Like most spirits, tequila has a lengthy history steeped in mystery and folklore. This mythology begins with the indigenous succulent bushes that grow in the deserts that make up much of what is now Mexico- chief among these is the Weber Blue Agave, also known as blue agave or agave azul.
The agave and related desert growing plants have been a source of subsistence for indigenous populations for millennia. Long before European contact, local folk fermented pulque, or agave wine, from agave sap. Spaniards applied their brandy distilling techniques to this fermented juice and what we now know as tequila was born.
According to the Normas Oficial Mexicana of Tequila (NOM), the regulations governing the production of tequila, 51% of the sugar used to make tequila must come from the blue weber agave. It must grown at on a registered plantation in one of 180 municipalities which are located in 5 states- Jalisco, Nayarit, Guanajuato, Michoacán, and Tamaulipas. This agave must be processed, fermented, distilled and aged by an authorized producer in one of these 180 municipalities. In fact, bottling is the only activity that can occur outside one of these approved areas.
That’s right folks- tequila does not have to be 100% blue agave. Only if the bottle is labeled “100% Agave” must it be made from agave grown, harvested, processed, fermented, distilled, aged, and bottled by an authorized producer in one of the approved municipalities. Generally speaking, 100% agave tequila is a higher quality than tequilas without the 100% designation- sometimes labeled “mixto.”
Another set of words to keep an eye out for on a tequila label are “gold,” “oro,” and “joven”. According to the NOM these tequilas can be “mellowed” by adding caramel coloring, oak extract, glycerin, or sugar based syrup. These tequilas can also be mellowed by mixing in aged tequila. This group of tequila is usually not considered fine tequila- and is likely the cheap swill that has caused many a hangover following an evening of fishbowl sized margaritas.
Tequila is also broken into four groups based on age: Blanco or Silver, Reposado, Anejo, and Extra Anejo. Silver is unaged tequila that has been modified only by dilution with water to reach the desired proof. Reposado tequila is aged in oak for at least two months. It may be diluted with water for proofage and it can be mellowed with additives. Also, anejo tequila can be blended into the reposado for flavor purposes.
Anejo tequila must be aged in oak containers no larger than 600 litres in capacity. It can be diluted for proofage, mellowed, and extra anejo tequila can be blended in. Extra Anejo tequila is not very common. It must be aged for at least three years in oak containers no larger than 600 liters.
Mezcal is different from tequila in a few ways. It must be made in one of 9 States: Oaxaca, Guerrero, Durango, San Luis Potosi, Zacatecas, Guanajuato, Tamaulipas, Michoacan and Puebla. Mezcal must be made from 100% agave, but that agave does not have to be Weber Blue. In fact the applicable regulations state that mezcal can be made from any agave veritial that is not used as the primary material in any other Denomination of Origin. This fact allows small producers to use the wild agave found on its land to produce a unique spirit. This creates an enormous sense of place, or terroir, to be expressed in these fine liquors. Some common varietals used are espadin, maguey de cerro, maguey de mezcal, tobala, and maguey verde o mezcalero.
Mezcal is broken into 6 different classes different classes-the three most commonly seen are: 1) Mezcal which generally allows the use of more industrial methods of production, 2) Artisanal Mezcal which allows some industrialization but is produced with more traditional methods of production such as cooking the agave in earthen pits and fermenting the juice in hollow stones, clay pots, or animal skins, and 3) Ancestral which uses the most rustic methods of production like crushing the agave by hand and distilling in copper, clay or wooden stills directly over fire.
Like tequila, mezcal can be classified by age- blanco for unaged, reposado for mezcal that has been aged for 2-12 months, and anejo which is aged for more than 12 months. Unlike tequila, mezcal does not have to be aged in oak but can be aged in wood that is indigenous to Mexico.
Sotol is both the name of a spirit and the name of the plant from which the spirit is distilled. The plant is a wild succulent, commonly called the desert spoon, which takes 8 to 22 years to mature. This plant has a long history of being used by indigenous cultures in parts of what is now known as Mexico, Texas, and New Mexico as a food, medicine, and tool.
The terrain in which sotol naturally grows varies from dense forest to scrubby desert. Combine this with the fact that sotol is a slow growing succulent taking upto 20 years to mature and you are left with a spirit that demonstrates a strong sense of place. Sotol made from plants growing in forested areas generally exhibit more pine, menthol, moss, and eucalyptus notes while plants grown in the desert are more herbal, earthy, and leathery.
Sotol is subject to a Mexican Denomination of Origin that requires it to be distilled from 100% sotol in one of three states- Chihuahua, Coahuila, or Durango. Most sotol consumed in the U.S comes from Chihuahua. The United States does not recognize the Mexican DOO and allows spirits produced in the U.S to be labeled “Sotol.”
Agave remains a favorite for us at Make & Muddle. We are drawn to the legacy of distilling that we love in other brown spirits. The tradition, history, and thoughtful practices of those producing the very best agave products continues to push the industry forward, growing its reach every year. For more information on how to taste spirits, check out our blog on Tasting. Cheers, y’all!