With spring break just a couple days away, the student
body?s tequila consumption is due for a precipitous rise. Whether at Daytona
Beach, Playa del Carmen or any of the Americas? other vacation hot spots,
students on break and tequila seem to go hand in hand. Often, however, the quality
of the tequila itself gets lost in the ceremony of consuming it. Surrounding
the popular shot with salt, limes and socializing makes it easy to forget about
the drink itself.

Yet, even when people do take the time to stop and ponder
the tequila, they often think of it as a mere harbinger of hookups and
hangovers rather than something to be enjoyed or even savored.

However, it is more than just an intoxicant; it is both a
carefully crafted culinary product and a historical document detailing the
marriage of two cultures and the rise of a nation.

Tequila is made from blue agave, a cactus native to Mexico,
but no one knew how to make the drink until the 16th century. Before then,
people who lived in the agave-producing regions of Mexico produced a beverage
from their beloved cactus, but it simply did not pack the wallop of distilled
liquor. For that, the locals would have to wait for the arrival of the Spanish

Although Hern?n Cort?s and company are most famous for
bringing Mexico such hits as Catholicism and smallpox, they also brought with
them the technology necessary to make hard liquor. Not long after their
arrival, they exchanged their knowledge with the natives, and the process for
making tequila was born.

The agave must be cultivated for eight years before harvest
and cooked for up to three days to render its sweet, uniquely flavored juices.
The liquid that results from this process is called ?mosto fresco,? literally
?fresh must,? the juice of unfermented wine. In some more inexpensive brands of
tequila, this agave syrup is fortified with other sugars, but in varieties
labeled ?100 percent pure agave,? the cactus, water and yeast are the only

After the cooking and possible sweetening of the agave, the
distiller adds yeast to the mosto fresco in order to make ?mosto muerto,? or
dead must. This newly alcoholic liquid, however, still does not have much of a
kick. Its alcohol content is somewhere between those of beer and wine, so the
producer distills it twice in order to bring it up to 55 percent alcohol. The
resulting liquid can be sold immediately as ?silver? or ?white? tequila or
mixed with older tequila or caramel coloring in order to make ?gold or ?young?
tequila. It can also be left to sit in oak barrels for two to 12 months, a year
or three years to make ?aged,? ?extra-aged? and ?ultra-aged? varieties,
respectively. In the Spanish script that one most often sees on tequila bottle
labels, these three distinctions are called ?reposado,? ?a?ejo? and ?extra a?ejo.?

One reason for these very concrete classifications is that
tequila is an appellation of origin. That is, there is a trademark law that
governs what can be called ?tequila? just as there is a law stating champagne
must be made from grapes from the Champagne region of France. In addition to
naming the regions of the five Mexican states tequila?s blue agave must come
from, the statute states the drink must be made from at least 51 percent of the
cactus sugars.

The specificity of the laws regarding tequila makes it clear
that it has earned the respect of Mexico and the trading partners who honor its
appellation of origin, but the drink has not always enjoyed such high status.

When Mexico was a colony of Spain, the Spanish government
pursued policies of heavily taxing and periodically outlawing tequila. When
Mexico gained its independence in 1821, it would seem that the liquor would
have had a good opportunity to gain a foothold as the national drink, a motion that
would help to distance the newly liberated nation from its colonial past.
Curiously, European customs persisted in Mexico, and the most Mexican of all
liquors remained unpopular.

Until the Mexican Revolution in 1910, it was more
fashionable to drink imported wines and liquors rather than the native tequila.
The political conflict, however, brought the issue of national identity to the
forefront of Mexican discourse, so it took little effort to coax the
revolutionaries? spirits toward the country?s foremost native spirit.

In the past 100 years, tequila has grown in popularity in
Mexico and abroad. Today, people all over the world enjoy the silver or gold
spirit in shots, margaritas and sunrises. The spring break shot of choice has
certainly come a long way.


Jason Engelhart is
made from less than 100 percent blue agave and aged for 21 years. You may
contact the manufacturer for samples at [email protected]. Have a safe break!