Tequila is the love child of both the Aztec and Spanish cultures. When the expedition of the Spanish Conquistadores outlasted their brandy, the Aztecs had something to offer — a drink made by fermenting the juice of a local plant. In turn, the Spaniards contributed the art of distillation. The elixir that had been a part of tribal rituals thus became more potent and pedestrian. Eventually known as vino mescal de Tequila –– Tequila wine mescal –– its name represented the town of Tequila and a plant species, the mescales.
The Spaniards’ colonial rule extended 300 years. From that time to the present, tequila has been at the mercy of governments and history, sometimes to its benefit, sometimes not. To create international markets for its own products, the Spanish government at various times limited or prohibited production. Tequila had become an economic threat, exported not only to Spain’s other American colonies but also beyond, even to China.
With the aftermath of the Mexican Revolution in the early 19th century, Mexico also became a North American country with a new democratic national identity. Tequila, associated with the revolutionary heroes, assumed its own identity as a symbol of great national pride. The tri-colors — red, white and green — of the Mexican bandera (flag) inspired the practice of drinking three shooters — one of lime juice, one of white tequila and one of sangrita: orange, lime and tomato juice topped with hot chili peppers. In order to safeguard the quality and economic power of tequila, the new Mexican government began to control all aspects relating to it.
Prohibition banned U.S. liquor production and importation but Mexico’s proximity made for easy smuggling. Importation was greatly increased with the onset of the World Wars, both of which halted shipments from Europe. Tequila was becoming a very welcome guest.
California and the Southwest had long incorporated Spanish and subsequently Mexican culture. Post-World War II, Hollywood began to reflect much of that in its films and trends. The exposure for tequila brought about by the Hollywood glitterati’s enthusiasm was great. Having introduced the song White Christmas to the world, singer and actor Bing Crosby also spread cheer of another kind. Bing helped bring about the U.S. launch of Herradura, his favorite tequila brand. Singer Jimmy Buffet brought more fans to the party with his 1970s song “Magaritaville,” doing his share to put the margarita in its current status as America’s favorite cocktail. More recently, the Academy Awards introduced the “Red Carpet,” a tequila cocktail gaining fans of its own at the official functions.
The Aztecs would be astonished. They, by the way, had their own take on the historical accuracy of the tequila story. The Aztecs believed there was an evil goddess in the sky who devoured light. The only way for the natives to get the light was to offer human sacrifices. Deciding enough was enough, a man named Quetzalcoatl ascended to the sky intending to take on the evil goddess. He missed her, but found her granddaughter, Mayahuel — the goddess of fertility.
Mayahuel escaped to Earth with Quetzalcoatl, but it was not easy love. The evil goddess, on the hunt now, came to Earth and killed Mayahuel. Quetzalcoatl then took the evil goddess’ life. Light was restored to Earth, but Quetzalcoatl was in darkness, crying nightly at Mayahuel’s grave. To ease his suffering, the gods created a special plant which would have a magical potion. Thus, it has long been said that tequila comforts the soul of those who have lost someone dear to their hearts. Cue the country music.
Although the Aztecs’ lore said the plant was from the gods, the original elixir given to the Spaniards was of the mescal family, given a name including the word tequila. Tequila was and is a town in that region — its name means “the place of harvesting plants.” This has created many misconceptions around the word tequila. Tequila and mescal are not the same either by taste or legal definition … consider them mere cousins.
The Mexican government’s firm hand on the tequila bottle regulates what can be called tequila, what plants it can be derived from, even on what land the plants can be grown. Tequila, labeled as such, can only be derived from the one species of agave plant, the agave tequilana Weber Azul, Weber being the German botanist who classified it. Mescal, which has more of a smoky flavor, can derive from eight specified varieties of agaves.
Having a diameter of up to 8 feet, agaves look like aloe vera on steroids. Common misperceptions place them in that species or the cacti, but they are closer to the lily family. Pre-harvest requires a patient, mindful cultivation of seven to 10 years. Plants are tended by the jimadores, men whose skill and knowledge has been imparted from generation to generation. The agaves are literally in their hands from planting, tending to harvest –– modern technology being left for later. The jimadores determine when a plant is ready to be harvested. Using a circular bladed knife attached to a long pole, they cut away the sharp thorny leaves until they reach the core, the pina or pineapple, which can be from 80 to 250 pounds. Having to also battle scorpions, tarantulas and rattlesnakes in the fields, often incurring severe cuts from the leaves, some jimadores can masterfully clear a plant in a minute or less.
