato, Michoacan and Tamaulipas. Tequila was actually, originally, a specific type of Mezcal that was only produced in the state of Jalisco, in and around the town of Tequila, and is now legally produced under its own strictly regulated DO in 4 other Mexican states including Guanajuato, Tamaulipas, Nayarit, and Michoacan. The other agave spirits of Mexico include Bacanora from Sonora; Raicilla, from an area around Puerto Vallarta, in both Jalisco and Nayarit; Tuxca, from Tuxcacuesco, Jalisco; Comiteco, from the area of Comitán, Chiapas; and Sotol from Chihuahua. As of 2006, there are six basic styles of Tequila. First, there is a category called Mixto, or spirits distilled from a mix of sugars with 51% minimum of that mix comprised of agave sugars. This type of tequila may be made into any of the other following categories of Tequila, or the producer may choose to make a higher-quality spirit only from agave juice. The other categories are Plata (silver) or Blanco (white), which must be bottled within 60 days; Joven Abocado, which is a young Tequila flavored with caramel and in practice is always a mixto; Reposado (rested) which is aged two to eleven months in oak, and Añejo, aged for one year or more in small oak barrels. As of 2006, there is a category called Extra Aged, for which the youngest Tequila in any blend must be at least three years old, and must be aged in maximum 600 liter oak barrels. Although Tequila is truly a Mexican spirit, it is accurate to describe its creation as a Spanish invention. But there is a heritage and history and culture associated with this exotic elixir dating back over a thousand years. Before the Spaniards brought the art of distillation to Mexico in the early 1500’s, the Aztecs consumed a wine-like liquid called Pulque ---often referred to as “lightning nectar”, undoubtedly a gift from the gods--- made from fermented syrup extracted from the heart of the agave plant, which the Spanish called Vino de Mezcal. Although the consumption of Pulque was reserved almost exclusively for religious ceremony, the agave plant, also known as the maguey, was utilized by Mexico's Native Americans for virtually everything from food and drink and sugar to shoes, soap, building supplies, rope, and even as medicine, and was affectionately referred to as mother’s milk. These pre-Conquest civilizations worshipped many goddesses, but two who will forever be linked to the agave, in spirit, in life, and in virtually all forms of art, are Xochiquetzal, goddess of fertility and desire, and Mayahuel, the goddess of the maguey. Despite a common misunderstanding, the agave is not a cactus; rather, it is but one of a family of succulents from the lily family with more than 280 species, with the botanical name Agavacea (from the Greek word for royalty). Most quality Tequila is made from a specific variety of agavacea, Agave Tequilana Weber, tipo azul [sub-variety blue] in five Mexican states, the most prominent being Jalisco in west-central Mexico. By contrast, Mezcals from different regions can be produced from a variety of close to 40 different magueys, or species of Agavacea, including Espadin, Tepextate, Tobaziche, Barril, Madrecuixe, Arroqueno, Papolome, and the very rare Tobala, to name but a few. To make a spirit from agave, agave piñas (the heart of the plant) must first be both cooked and shredded, then the juice is milled from the materials. That juice is fermented and finally is ready to be distilled. Distillation varies from copper pot stills to sleek continuous stills, but most quality Tequila is the result of a double distillation in copper pot or alembic stills. Generally speaking, the same process is required to create Mezcal. The greatest difference between Tequila and Mezcal is not the type of Agave plant used (though they are different subtypes and they have different flavors) but the method by which the piña of the agave plant is roasted or cooked. Mezcal is usually roasted in an earth and stone pit and exhibits smoky flavors as a result. Tequila piñas are usually steamed in autoclaves: large, cylindrical, stainless steel steamers, and high quality Tequila is most often made from piñas that have been cooked in brick ovens. The result of the distillation of fermented aguamiel [honey water] from the roasted or cooked corazon [heart] of the agave plant is Mezcal, and when produced in accordance with the strict governing laws, within the legally regulated areas, it can be called Tequila. The flavors of these handcrafted spirits, like wine, are affected by a variety of factors, such as: the age and type of agave, where it is grown, the geography, microclimate and soil type of the campo de agave, the ripeness of the plant, which might take 8-20 years or more to reach maturity, and how it is farmed, cultivated and /or harvested (in the wild?) by the jimador or palenquero or magueyero. The extraction and conversion of the agave sugars, whether baked, steamed, or roasted in a pit in the ground, has a profound effect on the flavors of the end product, fermenting yeasts, the time and temperature of the fermentation and distillation, and the size and type of the stills, as well as the local water, can all also affect the final flavors. This is all in addition to the aging process and the type of wood used, if any. Not too long ago, prices increased, and many brands disappeared, some temporarily, because of the agave shortage. This is a normal, recurring agricultural cycle, which will only repeat itself again one day soon. Witness the number of “new” brands that have been presented in the market lately, or note the designer brands that have recently returned to the shelves. Agave is once again available to anyone willing to buy, the question being, what is the quality of the purchased agave, and how long will the supply last? In today’s market, complete control of the agave, from plant to spirit, has become essential. The term “estate grown, fermented, distilled, and bottled” is increasingly used as a barometer of quality control. This is evidenced across the tequila landscape, perhaps even more so in the Mezcal category, which has recently enacted strict regulations that keep anything but 100% agave spirits from that region from crossing our borders. A new set of NORMAs (2014) has been proposed by COMERCAM, which, among other major changes, will allow producers to label their mezcals as Mezcal Artesanal or Mezcal Ancestral, or simply Mezcal (stopping just short of mandating the use of the term Mezcal Industrial when it is not crafted using traditional methods!) The art and craft of growing agave to a mature and complex 8 to 10-year old plant, harvesting the corazon, extracting and fermenting the sugars and distilling and aging the spirit is even being recognized by the United Nations, which has just designated the haciendas and campos de agave of Jalisco for inclusion as the 24th UNESCO World Heritage site in Mexico. Today, Tequila leads all premium spirits categories in dollar growth in the United States. This increase in popularity is due to the explosive sales of premium Tequilas in recent years. Indeed, the Margarita remains the single most popular cocktails in the United States, as it has been for more than three decades. Note also the recent emergence of Mezcal as its own category, finally beginning to garner some of the long overdue recognition that these spirits, and their mostly Native American producers, deserve. All of that said, according to cocktail historian David Wondrich, Tequila wasn’t always so popular. Here, for instance, is what one syndicated columnist had to say about it in 1915; his comments, if exaggerated, were nonetheless pretty typical of what the newspapers had to say: “Satan took some liquid lava, sort of toned it down with tabasco sauce, mixed in a little prussic acid and sulphuric dope, dissolved a lot of barbed wire in aquafortis, made an emulsion of asafoetida and cayenne pepper, charged it with the hilarity of hell and mixed it all together…. [Then] he labeled it ‘Tequila.’ ‘Te’ for hell; ‘quila’ for water…compared to it, ‘bootleg whiskey’ is milk and fit only for pink teas.” Before Prohibition, as went the newspapers, so went the United States—on the tequila question, anyway. Sure, Sauza might have won a gold medal at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago for its “Mezcal Brandy” (remember that Tequila then was a subspecies of mezcal, just as Scotch is of whiskey) and another at the 1910 San Antonio International Fair, but if that cut any water whatsoever with the general public it went entirely unrecorded. Even in the Southwest, where North America’s only 100% native spirit was readily available and, in pioneer days, had been reasonably popular, it was fading into oblivion. No matter, there was plenty of other tipple to go around—fine old copper-distilled bourbon, magnificent Monongahela rye, mellow Holland gin, ancient French cognac…and all for fifteen cents a glass. Then, to quote the humorist George Ade, “the mixing spoon [was] beaten into a