In the past, agave were harvested when the jimadors decided they were ripe enough. This was generally done when the agaves were from eight to ten years old. Jimadors knew, from generations of experience, when the agave was ripest, when it was rich with sugars and ready for harvesting. Today's producers have to be more diligent and use scientific testing to determine when the agave is at its best sugar content - at least 25%. This is usually at its highest in the dry season, just before the rainy season. The rainy season fattens the agaves and dilutes the sugars. However, agave are harvested year round, rather than in any particular season.
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Updated May, 2011
Other Mexican Drinks
Beyond tequila: other agave and related options
Although they're seldom mentioned in the literature about tequila, there are other drinks aside from pulque, mezcal and tequila made from agaves, some even from the blue agave, and some even using tequila, including numerous liqueurs - collectively known as elixir de agave. Some of these are even marked añejo and reposado and may be limited-production, premium drinks.
One regional option is sotol, a form of mezcal made from a different plant: the Dasilyrion, which belongs to the family Nolinaceae. Sotol is made from the Dasylirion wheeleri, D. duranguensis, D. palmeri and D. acotriche, plants, which are short stemmed succulent plants, with large thorns on serrated leaves, which end on a sharp barb and are very similar to the maguey plant, but not an agave.
Sotol is produced in the Mexican northern state of Chihuahua, but is native to the states of Durango, Coahuila and Chihuahua, where the plant is abundant. It is aged six months before bottling.
The Tarahumara and Apache Indians fermented a drink from the syrup of the wild Dasylirion Wheeleri, similar to pulque. The Tarahumara people refer to sotol’s plant as "balilá" or "selé." The plant was also known as sotol. The manufacturing process is very similar to the one used for mezcales; the plant’s core is cooked, fermented and the liquid is then distilled using more or less the same technique described in the making of mezcal.
Sotol can only be made from 100% Dasilyrion sugars. The plant lives in high, cold altitudes and takes 10+ years to mature. The piña is a third smaller than tequila agaves. So far, there is only one commercial brand available; it is aged in oak barrels and named reposado or añejo like tequila. Producers have received a Denomination of Origin like both tequila and mezcal have.
The Polished Palate described Hacienda de Chihuahua sotol as:
The pride of Jose Daumas Gil de Partearroyo, Master Distiller, “Hacienda de Chihuahua” is 100% wild harvested, slow-steam cooked, naturally fermented (with champagne yeasts), double distilled and aged in new French Oak casks from Limoge, France. Its low 76 proof enhances the product’s mixability. The product is 100% pure and organic and packaged in handmade bottling.
Raicilla (rye-see-ya) originates from the state of Jalisco, and is made in the region around Puerto Vallarta. It is made from the agave Inaequidens, commonly known as "lechugilla" or Agave lechuguilla. it is also known as Agave Maximiliana, commonly known as "Pata de Mula" (Mules Foot). Agave Lechugilla is somewhat smaller than the agaves from whcih pulque and tequila are made. This variety of agave is originally from the Sierra Madre Occidental in Jalisco, from the Ameca River to the Cuale River.
Raicilla is made as a craft in towns like Mascota, Talpa, Atenguillo, Mixtlán, Cuautla, San Sebastián del Oeste, Santa Ana, Hostotipaquillo, Mascota, Guachinango, Etzatlan, and Cimarrón Chico de la Raicilla, the town named after the drink. Roadside vendors in these towns or along the highways may sell homemade raicilla.
Raicilla was originally used as the spirit's name in order escape restrictions on alcohol production and the related taxes.
Raicilla has also also turned into a legal brew fairly recently and may be available in some local liquor stores. Destiladora del Real is a legitimate, commercial producer from the mountains above Puerto Vallarta, located in Cimarron Chico in the Municipio of Mascota. The "Producion Limitada" is 72 proof and the "Tradicional" is 80 proof.
Raicilla is made by small distillers and old, traditional methods, in very small quantities. The final product can be consumed straight, chilled, over the rocks, or sometimes with Squirt or some type of grapefruit soda.
Bacanora is a similar regional drink from Sonora, now available commercially (it was legalized in 1992). It is made from a wild agave (the Yaquiano maguey, Agave angustifolia), roasted over a mesquite fire. Bacanora is actually a mezcal, but does not use that name.
Generally it is aged with nuts - almonds, walnuts or pine nuts.
Making bacanora was illegal in Mexico until 1992, when the government changed the laws. However, it is still made as moonshine there. Today it is available regionally only in small quantities, and may be as high as 92 proof. Since 2000, it has had its own Denomination of Origin.
From the Bacanora of Sonora Web site:
Bacanora, called "vitzo" o "cuviso", by the Opata natives, has been likened to the finest distilled liquors in the word. Thanks to the Sonoran climate and terrain, it currently holds an important place among characteristic Mexican drinks, such as tequila from Jalisco, Sotol from Chihuahua, or mezcal from Oaxaca.
For legal, geographical or production reasons, a company may be forced to - or simply decide to - make a 100% blue agave product, but not call it tequila.
Agava is a triple distilled, 100% blue agave spirit made in the Republic of South Africa. It comes in a blanco and a gold, aged three months in oak barrels. There is no equivalent to an añejo. Yet.
Agava uses blue agave that were brought to South Africa in the last century and grew wild. The Karoo area now has millions of them. Entrepreneurs in South Africa realized their potential during the Mexican agave shortage of the late 1990s. They went to Mexico to learn how to make tequila, then built a distillery around Graff-Reinet. Production of their agave spirit began in 2003.
Because of international laws and trade agreements, they could not call their product tequila, although they claim it is identical. Instead, they had to call it an 'agave spirit.' They can, however, label it as 100% blue agave.
Agava's producers claim their product is as good as, if not better than, tequila. Whether or not this is true, Agava and other agave spirits made outside Mexico - generally selling at a lower price point than premium tequilas - might confuse the consumer and challenge tequila makers in the marketplace for shelf space.
Porfidio, a producer with a colourful history and not a few confrontations with Mexican authorities, has apparently changed from making tequila to making agave spirits, which are allegedly distilled agave from South Africa.
Other, often locally-produced agave spirits can be found on sale in Mexico. The picture of the Mi Pueblo bottles shows one found in Zihuatanejo, in Guerrero state.
Tequilas de la Doña took a novel approach to creating a series of new products which they call an "elixir de agave." While an 'elixir de agave' is still a 100% blue agave product, and made for the most part in the same, traditional manner as a tequila, it is not exactly a tequila, with different blending, aging (6-24 months depending on style) and a lower (34%-37%) alcohol content than tequila. It is not flavoured with anything but the natural blue agave product. The result is a smooth, velvety product that can compete head-to-head with many premium tequilas. It can be sipped neat or used in margaritas. Among their elixir line are El Capricho, El Duende, Don Maximiliano and Reserva del Emperador.
As the company's Web site reports, "Beyond an exhaustive search for a new and redefined agave product, the Elixir de Agave raised as a new alternative in excellence that really takes advantage of the generous and delicious flavour of the Blue Agave. "
This is one example of a tequila company voluntarily deciding to rename one of its 100% agave products, rather than being forced to do so by the CRT.
American producer J. B. Wagoner grew blue agave around his California home, then created Skyrocket Distillery to make an agave spirit from it, which he called Temequila. The CRT complained that the name was too close to "tequila" and violated several trade agreements that protected tequila's denomination of origin. Wagoner was forced to rename his product to "100% Blue Agave Spirits."
As Sean Pager, Associate Professor of Law at the University of Seattle, wrote of the name issue,
When is tequila not tequila? Answer: when it’s produced in the United States. J.B. Wagoner learned this lesson the hard way when he began selling an alcoholic spirit distilled from the fermented juice of the blue agave plants grown on his 25-acre property in Temecula, California. Blue agave is the same cactus-like succulent from which tequila is made in Mexico, and Wagoner followed essentially the same distillation process as the Mexicans. However, tequila is a protected geographical indication (GI).1 Only blue agave spirits produced in Jalisco and a few neighboring counties in Mexico can be legally sold under that name.2 Because Wagoner’s blue agave was grown and distilled outside this designated region, he was legally barred from selling his product as “tequila.”
Mixed drinks and flavored tequilas
New flavoured tequila liqueurs and mixers have been available since 2006 when the laws changed to allow them. These actually use real tequila, as approved by the CRT. Many companies now offer infused and flavoured tequilas in many varieties. Some sites that offer flavoured tequilas include:
Another recent entry is the mix of juice and sweetener, or with pop with tequila to make a low-alcohol (around 5%) drink to compete with beer. Usually served cold. El Ausente, right, for example, is such a product, from El Agave. Herradura has its own line, called New Mix.
One of the more popular brands of tequila, 1921, produced the first Cream Tequila available. It has a similar in taste and body to Bailey's Irish Cream, but with an agave flavour. "1921 Tequila Cream is loaded with bold coffee latte, caramel & wild flower honey aromas which follow through to cocoa, latte and agave flavors. It has a roasted nutty tequila fade", reports the Beverage Tasting Institute.
However, the cream liqueur market is in decline and forays into it are fraught with risk. Tia Lusso, a coffee-cream liqueur, was launched in 2002, with a $20 million promotion campaign. But the cream liqueur market fell, dropping 9 % in 2005 alone, so the company axed the product in early 2006.
See the page on types for more information on flavoured tequilas.
Tlahuelompa is distilled from fermented blue agave syrup, in Hidalgo state. Charanda is an aguardiente made from fermented cane sugar.
Aguamiel - agave nectar or syrup - is available as a drink in some areas, sometimes fermented, sometimes mixed with various fruit juices.
In March, 2000, the Mexican Institute for Intellectual Property started to evaluate getting Denomination of Origin (AOC) certificates for charanda, comiteco and bacanora, but only bacanora has received its AOC to date.
Growing in popularity, tequila liqueurs offer an interesting and enjoyable addition to your liquor cabinet. They often mix agave with fruit juices like pomegranate or other flavours like coffee. Probably the easiest to find is the venerable Agavero, produced since 1857, in its distinctive bottle shaped like an agave plant, made with agave tequila and damiana liqueur (which is also available as its own liqueur). Agavero is produced by Los Camichines Distillery, better know for its Gran Centenario tequila, and blends reposado and añejo tequilas into the liqueur.
There are other tequila-based liqueurs available including Patron's
XO Cafe that marries dark coffee and dark chocolate flavors with
tequila. Tequilas del Señor makes Reserva del Señor Licor de Cafe,
another coffee-tequila blend.
And of course don't overlook mezcals - many regional spirits are simply called "mezcal" from long tradition but may also have local names. If you have a chance to buy a premium mezcal like a Del Maguey single-village brand, make sure you avail yourself of the opportunity. You can also look for some local mezcals - they are usually worth a try, but may only be available in limited supply through local bars or restaurants.
Several mixed drinks have appeared on the shelves suggesting a Mexican theme, or a tequila-based product. Many of these are not tequila-based, but rather use agave nectar for flavor. They appear to be attempting to ride the coattails of tequila's success, or in the wake of growing popularity of Mexican products in general.
Tequiza, positioned as a a beer-tequila mix is a beer made with agave nectar and lime, from Anheuser-Busch. Released in 1999 as a counterpoint to the growing popularity of Mexican beers in the US market, Anheuser-Busch celebrated Tequiza's first nine months on the market by announcing the beer is its most successful non-brand extension introduction ever and that it has exceeded all expectations. In 1999, Information Resources Inc., which tracks supermarket sales, ranked Tequiza as one of the top four best-selling high-end beers in supermarkets and put Tequiza in the top 30 list of best-selling beers in supermarkets.
Initial problems identifying tequila in the product were reported in Food & Drink Weekly, Oct. 19, 1998:
This no doubt led to the change in description to agave syrup instead of tequila. But Tequiza's initial success does not seem to have continued, although sales figures are hard to find. A report in the Milwaukee Journal, Jan. 4, 2002, said,
The brand's initial sales exceeded expectations. But that hot sales growth quickly cooled, and a product extension, Tequiza Extra, disappeared quickly after its launch in 2000.
Tequiza hasn't always had favourable reviews. At Ratebeer.com, it got a "1" out of a possible 10.
Another entry in the beer-tequila product category is Dave's Mexi-Quila Stinger, made by Canada's Molson's Brewery. This promised the "natural flavours of golden tequila" but it does not state which (if any) brand is actually used. Or if "tequila flavour" means tequila or just something that tastes like tequila - usually agave syrup. Although tequila is not a natural product, the label claims to have "natural golden tequila flavours." Since golden tequila usually means mixto, any tequila in here is not likely a quality product. It also says it has "blue agave nectar." The drink is actually not too bad - it tastes like unsweetened lemonade, or perhaps a very watered-down margarita. It does not, however, taste significantly of tequila.
In 2003, the Association of Canadian Distillers took exception to products that suggested spirits but lacked them in practice. Their letter said in part,
We note, for example, that the marketing practices of a number of malt beverages available for sale in Canada convey the impression to consumers of the use and presence of distilled spirits where none is used. Examples of these deceptive practices include labels and label statements for:
a similar vein, Salitos, a Brazilian beer, advertises itself as the "original tequila
beer." As its Web site notes: "SALITOS Tequila Flavoured Beer is a
classic bottom-fermented premium lager, refined with natural flavours of
lime and tequila.
However, nowhere is the brand of tequila or its type identified, and the description as "tequila-flavoured" does not necessarily mean tequila is an ingredient. As in similar products, it may just be agave syrup. Or perhaps just artificial flavors.