Sugar is necessary for fermentation so the pinas’ starches must be converted by slowly baking the pinas in ovens, some on traditional stone, others using steam. Once baked, pinas are crushed to release their sweet juices. The next actions taken determine into which of two categories the finished product will be. Most producers distill the fermented juices once or twice affecting the clarity. The two basic categories of tequila are 100 percent agave and mixto. If the juice is distilled pure — 100 percent Weber blue agave tequila, clearly marked on the bottle — it is considered by many to be the “true” tequila. Any other tequilas are by default a mixto or mixed tequila, meaning that distillation additives such as sugar, water or flavorings are included. A 51 percent agave minimum must still be maintained by law. Mixtos tequilas are those most people are familiar with. As consumers become more sophisticated in their choices, the 100 percent agave is receiving new recognition for its smoothness and its purity of taste.
All tequila – 100 percent agave or mixtos — is ranked according to aging:
Blanco (white) or Plata (silver): Aged one to 60 days.
Joven (young) or Oro (gold): Not aged. Blended with additives or older tequilas.
Resposado (rested): Aged two months to one year in white oak wood casks imported from the United States, Canada or France. The wood affects the color and flavors giving a variance among brands and years. Popular now are used bourbon barrels, particularly those from Jack Daniels.
Añjeo (old): Aged one to four years. They provide multiple dimensions of aroma and flavor. Very smooth, often with undertones of caramel and/or butterscotch.
Extra Añejo (ultra aged): Aged a minimum of three years. A new classification set up within the last decade, many consider it comparable to some of the finest whiskies.
There are also “designer” mixto, tequilas, called such because of the various flavors added such as chocolate, strawberry and almond. A 100 percent agave will never be flavored. When the master distillers deem them ready, the tequilas are bottled. It is with great pride that Mexico sends its tequila out to the world, always with the hope that the experience will be a good one.
In Columbia too, there are several establishments working hard to ensure a tequila experience that reflects the high standards of its homeland. One of these is Cantina 76. Both of its locations in Columbia — one on Devine, the other on Main — has its own personality. Both provide a lively, fun atmosphere fueled by gourmet flavors of the Americas and by the margaritas which have earned a reputation of their own.
Owner and General Manager Chad Elsey’s goal is to provide the finest, whether it is creative tacos or margaritas. He has obviously done his homework on tequila. When asked about the mixtos or 100 percent agave, he says, “If you’re doing a good margarita or taking a shot or something like that, it’s nice to do 100 percent agave tequila.”
All freshly made with real juices, the Cantina 76 margaritas start with the basic “The Original” and also offer an enhanced version, “The Cantina.” Those are scooting across the bar pretty quickly, but they have a family of flavors right behind them. There’s the “Prickly Pear,” the “Texas,” the “Pama” and the “Devine” — each offering a new form of wonderful with their different juices and secondary liquors/liqueurs. Cantina 76 has even topped the common strawberry margarita with its own version. Muddled strawberries and a touch of basil grace the original margarita; the strawberries’ natural sweetness echoed with a sugar rim.
Regardless of whether tequila is to be served neat or mixed, Cantina 76 patrons can chose their brand from Cantina 76’s very respectable selection, among those being the Cazadores line, the Don Julio selections or the very popular Casamigos (a favorite of Cantina 76 staff).
Chad has a good starter suggestion: “The Cazadores Blanco is kind of our entry level 100 percent agave tequila. It’s very good tequila. It’s actually one of my personal favorites.”
Oprah Winfrey’s favorite is here too, the one she has said is as smooth as George Clooney. No doubt that was said with a wink, as Casamigos was developed and is owned by “tres amigos” Clooney, Rande Gerber and Mike Meldman. The latter is a real estate developer while Rande Gerber is the creator/owner of numerous international clubs and restaurants.
Gerber and Clooney share oceanfront property in Mexico on which they each have a home separated by a single gate. Before the tequila was developed they had named the property Casamigos, “House of Friends.” Clooney may be more of a household name, but Gerber has his own celebrity wife, Cindy Crawford, the international supermodel.
