By Julie R Butler
For many people in the United States, the mention of tequila generally conjures up images of salt-rimmed margaritas and the strange ritual of licking salt off the back of your hand, slamming a shot of tequila, and then sucking on a lime wedge. But unless you’ve spent any time drinking with Mexicans in Mexico, you might be surprised to learn that margaritas aren’t as popular here as you’d think, given the drink’s ubiquity at Mexican restaurants and Cinco de Mayo festivities throughout the United States; and in the motherland, tequila is usually served neat and sipped rather than slammed. Furthermore, mezcal is a bigger deal than tequila in many parts of Mexico.
So what gives? Why do gringos associate tequila with all things Mexican? Also, while Mexicans do have a thing for lime and salt – and their cultural genius did bring us the michelada – how did the gabachos come to be the ones adding salt, lime, and all kinds of other stuff to their tequila drinks when that’s not actually the Mexicans way? And what exactly is the difference between tequila and mezcal?
¡Mentes inquisitivas quieren saber!
Photo by Flickr user rick, CC BY 2.0
Agave Spirits: A Short Primer
It all starts with the agave plant. Before the arrival of the Spaniards, the Aztecs fermented the sap of the agave to make an alcoholic drink used during religious ceremonies called pulque. Then, the Spanish started distilling agave in the 17th century. These distillates are called mezcal (also spelled “mescal”). The mezcal that comes from around the town of Tequila, Jalisco, was originally called “mezcal de Tequila.” Now this mezcal, which must be made from at least 51% blue agave to be labelled as “tequila.”
Photo by Stan Shebs, CC BY-SA 3.0
While there is a large market for tequila in nearby Guadalajara, regular mezcal – especially the stuff from Oaxaca – is more popular in pretty much the rest of Mexico.
How Tequila Became Popular in the United States: A Brief History
According to that same article I linked to above, tequila was introduced to the United States at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. It was smuggled later into the country from Mexico during prohibition. Then there was that hit song about it by The Champs in the 1950s, followed by Jimmy Buffett’s song about Margaritaville in the 70s.
Tequila: A Simple Guide
Tequila shots have by now become standard college-age drinking rituals in the United States, complete with that whole licking and sucking business, and margaritas are a must-have for every Mexican restaurant in the country. The reason? Probably because of the poor quality of the tequila that was, until recently, the only option available. If the bottle doesn’t say “100% Agave” on it, it’s been mixed with other sugars that could be anything from another type of agave to (yikes!) ethanol.
Nowadays, there are better options – options that don’t require a commitment to suffering a major hangover the next morning, if you’re willing to spend the money.
Types of tequila range from blanco, which is aged for less than 2 months, to extra añejo, which must be aged for 3 years or more in small oak barrels.
Mezcal: A Quick Word
In contrast to tequila, which is mostly produced industrially, mezcal is generally still handcrafted by small-scale producers using methods that have been passed down through the generations. Many mezcal producers add a gusano – the “worm,” though it’s actually a moth larva that infests agave plants – to each bottle, which adds a slightly salty flavor.
Although mezcal culture is strongest in Oaxaca, more and more of this smoky agave spirit is being produced, sipped, and savored by people throughout Mexico as well as internationally.
Photo by ProtoplasmaKid, CC BY-SA 4.0
So pour some tequilitos or mezcalitos for yourself and a few friends, and salud – enjoy!