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TEQUILA FACTS AND HISTORY


 

 

 

AHHHH, TEQUILA! The national drink of Mexico which is now enjoyed around the world has it’s heart near Puerto Vallarta. The name ‘Tequila’ comes from the name of the town where it was first made, which in turn is named after a mountain peak which rises above the town. The town of Tequila is near Guadalajra and resides in the state of Jalisco, which produces more Tequila than any other state.

 

The source of this legendary drink is not a type of cactus (a common misconception), but rather the blue agave plant, which has long bluish green spiny leaves with sharp points and a large heart from which the juices are extracted and then distilled twice. The heart of the plant is called a ‘pina’ (Spanish for ‘pineapple), because that’s exactly what it looks like after the leaves have been cut off. By federal law, Tequila may only be brewed in a few states, and only from blue agave grown in those areas. The “Denomination of Origin” law has defined the area and includes the state of Jalisco and some regions in the states of Guanajuato, Nayarit, Michoacán, and Tamaulipas all of which have similar reddish volcanic soil and climate.

 

THE HISTORY OF TEQUILA begins in the 16th century, when Spanish Conquistadors brought the process of distillation to Mexico. The people of the town of Tequila were willing to put this information to good use, and began experimenting with the blue agave plant which they knew contained fermentable sugars. For many years tequila was a made locally, in small batches, and it was relatively unknown outside of a few states and Mexico City. Don Jose Guadalupe Cuervo was the first to receive permission to produce tequila in 1765. In 1873, Don Cenobio Suaza exported the product to the United States. In 1950 technology began to take a leading role. The best creators of the famous brew were even more advanced and with the new technology, tequila could be distributed on a much larger scale. The development of the Mexican tourism industry during the 1980’s, however, exposed tequila to a wider international audience, and it’s growth in popularity around the world has boomed ever since. Tequila is now one of the 3 top selling liquors in the entire world!

 

WHAT IS A JIMADOR?
This figure is well-known; nonetheless, few know that his name is the JIMADOR. He is the artisan that cuts the leaves of the agave plant; it is this man who leaves behind the piña or heart of the agave. He also cuts the stalk below the ground using his simple tool, a long-handled cutting instrument. The art of a good jimador includes only striking once to separate the agave’s leaves. Those who know say that the separation must be made in a single blow and always at the same height.

THE PROCESS OF DISTILLING TEQUILA begins with the harvesting of the blue agave, which by this time will typically be 9 or 10 years old. The spikey leaves are sheared off, leaving the large ‘piña’ which averages about 50 to 60 pounds (but can grow as large as 200 pounds!). The piñas are roasted in an oven, where the heat will convert starches to fermentable sugars, then pressed to release the sweet juices. The juices are fermented with each distiller’s secret yeast for a couple of days, distilled twice, then bottled, aged, or blended. A typical ‘piña’ will produce an average of 3 to 4 liters/quarts of tequila.

 

At this point the tequila is clear, but many different aging techniques are employed to produce different subtle flavors and colors, similar to the way winemakers may choose one type of wood or another for lending distinctive aromas and tastes. This type of tequila is called “añejo”, the Spanish word for ‘aged’. Tequila quality is observed by the government, which allows up to 49% other (non-agave) sugars to be used; however only tequila made only from blue agave may be certified and labeled as “100% pure blue agave”. The end result is a firey liquor ranging from 70 to 110 proof (35-55% alcohol content).

 

Tequila is usually bottled in one of four categories:
• plata or blanca ("silver" – aged no more than a couple of months)
• oro or joven abocado ("gold" or "bottled when young" – "silver" tequila colored to resemble aged tequila)
• reposado ("rested" – aged about a year)
• añejo ("aged" or "vintage" – aged from 1 to 3 years)
The aging process changes the color of tequila, but the liquid can sometimes be colored with caramel to show a darker color, indicative of a longer aging process; añejos tend to be darker, the reposados slightly less dark, while the platas are not colored at all.

 

 

If you’re drinking tequila ‘straight’, your shot glass may come with a slice of lime and a bit of salt. Hardly anybody (except tourists) does the lick-the-salt-from-your-hand and bite-the-lime thing, but many prefer to squeeze a few drops of lime juice into their shot or around the rim. Order a ‘bandera’ (Spanish for ‘flag’), and your tequila will be served with a lime and another shot glass with ‘sangrita’, a tasty blend of tomato and citrus juice. (The combination is red, white, and green…the colors of the Mexican flag.) And of course the ever-popular margarita requires tequila (and lime juice) to give it its unique place in the world of cocktails, either blended or ‘on the rocks’, with or without salt on the rim. Whichever way you drink it, imbibe with moderation…tequila is for enjoying, not guzzling!

 

There are now over 100 distilleries making over six hundred brands of tequila in Mexico and over 2,000 brand names have been registered.

 

A FEW FINAL NOTES: ‘Mezcal’ is not tequila, but rather a similar product from a similar plant. There is never a worm at the bottom of a bottle of tequila, but some advertising genius decided this would be a good way to promote certain brands of mezcal. Only certain mezcals, usually from the state of Oaxaca, are ever sold con gusano, and that only began as a marketing gimmick in the 1940s. The worm is actually the larval form of the moth Hipopta agavis that lives on the agave plant. Finding one in the plant during processing indicates an infestation and, correspondingly, a lower quality product. Eating the worm will NOT induce hallucinations, no matter what your old college buddies swear. Some people who appreciate the effects of tequila more than its unique taste ‘straight’ will enjoy it mixed with a bit of the juice of orange, grapefruit, lime, or tomato.

 

TEQUILA NEWS: 2006 Tequila Trade Agreement
On January 17, 2006 the United States and Mexico singed an agreement allowing the continued bulk import of Tequila into the United States. Without this agreement all tequila would have had to be bottled in Mexico. In addition to allowing bulk import, the agreement also created a “tequila bottlers registry” that identifies approved bottlers of tequila.

Other key elements of the agreement include:
• A prohibition on restrictions of bulk tequila exports to the United States;
• A prohibition on Mexican regulation of tequila labeling or marketing, as well as the labeling, formulation, and marketing of distilled spirits specialty products outside of Mexico;
• Continuation of current practice with respect to addressing Mexican concerns regarding the manufacturing of tequila in the United States; and
• Establishment of a working group to monitor the implementation of the agreement.

 

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