So how do the rich and famous take their tequila? “We hear that George Clooney and those guys like it on the rocks,” says Chad.
The amigos aren’t the only globetrotters around. The Goldsmiths of the TakoSushi fame are also acquiring frequent flyer miles in search of great flavors, whether it’s for their dishes or drinks. Like tequila, TakoSushi is a blend of cultures: Southwest and Far East with an American take. This translates into an eclectic, amazing array of dishes ranging from burgers to tacos to sushi, none of which are even remotely as ordinary as that might sound.
Cary Goldsmith, manager, son of the owner and official “tequila man,” explains they offer a tequila that is uniquely theirs.
“We are the only restaurant in South Carolina that has their own double barrel reposado from Herradura.”
Just as they go yearly to New Mexico’s red chile harvest to personally select what they will use in their restaurants, Cary too goes to Herradura, the company founded in 1870. He works with the master distiller to select the perfect barrel of reposado for the restaurant. Once the barrel is selected, it is aged in a second, new barrel, for a month then bottled exclusively for TakoSushi.
Why Herradura? “We really like the history behind the distillery. It’s been there a long time. It still makes tequila the way it was originally made, the way it should be made.”
Try it neat, but don’t miss the Red Chile Margarita: Herradura and fresh juices, laced with a simple syrup created from roasted red chilies. Definitely the drink to jumpstart the party.
Since its conception, Mexico’s love child has crossed many borders, finding itself welcomed and incorporated into multiple cultures. Neat, shaken, blended, it has millions of amigos basking in its warm glow. Careful though, seeing visions of Mayahuel, or even of George Clooney, may be a sign from the gods that a great night might not become the best of mornings.
Where’s the worm?
Despite popular belief, the worm, or gusano, originated with tequila’s “lower-quality” cousin, mescal. The gusano is the larvae of a moth that lives on the agave plant. Regrettably, it does not bring good fortune, change the taste of the product or serve as an indicator of potency. It is simply now used as a marketing ploy. You have been warned!
Red Chile Margarita
1 1/2 ounce Herradura
1 ounce fresh lime juice
3/4 ounce house made red chile simple syrup
Squeeze half a lime into a shaker, muddle three slices of cucumber in the shaker and add ice. Then add 3/4 ounce homemade red chile simple syrup and Herradura. Shake well and strain over ice into glass with spicy salt rim. Garnish with cucumber slice.
By Cantina 76
100% Agave Tequila (recommended)
Fresh squeezed lime juice
Agave light sweetener
Pour tequila into shaker filled with ice. Squeeze fresh lime on top and add Agave sweetener. Shake well and pour into glass.
Strawberry Basil Margarita
By Cantina 76
100% Agave Tequila (recommended)
Fresh strawberries and basil muddled with simple syrup
Muddle fresh strawberries and basil mixed with simple syrup. Pour into a shaker. Add tequila, a dash of cranberry juice and ice. Shake well. Pour into glass rimmed with sugar.
1 part Casamigos Blanco Tequila
1/2 fresh lime, squeezed
1/2 part agave nectar
4 parts champagne
Combine all except champagne, shake. Strain into glass and top with champagne.
1 ounce tequila
1 ounce coffee liquor
Pour everything into a brandy glass and flame.
Gringo Mexican Flag Shooter
1/3 ounce grenadine
1/3 ounce blanco tequila
1/3 ounce green crème de menthe
This is a layered drink, so each ingredient is gently poured on top of the previous. Use the back of a spoon to disperse the liquid as you’re pouring so as not to disturb the ingredients already in the glass.
Pour the grenadine into a shot glass. Float the tequila on top of the grenadine. Float the crème de menthe on top of the tequila.
The Red Carpet
1 1/2 ounces Patrón Silver Tequila
1/2 ounce Patrón Citrónge Orange Liqueur
Dash cranberry juice
Fresh lime juice
Gold sugar rim
Orange wedge dipped in gold sugar for garnish
This is the recipe created for the Academy Awards pre-show functions and the Governor’s Ball afterwards.
The Silk Stocking
1 1/2 ounces reposado tequila
1/2 ounce Chambord
1/2 ounce crème de cacao
1/2 ounce cream
Pour the ingredients into a cocktail shaker filled with ice. Shake well. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass.