- The Aztecs were the first to distill agave to make tequila and mezcal.
- Tequila is made by steaming, and mezcal is made by roasting piñas.
- Mezcal uses different types of agave.
- The pulque survived globalization and came back as one of Mexico’s most popular drinks today.
Mexico is a country renowned for its vibrant culture and rich history, and this extends to its world-famous liquors. There are various types of Mexican drinks – from tequila to mezcal. These spirits have been a part of Mexican culture for centuries. What’s more, their popularity continues to grow across the globe even today!
If you want to know some famous Mexican liquor brands and cocktails featuring these spirits, you’re in the right place. In this article, we’ll take a closer look at the fascinating history and culture behind some of the most popular Mexican liquors.
- Tequila – The Spirit of Mexico
- Mezcal – The Smoky Spirit
- Pulque – The Oldest Mexican Spirit
- Final Words: The Rich History of Mexican Alcohol
Tequila – The Spirit of Mexico
The history of tequila is as old as time. Aztec Indians produced a fermented agave juice in 250-300 A.D. that they used as ceremonial wine.
Aztec culture revolved around two main gods: Mayahuel, the goddess of the Maguey, and Patecatl, her husband, the god of pulque. Both of them were always depicted amidst alcohol and held a strong connection to liquor.
But, it wasn’t until 200 A.D. that the Spanish conquered the Aztec Empire and popularized the drink. Fast-forward to 1758, we have the Cuervo family – the first to commercially distill tequila. In fact, the present-day tequila we enjoy now is made in some of those distilleries.
Traditionally made of blue agave, tequila remains part of today’s pop culture.
If you’re wondering where tequila got its name from, it’s actually a tribute to the town it was first produced in. Santiago de Tequila is a Mexican town in the state of Jalisco, around 60 km from Guadalajara, where the ever-popular tequila was first “discovered” as a tasteful drink.
To preserve the almost-natural treasure of tequila, the Mexican government declared tequila an intellectual property in 1974. This made it illegal for other states to produce and distribute tequila as their brand. That is why Jalisco is the Mexican state with the most tequila!
How Is Tequila Made?
To produce a batch of tequila, brands use the agave plant, also known as maguey, a cactus-like plant. Here is how the process goes:
Choosing the Right Agave
When it is ripe, the agave or the piña can weigh up to 200 pounds. Ripe agave produces superb-quality tequila that’s sugary and slips on the tongue.
Some distillers, however, prefer to make tequila when the agave is still not ripe. Others use it when the plant is overripe. This allows them to experiment with the flavor of the tequila, as differently ripe agave will yield different tequila essences.
For instance, underripe agave will deliver not-so-complex flavors with hints of vegetal notes. On the other hand, overripe agave delivers sweeter, all-around, full-bodied tequila. The massive difference in flavors is that overripe agaves produce acids that influence the complexity and flavor of the tequila, adding a hint of vinegar-like traces.
Processing the Agave
After selecting the agaves, they are processed (cut) for cooking. To follow a traditional recipe, distillers use a steam-heated oven that slow-cooks the agave for a whole day or two. The process allows the agave’s juices to blend nicely together, cooking at low heat to deliver the all-known taste of tequila.
After the cooking part is done, the batch is left to cool down for 16 to 48 hours to finalize the process. However, only a handful of distilleries follow this recipe today.
Because technology has advanced today, distilleries have swapped tradition for efficiency and have begun using autoclaves – massive stainless steel tubes with a sealable door on one end. Simply put, these are gigantic pressure cookers that cook the agave in just a few hours.
Noteworthy Tequila Brands and Their Distinct Characteristics
Today, many tequila brands come from different sides of the world. But you haven’t tasted tequila until you have tried genuine Mexican tequila. Below we give you some of the top 3 tequila brands, along with their unique traits.
Being one of the most popular and renowned tequila brands, Don Nachno has been run by the same family harvesting agaves for over two generations. In fact, they are among the top largest tequila manufacturers in Mexico.
