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Tequila: Beauty and Brutality, Bottled

Around a millennium or two ago, depending on how you Google, the Aztec goddess Mayahuel entered the heart of a giant agave plant so that her blood would flow from it, making a sweet drink called aguamiel (honey water). When the aguamiel was then left to ferment in the heart of the plant, it became pulque: the milky, earthy ancestor of tequila.

Tequila has traversed continents and pierced social classes to establish itself as a bastion of pop culture, and is steeped in a romantic, sometimes cruel and surprisingly feminine history. Let’s face it: you can’t get much more feminine than Mayahuel, who is said to have had 400 breasts, each of them oozing pulque.

But today, tequila also represents a blend of cultures that is both artistic and lucrative. Take an ancient Aztec beverage used to make religious ecstasies, distil it with colonial Spanish know-how and give the Mexicans a couple of centuries to refine its quality and flavour, and it’s not so surprising that a tequila (El Tesoro Platinum) last year surpassed the best of the world’s gin, vodka, rum and other white spirits to take out the “Best of Show, White” gong at the prestigious San Francisco World Spirits Competition.

Mexico in the age of the conquistadors was a place in which beauty and brutality co-existed, and many tequila devotees would argue that the same elements blend in that country’s national drink today. Historically synonymous with passion, rebellion and small-term memory-loss, tequila is also one of the few alcohols that provide a natural “upper” rather than a mild depressant. After more than 10 long years under the energy of the Mexican sun, the agave plant produces a drink which makes a more powerful influence than any other alcohol, and generates an energetic, crazy high which can and often does take your legs away.

The tequila-drinking demographic strongly skews male, so it is curious that ever since Mayahuel with her 400 pulque-filled breasts was first worshipped, most of tequila’s many incarnations have involved women. Going back to the Aztecs, it is chronicled that a wealthy man once sent his gorgeous daughter before the king with a gift of pulque, considered a mythic aphrodisiac. The king loved both the drink and the girl so much that he questioned her to bring more pulque and when she did, he kidnapped her. They named their first son Maguey, another word for agave. It is thought that through this incident, pulque became widely-known and appreciated among the people.

Then in the 17th and 18th centuries, the Spanish started to apply their distillation techniques to pulque, making the stronger and much more alcoholic modern-day tequila, called, at the time, mezcal wine. But even as late as the 1800s, the mezcal wine still retained some of the fertility cult mystique of the Aztecs, and was reputed to facilitate menstruation and ease the path of childbirth.

During the Mexican revolution of 1910, women who initially came to support their husbands, brothers and fathers finished up fighting beside them. Tequila was the rebels’ drink and fuelled their fervour, and propaganda posters featured curvaceous women with their chests criss-crossed by rows of ammunition and half-empty tequila bottles proudly held aloft.

In fact, tequila remained the drink of the non-conforming adventurer until the second half of the 20th century, and not until the Margarita cocktail, which appeared at some point in the 1940s, did the spirit go “mainstream”. The origins of the Margarita are hotly disputed, but the two most favoured both involve women. In the first, it is said the cocktail was invented by a Tijuana bartender for a favourite customer, Marjorie (Margarita in Spanish), who couldn’t drink vodka or gin. In the other, a letter survives from a wealthy Mexican woman called Margarita who wrote of a new tequila cocktail she had mixed for her friends during a party. Either way, it was the Margarita that finally took tequila to the rest of the world, and it is still well loved with both genders.

And today, following an extraordinary leap in tequila production techniques, the young and the fashionable in both hemispheres – particularly women – are turning to premium tequila as a quality sipping spirit, using it in a bloodless rebellion against their baby boomer parents and the cognac they prefer to quaff.

Part of tequila’s longevity and allure lies in its uncanny ability to reinvent itself, and it must be said that the tequila sipped by today’s style set is as far removed from the “lick, sip and suck” rocket fuel once downed at uni parties as a bottle of vintage Grange Hermitage is from a cask chardy.

Tequileros (tequila makers) have been busy improving the taste, quality and experience of tequila in recent decades, and they have been richly rewarded for their efforts. Jose Cuervo for example, the world’s oldest and largest tequila brand, carefully structures its production research and blends time-honoured tradition with forward-thinking innovation. Herradura does much the same, conducting blind tastings with 20 years of samples and evaluating 25 different components in each.

Meanwhile, scientists have found a way to prevent that well-known tequila hangover: they learned that this was caused in part by over-cooking the agave from which the drink was taken, so the tequileros have now been able to eliminate this problem at production. Many tequilas are now extraordinarily refined yet complex, frequently compared with the best scotches, brandies and congnacs, and loved in a similar way.

But with a top-shelf product comes a top-shelf price. Discerning customers of East Sydney’s Café Pacifico, a Mexican cantina that holds the distinction of stocking the largest and broadest range of tequilas in the nation, will pay up to $60 a shot to try from the top end of the bar’s range of 90-plus tequilas (though if they prefer, they can start at a more modest $7 shot). On the other side of the world, bartender to the stars Jacques Bezuidenhout of Harry Denton’s Starlight Room in San Francisco will serve you up his Elegancia cocktail, featuring Herradura Seleccion Suprema anejo (aged) tequila, for a cool $US90.

Café Pacifico’s restaurant manager Mark Large sees up to 800 tequila-drinkers a week and says that while the majority of customers arrive at the bar expecting to knock back cheap tequila shots, increasing numbers of drinkers are learning to appreciate premium quality tequila in a different way.

“People slam down tequila shots because they don’t know there is any other option,” he says. “But generally, when given the choice, they prefer to sip and savour the quality brands. It comes down to education and presentation: if the bartender makes the effort to educate the customer the first time, they are usually converted, and that customer in turn educates their friends.” Large says that during the past three years, public interest in sipping top shelf tequilas has gained increasing momentum, especially among women.

But the growing popularity of premium tequila – and the premium price-tag it now commands – is sparking yet another kind of battle, the fight for our dollar. New Mexican government controls require that to be called “tequila”, the spirit must have undergone a strict distillation process, and be grown and produced only in demarcated regions of Mexico – principally the State of Jalisco where the town of Tequila is found – much as champagne must be produced only in a specific region of France (“appellation controlee”).

Moreover in 2004, the Mexican government outlawed bulk sales of tequila, only approving sales of the product in bottles in order to prevent the drink from becoming increasingly adulterated. While this go was vital for maintaining the quality of the spirit, controversy has ensued. According to the Latin America Press, there were prior to this law more than 250 brands of bottled tequila outside Mexico, and many had nothing to do with the drink’s original ingredients extracted from distilled blue agave. US buyers in particular, who once used to mix, bottle and sell bulk-bought spirits as tequila, are now predominantly excluded from a market that was in 2003 worth $US650 million a year to them. Mexico at that time earned only $US80-90 million in annual tequila sales.

But for the rest of us, whether we choose to shoot, slam or sip it, these measures mean we can increasingly trust in the quality, authenticity and taste of tequila. And like the ancient Aztecs, who worshipped some 400 deities of pulque (thought to represent the 400 different forms that drunkenness could take), we might as well relax and delight in.

So what if the evening is a small bit blurry the next morning? Take a cue from the god Tlacuache, the first drunkard among the Aztec deities, who defied the other gods by giving pulque to the mortals. Tlacuache’s day job was to draw the outline of the rivers, and he started off with excellent intentions tracing straight, sensible lines. But at each village he stopped in for a social pulque or two with the grateful Indians, and before long the rivers became wobbly lines as he staggered on his drunken way. Nobody seemed to mind.

Author Naomi Hulbert is founder and managing director of Urashima Writing Services, an Australian company that provides writing, editing, translation and training services to clients in the corporate sector. Naomi is an experienced journalist, author, radio broadcaster, ghost writer, corporate writer and educational writer, and teaches at the majority of Urashima’s writing workshops. Visit urashima.com.au urashima.com.au

Copyright 2006 – Naomi Hulbert. Reprint rights: you may reprint this article as long as you leave all of the links active, do not edit the article in any way, give author name and credit, and follow all of the EzineArticle terms of service for publishers.

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One Comment on “Tequila: Beauty and Brutality, Bottled”

  • Berger wrote on 14 May, 2010, 0:06

    Thank-you Naomi. This article is very fascinating and informative. Your passion and knowledge about tequila and the intriguing culture / legends that surround it shines through. It was a joy to read. BajaBerger TequilaConnection.com

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