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The 411 on Tequila

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Forget licking your hand. Tequila connoisseurs prefer theirs without crutches, served straight up in a two-ounce caballito glass. Mexican tequila is the source of legend, myths and mistruths. Most of them, including the worm, sprouted from clever marketing ideas.

Tequila might be North America's first distilled beverage. When the Spanish conquistadors overran Mexico several hundred years ago, the soldiers looked for produce containing sugar that they could distill for alcohol. The indigenous people already used the agave plant to produce a drink known as pulque. This drink, sometimes confused with tequila, is fermented, not distilled, and is similar to beer. But the Spanish figured it would work and distilled the first batch of agave wine, which they called vino mezcal since the natives called the agave plant mezcal.

The agave is a large succulent that looks like a giant aloe plant or Spanish sword plant with its long spiky leaves. The agave is a member of the lily family and is not, as is commonly thought, a cactus. The blue agave, or agave azul tequilana weber, originally grew in reddish volcanic soil at the foot of a volcano near the town of Tequila. Legend has it that the gods split the plant open so the villagers could drink the sugary sap.

At the base of an eight-year-old agave plant is a core, which after cutting away the leaves looks something like a mammoth pineapple and weighs between 40 and 70 pounds (it can grow to more than 200 pounds if not harvested). This pineapple, or piña, is split and roasted. Traditionally, Mexicans used clay ovens, but today large distilleries use steam ovens or autoclavs. The heat turns the starch in the piña into sugar.

Once roasted, the piñas are mashed, shredded or pounded by stone to release the juice, which is placed in a vat, sometimes with strands of fiber to enhance the flavor. Yeast is added and the solution is fermented for three to four days. Then the agave juice is distilled twice and produces clear tequila.

What's the difference between tequila and mezcal? The confusion comes from the names since Mexicans refer to the blue agave plant as mezcal. Tequila is a city. The liquor tequila comes from the blue agave plant, and according to Mexican law can only be produced in designated areas, primarily the state of Jalisco in west-central Mexico. Some tequila-producing cities are Tequila, Guadalajara, El Arenal and Amatitán. Mexican law dictates that tequila must contain at least 51 percent blue agave grown in these designated areas. Some tequilas are 100-percent blue agave.

Mezcal is made from the agave plant, too, but distillers may use different varieties (136 species of agave are found in Mexico). Historically, mezcal comes from Oaxaca, a southern state. It was traditionally made from a slow-roasted piña in a rock-lined pit, which gave the alcohol a smokier flavor. Mezcal is the drink in which you'll sometimes find a worm -- actually, a moth caterpillar. The red caterpillar is from the interior of the plant, and the white one is found on the leaves. One misconception about mezcal is that it contains mescaline. It does not. Mescaline comes from the peyote cactus.

The first farmer to cultivate blue agave was José Antonio Cuervo, in 1758. That year, the King of Spain gave Cuervo land for his first plantation. A century later, the Cuervo company was selling 10,000 barrels of tequila in Jalisco's capitol city alone. Today, Cuervo is the world's largest tequila manufacturer.

Tequila comes in five categories. Blanco tequila is clear and has not been aged. This tequila is traditionally the choice for mixed drinks. The new second category is the flavored tequila, such as Cuervo's Oranjo, Citrico and Tropina. Gold tequila is clear tequila that has been colored and flavored with caramel. Reposado is aged in wooden casks for at least two months. Quality brands may age their tequilas nine months. Smooth-tasting Añejo, "old," tequila is aged in wooden barrels, sometimes old Bourbon barrels or French oak, for a minimum of 12 months to up to four years.

Some producers go a third round of distilling to smooth out the fiery edges of their tequila. One example is Casa Noble Reposado tequila, which is triple distilled.

Reading the label is key to purchasing tequila. The label will list the alcohol content, which should range between 38 percent and 55 percent; the type, such as Reposado; and whether or not it is 100-percent agave. If the latter is not listed, you can count on the contents being a blend of different agave plants, or mixto. The numerals beside "NOM" refer to the distiller (not all brands are distilled on site) and "CRT" means the distilling process of the company has been certified by the Tequila Regulatory Council.

When you lick your salted hand, down a shot of tequila and then bite into a lime, it is referred to as Hollywood-style tequila drinking. Traditionally, tequila is accompanied by a sangrita chaser, a mix of tomato and orange juices, salt, and chilies. Premium tequila is sipped slowly and served at room temperature. Glassware varies from shot-style to stemware.

Cinco de Mayo has become a popular day to consume tequila in the US. However, more restaurants are offering a selection of tequilas year-round as well listing creative tequila cocktails on their bar menus.

Have a restaurant tip, compliment, complaint? Does your restaurant or shop have news, menu changes, new additions, upcoming cuisine or wine events? Note: We need notice of events at least 12 days in advance. Fax information to Eaters' Digest: 704-944-3605, or leave voice mail: 704-522-8334, ext. 136. To contact Tricia via e-mail: tricia.childress@creativeloafing.com.

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