A bottle of Don Nacho tequila is made of agave only, with no additives. This only tells you about the premium quality of this Mexican liquor.
Don Nacho makes two lines of tequila: Premiere and Extra Premiere. The first one includes Blanco and Reposado, and the latter boasts Blanco, Reposado, Anejo and Extra Anejo.
La Cava de Don Samuel
The picturesque town of Atotonilco in Jalisco is home to an outstanding line of tequila. La Cava de Don Samuel is one of the largest commercial distilleries. In 2007, the brand launched a special line of Reposado tequila of approximately 10,000 Mexican liquor bottles!
Made from agave only, the famed Reposado tequila unveils aromas of vanilla, butterscotch, and cherry, among other sense pleasers. As far as flavors go, you can taste almonds, oak, vanilla and licorice, among others.
A fun fact about this Reposado batch is that there are few available bottles on the market, so tasting this particular Mexican liquor can be quite a triumph.
Fortaleza is one of the few companies today that stick to tradition and deliver supreme batches of tequila slow-cooked in brick ovens. They practice crushing the agaves with stones – yet another tradition linked to century-old tequila-making practices.
Fortaleza is a household name in the world of tequila that uses nothing more than agave to deliver smooth yet pungent tequila bearing hints of black pepper, olive, and vanilla. You can indulge your senses in genuine Mexican tequila and be able to say you’ve tasted one of the world’s best Mexican liquors.
An interesting thing about this tequila brand is that they use hand-blown Mexican liquor bottles for their Blanco, making the drink even more unique!
Traditional Drinks and Cocktails Made With Tequila
Even though tequila is best known as a margarita ingredient, this Mexican liquor is so versatile that it’s become an irreplaceable ingredient in many delicious cocktails. For one, tequila is the starring ingredient in traditional Mexican drinks such as the Mexican Mule and the Paloma.
Other than the typical, neat shot of tequila, you can enjoy a cup of tequila-spiked coffee, a Mexican coffee liquor that’s becoming a trend across Europe.
You’ll also find tequila in sour cocktails such as Tequila Sour and Bloody Maria (a tribute to Bloody Mary). Other traditional drinks and cocktails made with tequila include the following:
- Ranch Water
- El Diablo
- Tequila Sunrise
Mezcal – The Smoky Spirit
The origin of mezcal is surrounded by two unusual stories. The first one revolves around the ancient Aztecs. As we mentioned earlier, agave was very precious to the Aztecs. It is believed that one day, a lightning bolt struck an agave plant and turned it into mezcal, giving it its distinct smoky hint. Because of this fable, the Aztecs called the plant the elixir de los dioses, or the elixir of the gods.
According to another story, the mezcal appeared after the Spaniards conquested the Aztecs. It was at the beginning of the 1500’ when the Spanish took over the area now known as Oaxaca. When they settled the area, they brought plenty of supplies – alcohol being one among them.
As time passed by, they were running out of it, so they were trying to find an alternative. It is believed the Spanish taught the Aztecs the art of distilling, which is how the mezcal came into the picture.
Regardless of what story you choose to be historically accurate, it wouldn’t take away from the fact that mezcal is an inseparable part of Mexican history and culture. Today, every type of gathering has toasting with a mezcal.
Types of Agave Used in Mezcal: An Abundance of Flavors
To make mezcal, distilleries use several different types of agave, each contributing to distinct flavors and aftertaste. Some of these different kinds are detailed below.
Espadín is a type of agave that’s most commonly used to produce mezcal. This is a plant with long, sword-like, harsh leaves that come out from the piña. You can notice it all over Mexico; because of this, it’s the primary agave for making mezcal.
The Mexican liquor made from this agave is mildly sweet, with herbal and citrus undertones of flavor.
Tobala or popularly referred to as the king of the agaves, is an amazingly rare type of agave that isn’t suited for asexual reproduction. That is why it relies heavily on bats and birds to reproduce.
