There are many origin stories about the birth of tequila. Local legend has it that an agave plant on the hillside of Volcan de Tequila was struck by lighting, and the local tribe drank the smoked nectar, taking it as a blessing from the goddess of agave Mayahuel, and continuing to cultivate it from that moment onward.
Others point to the Spanish, who opened the first large-scale distillery in the early 1600s in what is now the city of Tequila in Jalisco.
It’s hard to nail down an exact time frame when the first tequileros (tequila makers) perfected the distilling process for blue agave to create the iconic spirit now enjoyed all over the world, but most historians trace the birth of the modern tequila we known today to sometime in the sixteenth century.
Tequila is a type of mezcal, a spirit made from the agave plant, which is native to several regions of Mexico. Unlike mezcal, however, tequila can only be made from one type of agave: agave tequilana weber, blue agave, and legally it can only be called “tequila” if the plants are grown in Guanajuato, Michoacán, Nayarit, Tamaulipas, or Jalisco.
The area where the blue agave is grown makes a difference, the same way that terroir affects wine.
The processes are a little different as well. Tequila is frequently steamed rather than roasted, like mezcal, so even though the spirits are made from the same plant, the taste can be completely different.
Most tequila can be broken up into four categories: blanco, reposado, añejo, and extra añejo.
Blanco or plata (white or silver) tequila is bottled or stored immediately after it has been distilled, or it can be aged in stainless steel or neutral oak for a maximum of two months.
Reposado (rested, in Spanish) is aged more than two months but less than a year.
Añejo is aged between one and three years, while extra añejo must be aged for more than three years.
Like wine, tequila mellows over time, so silver or white tequila has a harsher flavor, while the aged tequilas are smoother and more complex, taking on flavors from the barrels they are aged in.
Tequila is sold in both 100% agave versions as well as mixtos, which legally allows a bottle to be sold as tequila, as long as there is still at least 51% agave in the spirit. Typically, the rest is sugar, and the resulting drink is not comparable to the pure agave version.
True tequila is generally consumed neat in Mexico, with no lime or salt in sight. And this is the best way to explore the nuanced flavors of the various regions and aging categories.
That said, there are two cocktails that deserve special mention.
“We all know the quintessential tequila drink is the Margarita. Its orange and lime notes are a natural fit for the vegetal flavor profile of this agave spirit,” explained Stephen Kurpinsky, bar director at Hundred Proof in North Park.
“In Mexico, it's even more common to see the paloma cocktail, which usually features grapefruit soda,” he said. “I wanted to create a paloma that spoke to our collective craft ethos, using fresh ingredients, yet still invoked the flavor of that classic, Mexican version.”
Making a local, craft version of this classic drink turned out to be harder than expected. “A few years back, when I first tried Giffard's Pamplemousse liqueur, it all came together,” Kurpinsky said. “Splitting an ounce between the pamplemousse and fresh grapefruit juice was the key, then I added just a hint of citric acid to make the drink pop, like the squirt soda does to the original.”
Good tequila makes great cocktails, but the best way to experience the history and terroir of our region’s most iconic liquor is to sip your way through an unadorned flight.
Lucky for us, San Diego has no shortage of places to do so, from the swanky new temple of agave, Tahona Bar in Old Town, to North Park’s hole-in-the-wall Cantina Mayahuel, which has a collection of nearly 250 tequilas behind the bar.