Today is Cinco de Mayo . . . and I’m celebrating with a margarita and some new knowledge. Namely, that Cinco de Mayo is not Mexican Independence Day. Mexican Independence Day is on September 16th. A few days ago, a Mexican friend gently corrected my historical blunder. And apparently, Mexicans don’t really celebrate Cinco de Mayo (he says it’s a Gringo holiday). However, he assured me that tequila is always a great way to celebrate the 5th of May . . . or any day!
So what is Cinco de Mayo? Cinco de Mayo celebrates the Battle of Puebla, where a heavily outnumbered Mexican army beat the berets off the French on May 5, 1862. And the Mexican army celebrated their improbable victory with margaritas. OK, I made that last part up. But let’s roll with it, for tequila’s sake.
The Battle of Puebla: Kindly shoot around the agaves . . .
I don’t drink a lot of cocktails — they’re a PITA to make. Wine is easier — just open, pour, and enjoy. But every now and then (and always on the 5th of May) I get a craving for my favorite cocktail — the margarita! And a margarita is exactly as good as the tequila you use to make it.
So what’s “good” tequila?
Tequila is made by distilling the fermented juices of the blue agave plant. And muy interesante — the blue agave is not a cactus, it’s a member of the lily family. Blue agaves are grown in Mexico, in the state of Jalisco. By Mexican law, tequila can only be made in the state of Jalisco and to a lesser (much lesser) extent in the states of Guanajuato, Michoacán and Tamaulipas. Mexico has the international rights to the name Tequila, much like France has the international rights to the name Champagne.
The blue agave is an incredibly handsome plant . . . I wish it would grow in my backyard. And not just because I could make homemade hooch.
A blue agave must be 10 years old before it can be harvested for tequila. And it’s not the leaves of the blue agave that are used to make tequila, it’s the interior, or piña, that’s used. The piña is cooked in a giant stainless steel pressure cooker, and pressed to extract the juices. Each piña can weigh upwards of 100 pounds.
Agave piñas are beautiful . . . and heavy.
Blue agaves love the volcanic soil of Jalisco. And much like the concept of terroir for wine, the taste of tequila is different depending on where in Jalisco the blue agaves are grown. Blue agaves grown in the highlands of Jaliso are larger and produce a sweeter tequila. Blue agaves grown in the lowlands of Jalisco produce a more herbaceous tequila.
According to Mexican law, all tequila must be at least 51% blue agave, but the best tequilas are 100% agave. Those are the magic words you’re looking for when buying tequila. Tequila that isn’t 100% agave is called Mixto. It’s blended with sugar and water during distillation. And it’s considered sub-par, which is a nice way of saying it’s craptastical. If you’re in the tequila row at the liquor store and you see a bottle that says “made from the genuine agave plant” . . . put it back.
After fermentation and distillation, all tequila is colorless. Any color is imparted through the aging process (or sometimes with caramel). There are five types of tequila, all based on length of aging:
- Blanco – Literally, white tequila. Bottled immediately or aged less than 2 months in stainless or neutral oak.
- Joven – a mixture of blanco and aged tequila, sometimes colored with caramel.
- Reposado – aged a minimum of two months, but less than 1 year in oak barrels.
- Añejo – aged a minimum of 1 year, but less than 3 years in oak barrels. Caro (expensive).
- Extra Añejo – aged a minimum of 3 years in oak barrels. Muy caro.
When I make margaritas or other tequila based cocktails, I use tequila blanco or reposado. If I’m sipping tequila, I drink Añejo or Extra Añejo. My folks have friends who live in Mexico — they supply us with outrageous tequila. Tequila so good you wouldn’t dream of polluting it with citrus.
This is NOT going in my margarita . . .
What about the worm?
There is never a worm in tequila (at least there shouldn’t be) . . . the worm lives in a sister spirit called mezcal. People disagree why there’s a worm floating around in mezcal. Some say the worm has aphrodisiac properties (so does chocolate . . . just sayin’). Others say it’s to impart flavor. Because booze flavored with weevil larvae is extra delicious?? I’ll pass. Personally, I think it’s a genius marketing ploy . . . let’s see if we can get the tourists to eat a marinated worm!
What’s the difference between tequila and mezcal?
All tequila is mezcal, but not all mecal is tequila. Just like all Champagne is sparkling wine, but not all sparkling wine is Champagne. Tequila can only be made with the blue agave plant. Mezcal can be made with any variety of agave plant.
Now that you’ve endured my tequila tutorial . . . it’s time to make margaritas. I’ve tried a lot of margarita recipes over the years, but this is my go-to recipe. I usually prefer my margaritas on the rocks, but I make a blender exception for this super bien recipe from my friend, Shelagh.
Here’s what you need:
1 small can of limeade
Now, using the limeade can as a measuring cup . . .
2/3 can Reposado tequila
1/3 can Blanco tequila
1/3 can Triple Sec or Cointreau
1/3 can Orange Curacao (I use Patron Citronge)
Juice of 1 lime
2 glugs (yes, this is an actual measurement – call it a tablespoon, ish) of Rose’s Lime Juice
Pour into a blender filled with ice and give it a whirl. Pour into salt-rimmed glasses. (You can also blend it without the ice and serve it on the rocks).
¡Buen Provecho y Salud!