History, lore and business meet in spirited drink from Mexico A taste of Tequila

December 26, 1993|By Suzanne Murphy-Larronde | Suzanne Murphy-Larronde,Contributing Writer

Sometime during the 1960s, so the story goes, the Mexican government launched a campaign to promote its fabulous array of regional foods and beverages. Out of the cook-offs and contests surrounding the hoopla came a tasty concoction called the margarita -- and with it respectability and an international audience for the drink's main ingredient, tequila.

Until that time, Mexico's favorite firewater was known and appreciated largely within its own borders, where it was once sold under-the-counter in hardware stores. The preferred drink of macho men, it was (and still is) customarily dispatched in a single shot with lemon and salt on the side. In its savory, if somewhat sissified reincarnation, these basic ingredients remain with the soothing addition of Cointreau and crushed ice. Served up in long-stemmed, swimming-pool-size glasses, the trendy Margarita is now regular fare in clubs and restaurants from Brussels to Tokyo.

With a history that dates back hundreds of years, tequila is steeped in the lore and legend of Jalisco, one of Mexico's wealthiest states. No one can say for sure when the drink became synonymous with the town of Tequila, located 40 miles northwest of the state capital, Guadalajara, but early in this century an association between the two was already being made in the United States. Tequila is still very big business in this small rural community where most of the 30,000 inhabitants claim some connection to the industry. No less than 31 distilleries base their operations here, generating a combined annual output of ,, nearly 65 million gallons destined for both national and international consumption.

A trip to Tequila, located 5,500 feet above sea level on Mexico's spectacular Central Plateau, takes visitors through a vast, undulating carpet of spiked, blue agave known to growers as agave tequilana Weber. A native of Jalisco, it is the only variety of many hundreds in the maguey or century-plant family from which tequila is traditionally derived. Mexico's two lesser-known beverages, the once-sacred, mildly alcoholic pulque and the potent mezcal, are made from still different types of maguey which thrive in other areas and possess their own characteristic flavors.

The spectacular region surrounding Tequila, with its subtropical climate and rich, red soil, furnishes ideal growing conditions for the sharp-leaved blue agave. One volcanic acre alone can support up to 1,200 plants in various stages of growth, making it the area of greatest cultivation in all Mexico. Long, dry winter months, broken by spring rains and periods of intense summer heat, make up its weather cycle, which is credited with yielding the world's sweetest agave sap.

The Amatiteco Indians, inhabitants of the region known today as Guadalajara, were already making a form of tequila from the fermented juices of the blue agave when Franciscan fathers arrived in 1530. Before long, the Spaniards had added their distilling expertise to the process and the age of modern-day manufacture was on its way.

The new, improved tequila, more powerful than the original brew, soon gained a wide following within New Spain, despite strong opposition from the Catholic Church. Further innovations in cultivation, harvesting and preparation were made during the 18th and 19th centuries, with the rise of large producers like Sauza and Cuervo, still prominent names in the tequila industry today.

Tequila Orendain, the other leader in national sales and exports, also maintains its base in Tequila. And like other prominent tequila families, these transplanted Basques have passed down closely guarded trade secrets through several generations. Their state-of-the-art operation is typical of the way many firms go about the business of manufacturing this brew. Field workers begin the year-round hand harvesting each day at dawn and by noon have collected about 60 tons. Each plant's pulpy spikes are then hacked away, revealing an 80- to 175-pound inner core known as a "pina," so-called because of its close resemblance to a pineapple.

At the distillery, the pinas are chopped in pieces and roasted in huge steam ovens, a process which converts their starch-rich pulp into natural sugars. Next, the juice is extracted and siphoned into stainless-steel tanks where yeasts and other sugars are added for four days of fermentation. Filtration and two back-to-back distillations follow, leaving the final product devoid impurities, a colorless, odorless, 80-proof liquor that is ready 00 for bottling.

At Orendain's squeaky clean, multimillion-dollar operation, workers wear uniforms and yellow hard hats when going about their rounds. In an adjoining laboratory, men and women garbed in white and armed with university degrees in tequila engineering, routinely test for product quality, purity and taste.

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