Unlike the espadín, the tobala has a sweeter taste. It can sometimes have a floral trace, while other times, it accentuates a more spiced taste.
Tepextate is another agave type used to produce mezcal. It mainly grows around the Oaxaca and Guerrero area in southern Mexico.
Opposite to tobala or espadíin, this kind of agave is rarer and has very little sugar content, making the tequila creation process more difficult. Namely, more plant is needed to produce a small batch. What’s more interesting, and contributing to this, is that tepextate can take nearly 25 years to mature.
Flavor-wise, tepextate is richer in fruity flavors. But it does have a tinge of spice and even cinnamon notes.
How Is Mezcal Made?
As we mentioned, it takes a special kind of agave to make mezcal. Mainly mezcal is mostly produced in southern Mexico, in Oaxaca. While tequila is made from blue agave, mezcal can be produced from thirty different types of agave.
First, agaves are harvested and cut into quarters. To make the tequila tasty, harvesters only use the center of the agave (the piña) and roast the chunks in coal and rock pits, so all the juices are extracted.
After this, distilleries that employ a traditional method use horse-driven, stone-grinding mills to crush the piñas. Some distilleries mill the piñas by hand, but that’s a rare occurrence since the majority of brands have switched to mechanical manufacturing.
When it comes to the distilling process, distillers mix the agave juice with water and place it in clay pots below the ground to ferment. This is how mezcal gets its smoky flavor. However, the intensity of it depends on whether this Mexican liquor was made in clay or copper pots. Namely, clay pots give a more earthy taste, whereas copper gives smoother notes.
Popular Mezcal Brands and Their Unique Characteristics
The popularity of mezcal has grown substantially over the last decade, not only in Mexico but globally, too. The reason behind the popularity of this Mexican liquor lies in the many flavor profiles, ranging from the agave species to the terroir, and the manner the mezcalero chooses to cook, ferment and ultimately distill the plant.
Since mezcal is so popular among liquor connoisseurs, it’s only natural there are so many mezcal brands. Below, we’ll take a closer look at our top three picks.
QuiQuiRiQui Mezcal delivers one of the best Mexican liquor drinks. The brand uses the espadín agave type without aging it to create mezcal. On the nose, the mezcal is decadent, resembling a fine chardonnay.
The hint of vanilla and other complementing flavors add to the overall complexity of the drink, leaving no bland and unimpressed notes. The top tinge is caramel, which is a fan-favorite flavor among seasoned mezcal aficionados.
Del Maguey Chichicapa
This brand is known to deliver luxury in every sip. Del Maguey Chichicapa is one of the household names in the mezcal world. It is also one of the oldest mezcal manufacturers in Mexico.
The brand originates from San Balthazar and uses 100% pure espadín agave. They cook the piñas with different woods, including eucalyptus. The result is an outstanding mezcal boasting rich, sweet, herbal notes on the nose, gently shifting to peppery, earthy flavors.
This brand focuses on the biodiversity of the agave in each Mexican region. The Derrumbes Oaxaca is an intriguing blend of espadín and tobala agave, boasting subtle smokiness that’s just enough to tickle your senses. On the nose, the mezcal is rich in minerality, gracefully wrapped in jasmine, and has a touch of sweetness with an herbal twist at the end.
Traditional Drinks and Cocktails Made With Mezcal
Other than being enjoyed as a standalone liquor, mezcal makes a great addition to a number of cocktails for any palate. You can try any Mexican liquor store, pick up a bottle of mezcal and make some cocktails on your own. Some of the most popular ones containing mezcal are the following:
- Mezcal Margarita
- Mezcal Mule
- Mezcal Negroni
- Strawberry Mezcal Mojito
Pulque – The Oldest Mexican Spirit
Both tequila and mezcal’s history is closely related to the Aztecs. The same is with the pulque. However, some documents also place the origin of the pulque in the ancient Otomi civilization. That is not taken as a set-in-stone view simply because there is archeological evidence that has proven that this spirit has been used years before that.
