THE TIPPLING POINT | Tequila: The Spirit of Mexico Birthed by a Revolution
The drink will lose its character if kept beyond four years. If somebody gifts you a bottle of tequila, never keep it for more than a month once the seal is broken. The fruit is notorious in losing its character once it has tasted oxygen.
Image for representation. (Image: Getty Images)
There’s a storm raging over. Suddenly, tearing the thick cover of clouds, a bolt of lightning zips down and falls on one of the agave plants. The smoke settles down after a few minutes. One by one, the Aztec people who witnessed the incident step forward to taste the nectar oozing out of the heart of the wounded plant. Mmmm… this could be a gift from above.
They christen it Pulque, the fermented agave juice, and honey water.
Agave plant gives away everything it has to nourish us: its flesh is eaten, its fibre is woven into fabric and carpets, leaves go to roof houses and its thorns double as sewing needles.
But the pulque part of agave is what makes it most interesting to Aztecs, as well as us.
When the Spanish conquistadors raided Mexico, they found pulqueries (taverns where pulque was sold) rampant in every part of the country.
They liked the taste but how long can one entertain oneself with this feeble beer? The Spanish soldiers decided to distil this drink into
something more potent.
Tequila was born (Mescal also)!
Did I tell you that the conquistadors were raiding Mexico during the period? Oh, yes. Well… it was cakewalk for the soldiers taking Mexico until they met the town of Jalisco, the Pacific-faced town of the country. Now the Spanish teeth met the hard kernel of the country. They found such stiff resistance from the people of Jalisco, who were proud of the Aztec heritage that for the next 20 years, they were kept at bay.
Jalisco already had the reputation of a bandit country, the birth-land of rebellions and uprisings, the very heart of the country which beat against all sorts of oppression. Proud of their Aztec ancestors, the local people were slowly propelling their place to become a major frontier of Mexican revolution.
What could be the spirit behind such a sturdy place like Jalisco? Perhaps the stuff it drains.
With the help of Spanish settlers, Jalisco had already begun distilling weak pulque into potent Tequila (actually Mescal, which I’ll tell you about sometime soon). Tequila is a town in Jalisco where you can see blue agave in plenty.
When the revolution finally ended and the Mexicans slipped off the foreign yoke, they suddenly looked down the barrel for an identity. What makes a Mexican a Mexican? What makes them a country? They were confused, there was unrest.
Finally, it was the Mexican movie industry which stood up and answered that difficult question.
The movies, which explored the violent history of the country and extolled the country’s revolutionary leaders, stumbled upon an interesting discovery. They found that it was tequila which united and lubricated the revolution all those years.
Being the “drink of the trenches”, the entire country was sipping the distilled juice of the agave plant.
The distillers were quick to tap the potential of this discovery. They began to display the names and figures of revolutionary leaders and bandits prominently on the bottles they made.
Tequila is now the national spirit of Mexico.
In recognition of its contribution to Mexican culture and life, the production of tequila is strictly delimited within Mexico. Jalisco is from where all tequila comes from. People often confuse it with Mescal (Tequila is to Mescal what cognac is to brandy. It is region-locked).
Is that a bottle of tequila in your hand?
See whether the bottle in your hand displays ‘100% blue agave tequila’ on it. If not, you have a mixto with you, not pure tequila. The law stipulates that even a 60% blue agave drink can call itself tequila. The rest can be plain molasses. (The connoisseurs always go for the pure, to get to the heart of blue agave unadulterated.)
There are four classifications: The original Blanco style is clear and unaged, bottled directly after distillation. The Gold is invariably a mixto, the colour takes from caramel or ageing in a barrel. Reposado (rested) means the drink has sat inside wooden tanks for 3-12 months. Anejo is aged for four years inside Kentucky bourbon barrels.
The drink will lose its character if kept beyond four years. Note this. If somebody gifts you a bottle of tequila, never keep it for more than a month once the seal is broken. The fruit is notorious in losing its character once it has tasted oxygen.
So you have a shot of tequila in your hand. You need to know whether it is high-quality stuff. Swirl the drink. If you can see a string of pearl like bubbles forming, smile broadly. Congrats! You’re having some superior stuff from the Pacific-facing Jalisco.
Now hold the glass under your nose. Do you get faint hints of blue agave? Living far away from the volcanic plains of Mexico where the exotic plants grow, it is difficult for our Indian olfactory senses to pick the agave from the fiery liquid. But just look out for a smell other than that of the spirit. Now quaff it. The classy ones are just warm and mild.
You want to drink tequila in the traditional way?
Here’s the drink cold and neat put inside a shot glass. Now smear the back of your palm with lemon-squeeze and salt. Throwback the tequila in one gulp and lick into your hand to kill the acidic taste.
In Mexico, tequila is often served with sangrita. The latter is a mixture of orange juice, grenadine and a hint of chili pepper — a perfect foil for the burn of the spirit. You have to take alternate sips to be part of the cult.
The blue agave drink which once upon a time was limited within Mexico has now become a major one in the spirits circuit. Without it, you cannot concoct famous cocktails like Margarita and Tequila Sunrise.
You want to get the best of it? In 2006, Tequila Ley 925 brought out its six-year matured Pasion Azteca in a limited edition of 33 bottles. It will be personally delivered for a price of $22,500 (around 12 million rupees plus taxes!
It is the spirit of revolution bottled, or the quintessence of a country distilled.
You may also call it a bolt from the blue after the way the drink was believed to be born 3000 years ago in a volcano valley in a place called Jalisco.
(Manu Remakant is a freelance writer who also runs a video blog — A Cup of Kavitha — introducing world poetry to Malayalees. Views expressed here are personal)
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