AGAVE SPIRITS: THE BASICS
INTRODUCTION

How are agave spirits produced?

Unlike grapes, fruits or sugar cane, where fermentable sugar is naturally present in the extracted juice, the agave is an inulin plant. Sugar forms the basis of any fermentation process - that is the process of alcohol formulation. For that reason, the inulin contained within the agave juice has first to be converted into fermentable agave sugar, in order for the juice to be suitable for alcohol production.

This inulin-to-sugar conversion process is called hydrolysis. After the completion of hydrolysis, the agave juice is fermented and then submitted to a process of distillation. This is to concentrate the alcohol that has been formed during fermentation, just as with any other type of distilled spirit.

TEQUILA

What is ‘Tequila’?

The term ‘Tequila’ – just the word without any adjective – according to Mexican legal definition means, ‘blended tequila’. This is due to the absence of a legal prerequisite in Mexico to include the term ‘blended’ on a label for blended tequila. It is therefore implied, by reverse legal logic, that any bottle of tequila which is not marked with the adjective ‘100% Agave’ constitutes blended tequila.

This is contrary to the legal logic in the Scotch whisky industry with regard to ‘blended Scotch whisky’. Here the label must always include the adjective ‘blended’, as opposed to the single-malt whisky sub-category, which must be labeled as ‘single-malt’.

In colloquial language, the term ‘Tequila’ (i.e. blended tequila) is usually referred to as ‘standard tequila’.

How is Tequila (blended tequila) produced?

The blend, as referred to in the above context of ‘blended tequila’, consists of 51% juice obtained from the blue agave and 49% juice obtained from other agricultural raw material sources such as water reconstituted molasses or corn syrup. These are blended together with the agave juice prior to fermentation. This type of blending process is known in the spirits industry as a so-called ‘warm blend’; as opposed to a ‘cold blend’, when two finished distillates are simply blended together. Cold blends are prohibited for the production of ‘Tequila’ (blended tequila) by Mexican law.

What is the geographical origin of the agave used for the production of Tequila (blended tequila)?

The 51% blue agave component in the above referenced blend must by Mexican law originate from a particular territory within the country of Mexico. This territory consists of the Mexican States of Michoacan (30 parishes), and/or Guanajuato (7 parishes), and/or Nayarit (8 parishes), and/or Jalisco (125 parishes), and/or Tamaulipas (11 parishes).

This agricultural territory is equal in size to half the entire country of France, being an area of more than 100,000 square kilometers in size.

Why is blue agave juice blended to create ‘Tequila’ (i.e. blended tequila)?

Reason 1:

The first fundamental reason why juice obtained from the blue agave plant is blended to create Tequila (blended tequila) is the fact that the blue agave plant is comparatively expensive, both in terms of raw material cost and in terms of processing expenses (one additional production step, hydrolysis, is required), when compared to other raw materials used for the production of distilled spirits. Tequila manufacturers are therefore creating by means of blending a cheaper distilled alcoholic beverage, which is more easily accessible to consumers on a limited budget.

Reason 2:

When the agave plant, either as a whole or divided up, is hydrolyzed via thermal hydrolysis (steam cooking) prior to extracting the juice, as is customary for tequila, the extracted blue agave juice contains, by virtue of this form of hydrolytic process, 200-300mg of methanol per 100ml (measured at 100% Alc.).

Why? Methanol originates from the agave fiber when cooked along with the juice, as is the case when agave plants are cooked as a whole or in parts during thermal hydrolysis. Methanol, once contained within the juice, cannot be eliminated during distillation unless submitted to a sophisticated style of column distillation which, unfortunately, also removes most aromas at the same time. The methanol is therefore carried over from the juice to the final distillate.

Some export markets, mostly notably The People’s Republic of China, the world’s largest spirits market, impose strict maximum content rules for methanol due to associated health concerns. This makes the sale of pure agave tequila illegal in these markets.

The tequila producer is enabled to export to these markets by blending thermally hydrolyzed pure agave juice, which is high in methanol content for the reasons explained above, and naturally low-methanol content juice originating from molasses or corn syrup. The methanol content in a distilled spirit derived from a blend of juices such as this, prior to fermentation and distillation, is thereby operationally averaged out and reduced in intensity, on average, by a third.

100% AGAVE TEQUILA

What does ‘100% Agave Tequila’ mean?

The legal term ‘100% Agave Tequila’ denotes a pure blue agave spirit that is made entirely from blue agave juice obtained from blue agave plants which originate from a particular territory within the country of Mexico. This territory is identified as the combined territories of the State of Michoacan (30 parishes), and/or Guanajuato (7 parishes), and/or Nayarit (8 parishes), and/or Jalisco (125 parishes), and/or Tamaulipas (11 parishes); the same as in the case of Tequila (blended tequila).

In colloquial English, the legal term ‘100% Agave Tequila’ is also referred to as ‘pure agave tequila’, ‘single-agave tequila’ or ‘100% blue agave tequila’.

