Tequila is made by distilling the part of the Agave tequilana plant (pictured above.) Despite it’s prickly green appearance, and desert location, it is actually not a cactus. Agave are native succulents, centered on the land bridge of Mexican Central America, but spreading both North and South onto the larger continents. Surprisingly they’re more closely related to the Asparagus genetically, but the 202 or so species in their group sit in a pretty isolated spot from anything else in the botanical realms.
Records show that the members of the species have been cultivated for around 1800 years. For at least 1000 of those years there have been people going crazy on some form of alcoholic beverage, the oldest one we know about is puluqe. This white, syrupy, milky substance is made from the fermented sap of any one of six of the agave family. Famously the pulquerias have floors of sawdust, and the liquid served from a bucket. Popularity of puluqe waned as stories of the use of muñeca, essentially a bag of shit, used to kickstart the fermentation process. I’m not sure if the stories are true, but the immigrant beer brewers fanned the flames of a great ‘opportunity.’
The Spanish had been gifted the art of distillation by the Moorish conquerers and had been hard at it by the time their colonisation of the Americas had begun. While it’s possible the series of advanced stone age societies had developed distillation separate from its Middle Eastern roots, the Conquistadors started to experiment with making a ferment mash of agave. The result of this is mescal. The heart of the agave is baked in an earth oven, causing the sugars to concentrate, they are pulped and the resulting juice fermented and distilled. The eau de vie that comes from the still is earthy, smoky and quite wonderful. It has become more popular again lately, and some of the single village products mirror the range and complexities of the Scottish single malt scene, if not the volume, yet.
All tequila is mescal, but not all mescal is tequila.
More on that, tomorrow.