The general belief is that the story of pulque begins with the Aztecs, who considered this beverage sacred. They would dedicate pulque to the gods and their earth-bound priests.
The sacredness of the pulque found many uses in rituals and medicine. In general, pulque was known as the beverage of the brave. It used to be served as a festive drink to the wise and brave whenever they experienced success.
However, some believed that this sacred drink was also given to the priests. They mainly used it during the old ritualistic sacrifices – some were given to the priest and the rest to those offered to the gods as part of the ritual.
How Is Pulque Made?
As a traditional Mexican alcoholic beverage, pulque is the process of fermenting fresh sap, popularly known as aguamiel or mead. The sap is extracted from a few different agave species that thrive around central Mexico.
In essence, a traditional pulque recipe starts with castrating maguey, scraping and extracting aguamiel, prepping the seed and fermenting the pulque. It’s interesting that the extraction process has remained the same, without going through any alterations from the pre-Hispanic period.
Taste-wise, many will say it gives off the flavor of chalk and kombucha, with a texture that’s off-white and gooey, resembling oysters. But this is traditional pulque.
Nowadays, if you visit any pulqueria (naturally, by being of legal age to drink in Mexico), you’ll be presented with a menu of flavor choices to pair with your pulque base. This base is usually made of strawberries, nuts, almonds, bananas and almost every local fruit you can think of.
The Rise and Fall of Pulque: How Did It Almost Lose Its Heritage?
Even though pulque has been produced and enjoyed for thousands of years, the 20th century was a turning point for the beverage.
The pulque was Mexico’s pride and joy until a foreign influence stirred the waters. As we said, pulque was an inseparable part of Mexican culture, with pulquerias popping up on almost every corner of Mexico City, Oaxaca and Hidalgo. In these places, pulque agaves were the most abundant, driving the area’s economy to the fullest.
However, as time passed and trends changed, a lot of Europeans came to Mexico and brought upon a change the locals weren’t so fond of. Before that, you could see posters of a man leading a donkey carrying traditional Mexican ceramic jugs full of pulque plastered on almost every wall. But since the emergence of Europeans in Mexican land, things started to go south — the pulque was facing extinction.
When Europeans immigrated to newly independent Mexico in the final years of the 19th century, slowly, beer started replacing pulque. The immigrants started running their own breweries, luring the locals towards the trends of Europe. It wasn’t long before this alcohol from Mexico was considered unsanitary – such notions almost ruined the millennia-old Mexican tradition.
Coming Back Up
Luckily, things started to look up for pulque. Against all odds, pulquerias still persisted, especially around Garibaldi Square in Mexico City. Even today, you can find mariachis in small buffets still serving the pride of Mexico.
The fact of the matter is – agave isn’t going anywhere, as Mexico is filled with it. The massive agave farms gracing the Mexican land are there to serve as a reminder of the nation’s legacy. Having a rich culture and still holding a sense of tradition, the demand for this Mexican liquor in recent years has only been rising.
Traditional Drinks and Cocktails Made With Pulque
Ever since its comeback, pulque has spread around the world at a fast pace. Besides locals enjoying the fruits of their hard work, the millions of tourists visiting Mexico are also more and more intrigued to try pulque and one or two pulque cocktails.
Other than tourists, the world is embracing pulque as a global heritage. Mixologists are trying to include the Mexican staple in a variety of new and old Mexican liquor drinks. Some of those cocktails that pulque made even tastier are the following:
- Pulcherrimo Cocktail
- Coconut-pulque Cocktail
- Hidalgo’s Hundreds
- Pulque Margarita
Final Words: The Rich History of Mexican Alcohol
Mexican liquors are not just spirits but an integral part of the country’s culture and history. Whether it’s tequila, mezcal, or pulque, each liquor has a unique story to tell and has played an important role in shaping Mexican traditions and identity.
So next time you sip on a margarita or a mezcal cocktail, or any other Mexican alcohol, take a moment to appreciate the fascinating history and culture behind the drink in your hand.