How is the agave for ‘100% Agave Tequila’ processed?

100% Agave Tequila is generally produced via thermal hydrolysis prior to extracting the juice. Using this process, the average methanol content of 100% Agave Tequila is 200-300mg per 100ml (measured at 100% Alc.)

The distinctive taste of 100% Agave Tequila is frequently associated by consumers not with the proper taste of the blue agave juice per se, but rather with the methanol aroma derived from the cooked agave fiber.

How is ‘100% Agave Tequila’ distilled?

‘100% Agave Tequila’ is either column- or alembic-distilled.

How is ‘100% Agave Tequila’ aged?

‘100% Agave Tequila’ is either aged in previously-used barrels, generally low-cost, discarded Bourbon barrels, or occasionally in new oak barrels.

SUPER-JALISCO

‘Super-Jalisco’, as with ‘100% Agave Tequila’, is made from juice obtained in its entirety from blue agave plants.

What is the difference in terms of ‘terroir’ between ‘100% Agave Tequila’ and ‘Super-Jalisco’?

Fundamentally, both ‘100% Agave Tequila’ and ‘Super-Jalisco’ are made from 100% blue agave. However, ‘Super-Jalisco’ is manufactured solely from the juice obtained from first-growth blue agave. This means it comes from blue agave plants that originate agriculturally from the first-growth agave-growing region of Jalisco, Mexico, the original motherland of the blue agave plant. Jalisco is a geographical area significantly smaller in size than the area used to grow blue agave plants for the production of both ‘100% Agave Tequila’ and ‘Tequila’ (blended tequila).

What is the difference between ‘100% Agave Tequila’ and ‘Super-Jalisco’, in terms of juice extraction process and hydrolysis?

In the case of ‘Super-Jalisco’, blue agave plants are pressed in their raw (uncooked) form. The raw juice is then filtered to remove all agave fiber remnants. Only then is the raw agave juice submitted to a process of enzymatic hydrolysis (please note: enzymatic here, not thermal).

By contrast, in the case of ‘100% Agave Tequila’, the agave plant is customarily steam-cooked (thermally hydrolyzed) first and then the juice is extracted.

By virtue of Super-Jalisco’s unique production process of filtering out the agave fiber prior to hydrolysis, and by applying enzymatic hydrolysis rather than thermal hydrolysis, the taste of ‘Super-Jalisco’ is characterized by the aromas of the agave juice. This is rather than it being characterized primarily by the taste of cooked agave fiber, as is customarily the case with ‘100% Agave Tequila’. This constitutes the major sensory difference between ‘100% Agave Tequila’ and ‘Super-Jalisco’.

Furthermore, the above described process of agave juice extraction and hydrolysis for ‘Super-Jalisco’ results in health advantages. ‘Super-Jalisco has a methanol content of less than 100mg per 100ml, as opposed to 200-300mg per 100ml for ‘100% Agave Tequila’.

How is Super-Jalisco distilled?

‘Super-Jalisco’ is alembic-distilled.

How is Super-Jalisco aged?

‘Super-Jalisco’ is aged in virgin barrels.

MEZCAL

What does the term ‘Mezcal’ mean?

The term ‘Mezcal’ – without any adjective – means, according to the Mexican legal definition, ‘blended Mezcal’, in a similarly reverse legal logic to Tequila (blended tequila).

How is Mezcal (blended Mezcal) produced?

The creation of blended Mezcal constitutes 70% juice (not 51% as in the case of blended tequila) obtained from Agave Espadin, Agave Esperima, Agave Patorum or Agave Salmiana, among other specific species of agave other than the Blue Agave (Agave Tequilana Weber). 30% is the juice obtained from other agricultural raw material sources such as water-reconstituted molasses or corn syrup, as in the case of blended tequila.

Where does the agave used for the production of Mezcal (blended Mezcal) originate from geographically?

The 70% agave juice component in this blend must originate agriculturally from the above-specified types of agaves grown in a particular territory within Mexico. This territory consists of the combined regions of the Mexican States of Oaxaca, and/or Guerrero, and/or Durango, and/or San Luis Potosi, and/or Zacatecas. It is an alternative geographical territory to the area within Mexico from which the blue agave is agriculturally extracted for the production of ‘100% Agave Tequila’, Tequila (blended tequila) and Super-Jalisco.

100% AGAVE MEZCAL

What does this term mean?

The legal term ‘100% Agave Mezcal’ denotes a pure agave spirit that is made entirely from juice obtained from, jointly or separately, Agave Espadin, Agave Esperima, Agave Patorum and/or Agave Salmiana, among others. These must originate agriculturally from the previously-specified species of agave, grown in the territories of the Mexican States of Oaxaca, and/or Guerrero, and/or Durango, and/or San Luis Potosi, and/or Zacatecas.

Why is ‘100% Agave Mezcal’, in most instances, not a single-variety agave spirit?

