Great news! If you happen to be one of those people who made it into adulthood saying things like, "No thanks. I had a bad night with tequila once in college," you're no longer dead to us. You've been upgraded to "misinformed object of our derision."
To be fair, you probably did have a bad night from over-imbibing tequila in your youth. But what you had was tequila by legal definition only—that is to say, the type of uniquely bad tequila that only a budget-minded boozer can afford.
"Those rough nights were as much the result of too much sugar as they were too much alcohol," explains Katie Harnichar, bartender at El Carnicero and Super Chango Tequileria in Lakewood. "Tequilas like Jose Cuervo Gold can be made from as little as 51 percent agave nectar, with the rest of the distillate coming from caramel additive." Or to put it differently: The alcohol might have given you the headache, but the cheap additives are what gave you the sugar shits (which we're sure must come as a relief).
What is tequila?
Bad tequila starts out just like good tequila: as slowly growing agave plants in Mexico. For a full 10 years, the plants bide their time in the ground, all the while swelling with precious nectar, hoping for the opportunity to one day flower, reproduce, and die.
And those are the lucky ones. Agave plants used for tequila production are snipped at the bud, causing their nectar production to accelerate. All told, a single agave can produce as many as 250 gallons of the stuff before it is harvested. Its heart, or piña, is then harvested, resembling an artichoke the size of a large dog. But we're not ready to make booze yet.
"Because agave nectar is mostly fructose, it needs a little help before it will ferment," Harnichar said. "Some producers create massive in-ground fire pits, ones that wouldn't look out of place at a pig roast, and roast the agave heart before extracting the nectar." This creates plenty of glucose for the yeast and imparts a smoky flavor that can stay with the distillate throughout the entire process.
From there, the agave is fermented with yeast to become pulque, an agave beer in the four-to-seven percent ABV range, before it's distilled, diluted, sometimes convoluted, and aged to achieve one of the following designations:
Blanco – clear, 100-percent agave nectar, aged for less than two months
Gold/Mixto – less than 100-percent agave nectar with added caramel coloring
Reposado – light brown, 100-percent agave nectar, aged between two months and one year
Anjeo – brown, 100-percent agave nectar, aged for at least one year
What isn't tequila?
"All tequilas are mezcals but not all mezcals are tequilas," Harnichar explains. The term mezcal describes all agave-derived spirits, she says, "but only mezcals distilled in the protected region around Jalisco using the blue agave plant can be called tequilas."
To borrow a term from wine enthusiasts, think of Acquila as "mezcal with terroir:" You can taste the geography and climate of the agave in every sip. In pechuga mezcal, one such variant, you can also taste the raw, skinless chicken breast that's included in the still. Yes, we're serious. Supposedly it's really good.
What about the worm?
An agave worm is never included in tequilas, but it is sometimes included in mezcals. "If I had to guess," Harnichar surmises, "this started by accident decades ago at a low-rent mezcal operation and became a wildly successful marketing gimmick. It does nothing for the flavor." Nor does it induce hallucinations.