Tequila, The Mezcal Above Them All

It’s one of the most popular liquors in North America, from Argentina to Canada, California to the Carribean, and everywhere in between. It’s popular in mixed drinks and on its own and it has a storied history. It’s not just a drink you find at frat parties and resorts in cancun. It’s is a very proud and traditional drink. It only comes from Mexico so let’s take a minute to thank them for their contributions to society. 

A Brief History of Tequila

Tequila is a distilled drink made from the blue agave plant, primarily in the area surrounding the city of, your guessed it! Tequila! The red volcanic soils in the region are perfect for growing the blue agave plant. So much so that 300 million of the plants are harvested there each year. The city of Tequila is located near Guadalajara in Central Western Mexican. Mexican laws state that tequila can only be produced in the state of Jalisco where the city of Tequila is located, and limited municipalities in the states of Guanajuato, Michoacán, Nayarit, and Tamaulipas.

Tequila is a type of mezcal, and the regions of production overlap for the two drinks. The distinction is that tequila must use only blue agave plants rather than any type of agave. Agave grows differently depending on the region. Blue agaves grown in the highlands Los Altos region are larger and sweeter in aroma and taste.

Tequila was first produced in the 16th century. Agave plants had been used to make a different drink that was consumed before Eastern European contact. This drink was known as “pulque”, which was widely used by the Aztecs. However, After The Spanish had come to Mexico they began to distill agave when they ran out of brandy, producing one of North America’s first distilled spirits.

It was around 1608 the Colonial Governor Nueva Galicia was starting to tax the product as it gained popularity. It was then that Spain’s King Carlos IV gave the first commercial license to the Cuervo Family. Don Cenobio Sauza, founder of Sauza Tequila and Municipal President of the Village of Tequila from 1884–1885, was the first to export tequila to the United States. 

100 distilleries make over 900 brands of tequila in Mexico and over 2,000 brand names have been registered. Due to this, each bottle of tequila contains a serial number (NOM) depicting in which distillery the tequila was produced. Because only so many distilleries are used, multiple brands of tequila come from the same location. 

So What’s With The Worm?

The worm we speak of is the one that inhabits the bottom of the tequila bottle. I think we’ve all seen this in television and movies. So the real questions is, “Do they really do that?”, but it doesn’t have a simple yes or no answer. It happens, but why? And is it traditional or a made up tradition?

The worm in question is called a gusano de maguey — since it feeds off of the maguey plant. It’s actually a moth larvae that turns into a beautiful night butterfly called the Mariposa. The problem is that a maguey plant is not the same thing as a blue agave plant. They are cousins, so to speak, in the agave family, but not the same thing. So why would a worm that doesn’t have anything to do with the plant be in the bottle of liquor? The answer is tricky.

No one can say for certain but according to an article from vinepair.com found here, that it was an elaborate marketing ploy. And boy did it work. You can buy t-shirts that show a worm in the tequila bottle to this day. Seriously, check them out here.

“Some think the worm in the bottle started as a marketing ploy, to get people to drink more mezcal in the 1940s and 1950s. Word has it a former art student-turned-mezcal entrepreneur named Jacobo Lozano Paez got the idea to actually put the gusano into the bottle of finished mezcal after realizing that the gusano changed the flavor of the spirit.” (Since gusano feed on the maguey plant, it happened that sometimes a heart would be roasted with worms in it; this is, again supposedly, where Paez got the idea.)

However, there is a bit of truth to this rumor. The gusano de maguey is actually eaten in Mexico regularly. They eat it whole or ground up as a type of spice. It isn’t impossible for you to run across a bottle of Mezcal with a worm in the bottom, but you won’t find a bottle of tequila with one. If you ever want to try it, you can buy some here on Amazon.

Different Types Of Tequila

Tequila Blanco

Tequila blanco must be clear like water and must be a pristine product of the second distillation. The alcohol content can be diluted by demineralized water. Higher quality tequila blanco has a smoky, peppery smell and it has herbal, fruity and citric aftertastes, while lower quality tequila blanco can leave a burning sensation on the lips and has a petrol aftertaste.

Tequila Reposado 

Mexican law says that tequila reposado can have additives and must be aged in oak or pine barrels for at least two months. This type of tequila achieves a fine balance between the tannins from the oak barrels and the agave sugars. Reposados that have been aged for different periods of time can be mixed together. Reposados can have a variety of aftertastes: cherry, woody, vanilla, and herbal. The agave aroma is enhanced by the aging process, and reposados usually have a straw or tawny color. This is a higher quality tequila and should be sipped instead of taken in shots and mixed drinks.

Tequila Anejos

Añejos are extra-aged, and additives can be used. The aging process sets them apart. Añejos must be aged in small oak barrels for at least 12 months. Different types of añejos can be mixed together, and their listed age is the weighted average of the mixture’s components. There is a large variety of qualities and the flavors can range from cognac-like to tannin-heavy grappa-like flavors. Añejos can be aged from one to 10 years. The longer the tequila is aged, the more tannin-rich woody flavor it assumes. The aging process makes añejos darker, giving them an amber-like color. Generally this is considered the highest quality tequila.

The Best Tequilas Under $25

Here is a great list of tequilas available from vinepair.com

  • JOSE CUERVO TRADICIONAL – A solid option, Jose Cuervo’s Tradicional Plata (silver) has an herbal nose with notes of sage and pine. Its flavors are earthy and sweet, with a savory, peppery finish. This light and easy tequila shows great potential as an affordable mixer. Average price: $19.
  • CAMARENA REPOSADO – Rarely will you find a reposado under $25, especially one this delicious. It pours a pale wheat color with sweet aromas of cooked agave, vanilla, brown sugar, honey, and shortbread. It’s medium-bodied and silky on the palate, with a richness that smooths out the tequila’s heat, gently leading to a spicy finish. Its impressive packaging — an etched glass bottle with a wooden cap – doesn’t hurt, either. Average price: $19.
  • BRIBON BLANCO – Created by Palm Bay in partnership with Casa Don Roberto, this bottle has unusual aromas of fresh water and wet rock, a silky body, and a tingly spiciness on the palate. There is also a touch of sweetness hinting at tropical fruit. Average price: $21.
  • MI CAMPO BLANCO – This blanco gets its straw-colored hue from resting briefly in wine barrels, which also imparts fruity, funky notes on the nose — akin to sweet ricotta cheese in a canoli — followed by strawberry jam flavors on the palate. It’s smooth and creamy, finishing with tropical notes of pineapple and coconut. Average price: $22.
  • CAZADORES TEQUILA BLANCO – Light and herbal on the nose, with notes of basil and mint, this tequila has caramel sweetness on the palate. Round, sweet, and smooth, this is a great blanco for mixing or sipping, with a warm, spicy finish. Average price: $23.
  • MILAGRO SILVER – Fresh, floral flavors and a soft mouthfeel make this silver tequila easy to love. Its sweet agave notes are balanced by a spicy finish that burns the upper palate and lips with peppery heat. We could especially see this working in brunch cocktails like a Bloody Maria or Spicy Watermelon Margarita. Average price: $23.
  • ESPOLÒN TEQUILA REPOSADO – Another good reposado that’s great for the price, Espolòn Tequila Reposado pours pale gold, with agave and caramel aromas. Notes of vanilla and salted cookie provide pleasant sweetness and are balanced by a peppery finish. Average price: $23.

In Mexico, they drink tequila neat(without any ice or mixers), so if you want to experience the full flavor profile then try it that way. If you are like most people around the world, then you’ll need a lime and salt. As always, enjoy, stay safe, and cheers!

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