Contrary to ‘100% Agave Tequila’ and ‘Super-Jalisco’, which are by definition single-variety agave spirits made solely from the blue agave plant, ‘100% Agave Mezcal’ constitutes, not always but in most instances, a selection of assorted agave varieties, as previously listed, whose juices have been blended during or after juice extraction but prior to fermentation just like the process used for ‘Meritage’ wines (wines made from various varieties of grapes). This is one of the two major points of difference between ‘100% Agave Tequila’ and ‘Super-Jalisco’ on the one hand and ‘100% Agave Mezcal’ on the other.

Why does ‘100% Agave Mezcal’ carry a characteristic peated flavor?

Agave used for the production of mezcal is processed via thermal hydrolysis, as with ‘100% Agave Tequila’. However, unlike 100% Agave Tequila, the agave used for the production of Mezcal is customarily thermally hydrolyzed in underground earthen pits, buried with charred wood, and hence roasted rather than steam cooked in autoclaves or brick ovens.

This type of pre-industrial age, thermal hydrolysis imbues ‘100% Agave Mezcal’ with its characteristic peated flavor, which is not dissimilar to peated malt whisky. ‘100% Agave Mezcal’s peated flavor is the quintessential sensory difference between ‘100% Agave Tequila’ and ‘100% Agave Mezcal’, its distinctive aroma being more recognizable than the marginal difference in aroma of the varying species of agave used for these two types of agave spirits.

What is the story with agave worms in mezcal?

Agave worms do not historically form an integral part of bottled Mezcal. Their inclusion within the liquid was instituted only during the late 1940s, predominantly for marketing reasons in the United States. Tequila never contains a worm. Agave worms, worms of pure vegetarian origin, are savored as a delicacy in Mexico. They feature in salads and other dishes, usually flash-fried in oil. Agave worms are also frequently preserved in salt, conceptually similar to pickled fish in Europe.

Is Tequila a type of Mezcal?

It is incorrect to state that Tequila is a type of Mezcal, or that Mezcal is a type of Tequila. Both, however, are specific types of agave spirits that are made in accordance with their own customary process of hydrolysis and with their own legally defined species of agave.

This common consumer question originates from a confusing historic circumstance - ‘Tequila’ was originally known linguistically in Mexican history archives as ‘Vino de Mezcal de Tequila’, whereas Mezcal was linguistically known in the old days in Spanish as ‘Vino de Mezcal de Oaxaca’.

In old-style Mexican Spanish, ‘vino’ means ‘alcoholic beverage’ with no linguistic differentiation between spirits and wine here. ‘Mezcal’, in turn, is the native Mexican word for ‘agave’, a Greek word now adopted into modern Spanish and all other languages. Thus, ‘Vino de Mezcal’ translates from old Spanish into modern Spanish as ‘Destilado de Agave’, which means ‘Spirits made from Agave’ or ‘Agave Spirit’; but most certainly not into ‘Mezcal’, by today’s linguistic meaning of the term.

Over time, the word ‘Mezcal’, contrary to its original meaning in one of Mexico’s native languages as a plant name for what is known today as ‘agave’, was adopted as the name of a specific type of agave spirit (equally named ‘Mezcal’). This does not imply that Tequila is a type of Mezcal.

COCUY

The term ‘Cocuy’ denotes a single-variety agave spirit that is made from juice obtained exclusively from the similarly-named Cocuy agave plant, which by law must originate from one specific area in the country of Venezuela known as Falcon. As with Tequila and Mezcal, Cocuy is in a similar manner produced in two expressions, either as pure ‘100% Agave Cocuy’ or ‘blended Cocuy’.

OTHER AGAVE SPIRITS

Agave spirits are produced in the State of Sonora, Mexico, known by the name ‘Bacanora’. Agave spirits are also produced in the State of Michoacan, Mexico, under the name ‘Sikua’. The State of Chihuahua, Mexico, is home to an agave spirit called ‘Sotol’. The State of Jalisco also produces an agave spirit by the name of ‘Racilla’. India, in turn, produces its own version of agave spirit known by the name ‘Desmondji’.

All agave spirits share a similar production process, as previously described, the only palpable difference being the type of agave used and the process of hydrolysis applied.

The agave plant is native to the American continent. It was spread throughout the British Empire in the early 20th century, in particular through Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa, India and Australia, as well as Portuguese Mozambique. The main purpose of this was agave fiber production. The historic reason behind the spread of the agave plant throughout the former British Crown colonies can be found in Mexico itself. It was the worldwide shortage of agave fibers inflicted upon England, their main buyer, during and after the Mexican Revolution (1910 to 1920), which collaterally destroyed Mexico’s agricultural agave production infrastructure.

With the advent of synthetic fibers, agave plantations throughout the world eventually fell into decades of decay. They are now being ‘rediscovered', not primarily as a source for the production of agave spirits or agave fiber, but as a source of low-glycemic index, diabetes-friendly agave sugar as well as a socially-responsible, non-food crop competitive source for biofuels.