shoehorn” and legal liquor was no more. As the old saw maintains, hard times will make a monkey eat red peppers. That “bootleg whiskey” of 1915 was the “good stuff” of 1922, and what was once undrinkable was now, well, drinkable. Suddenly, Sauza’s tequila is sporting English labels proclaiming it to be “Mexican Whiskey—Positively Old” and the customs service along the Mexican border is finding all kinds of Mexican distillates tucked away in all kinds of unlikely places. This doesn’t mean that we gringos actually liked the stuff, mind you. Not right away, anyhow. As with any acquired taste, it took repeated exposure for tequila to get under our skin. That, and celebrities. If there was one place liberally supplied with those two commodities, it was Tijuana’s Agua Caliente racetrack and resort. From the late 1920s until World War II, this massive, Moorish pleasure dome attracted a heady mixture of, in Dashiell Hammett’s words, “movie folk from Los Angeles,”—including the likes of Buster Keaton, Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, Jean Harlow and just about anyone else who had an ounce of fun in them—“farmers from the Imperial Valley, sailors from the Pacific Fleet, gamblers, tourists, grifters and even regular people, from everywhere.” There they played the ponies, golfed, gambled, and, of course, drank. And if the “very dry Martini” was the tipple of choice there, there were plenty of takers for the house cocktail, “a fascinating tequila fantasy” concocted, as the resort’s souvenir drink book claimed, by “noted scientists” following an Aztec “sacred formula.” Well, perhaps. But whatever its exact pedigree, the original Tequila Sunrise—the formula is quite different from the one in use today—was America’s first popular tequila drink. It was soon followed by another. In the mid-1930s, references start turning up for something called a “Tequila Daisy”—first in Mexico, then in Syracuse (of all places), then in Los Angeles. A “Daisy”—a drink of the 1870s—consists of liquor, citrus, an optional splash of soda and a sweetening agent— usually grenadine, but sometimes orange curacao. More importantly, the Spanish word for “daisy” is “margarita.” At some point in the late 1930s, it seems like bartender Johnny Durlesser, who worked at the popular Tail o’ the Cock in Hollywood, was asked to make one of these things and complied. “His” drink caught on, receiving a huge boost from World War II restrictions on domestic distilling. By the 1950s, it was a known drink. It built from there. Although certainly much of Tequila’s popularity can be attributed to strong margarita sales, and the popularity of the drink formerly known as the Tequila Daisy, the increase in sales can also be directly correlated to the arrival of the boutique, artisanal, handcrafted Tequila in the American market. The U.S. absorbs 78% of the exports of Mezcals and Tequila. While Tequila and Mezcal producers are keen to protect the integrity of their place names, the U.S. government has so far resisted these attempts. At this time, the words Tequila and Mezcal are not protected in the U.S. market, and fraudulent spirits have been sold openly in the United States. Tequila, Mezcal and the other agave spirits of Mexico, when at their handcrafted best, truly are some of the most interesting and complex spirits in the world, and should be respected as an art form, with a culture and unique process unlike any other spirit that we know. It is time that we, the agave lovers, the maguey consumers of the world, pay our respects to the artisan producers that have truly mastered their craft. If you sincerely desire el mejor, the finest of exotic elixirs, perhaps the most complex and exciting spirits in the world today, consider the heritage, the history, the culture of Mexico’s national spirit, the pride of an entire nation, and at the very least, be sure the bottle says 100% Agave, hecho en Mexico. Places of Origin Tequila Jalisco, Guanajuato, Tamaulipas, Nayarit, Michoacan Mezcal Oaxaca, Guerrero, Durango, San Luis Potosí, Zacatecas, Guanajuato, Tamaulipas, and Michoacan Other agave spirits from Mexico Bacanora from Sonora Raicilla, from the area around Puerto Vallarta, in Jalisco and Nayarit Tuxca, from around Tuxcacuesco, Jalisco Comiteco, from Comitán, Chiapas Sotol from Chihuahua [this document includes excerpts from the Beverage Alcohol Resource Manual, and the Tequila cocktail history research should be credited to BAR partner David Wondrich]

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