A Basic Guide to Mexican Spirits

Ever hear of sangrita? (No, not sangria.) It's tequila's perfect accompaniment. Go to this archival post for details. (Bill Dowd photo)
This Sunday is National Tequila Day. That will mean many people who never experienced the iconic Mexican spirit will do so for the first time. It also means people who had bad experiences with it while drinking cheap versions as raucous college students will hold their noses and shy away, forgetting that they probably also had bad experiences with beer and vodka back in the day but still drink them.

So, what to do? How about sharing some basic information the tequila-curious might find helpful before setting out to actually enjoy the spirit? Here's a basic guide to all things tequila (and its cousins), with a few pronunciation tips thrown in.

Three foundational requirements under Mexican agricultural law:
1. True tequila must be made 100% from the blue agave plant and distilled only in Mexico’s Jalisco (pronounced hah-LIS-ko) state and certain specified adjoining counties.

2. Tequila 100% Agave: Must be made only with the juice of the blue agave plant and must be bottled at the distillery in Mexico. It may be Blanco, Reposado, or Añejo (ahn-yay-ho).

3.  Tequila: Must be made with at least 51% blue agave juices. It may be exported in bulk to be bottled in other countries following the NOM standard. It may be Blanco, Gold, Reposado, or Añejo. 
NOM, the official Mexican product safety requirements, defines four types of tequila:
1. Blanco, or Silver: The traditional tequila. Clear, transparent, fresh from the still. Must be bottled immediately after distillation process. Traditionally served in a cylindrical two-ounce glass called a caballito (kah-bah-yeeto).

2. Oro, or Gold: Modified by adding colorings and flavorings, caramel the most common. Widely preferred for frozen Margaritas.

3. Reposado, or Rested: Kept in white oak casks or vats called pipones (pip-oh-nace) for two to 11 months. Much mellower than blanco or oro, pale in color, gentle bouquet.

4. Añejo, or Aged: Matured in white oak casks for a year or more. Maximum capacity of the casks should not exceed 159 gallons. Amber color, oak notes. 
Then there is Reserva. Like “Extra Añejo” it is not technically a category, but recognized as an Añejo aged in oak up to eight years.

Here’s a quick rundown on the other Mexican spirits:
• Mezcal: The state of Oaxaca (wah-hawk-ah) in south-central Mexico claims this spirit as its own. It’s the result of the fermentation of the native maguey (mag-way) plant by the indigenous people and the distillation techniques introduced by Spaniard conquerors. The unique topography of Oaxaca — at the confluence of three great valleys at an altitude of 6,500 feet — creates a wide variety of growing micro-climates for numerous varieties of the agave variety known as maguey, from the giant pulque (pull-kay) maguey to the maguey tobala from which one of the rarest mezcals is made.

• Bacanora: This traditional liquor, mentioned by the earliest Spanish explorers as a native drink, is made in the state of Sonora, which lies below Arizona. It was illegal until about 20 years ago when rules for its manufacture were put into place. It is made from a variety of the agave plant that grows exclusively in Sonora’s climate and terrain. One of what I refer to as “border spirits.”

• Sotol: Another “border spirit,” made from a shrub that looks like a bouquet of spiny leaves with fringed tips. It grows in deserts, mountains, and on dry rocky slopes. Its powerful fermented juice is the state drink of Chihuahua state, south of New Mexico. Like tequila and mezcal, it was improved by distilling the original fermentation.

• Raicilla: This liquor (pronounced ray-see-yah), widely known as “Mexican moonshine,” now can be found in somewhat more sophisticated varieties as a result of modernization and commercialization. It usually is distilled from a fermented mash made from the roots of the maguey plant. It’s a harsh liquor, 100 proof or higher. Despite its dicey reputation, the tourist haven of Puerto Vallarta thinks enough of it to hold an annual raicilla festival.

• Destilado de agave: This spirit is quite similar to tequila, but is brewed outside the state of Jalisco which has 98% of all legal tequila production. As with tequila, it may or may not be made with 100% agave.
Armed with this information, may I wish you a happy National Tequila Day.

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