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Day 220 – Drink Tequila Like a Mexican

May 18, 2011

Location: Tequila, Mexico

Date: Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The U.S. ruined tequila. Just like it did to great ideas like Christianity and Native Americans, the States took something noble and complex and twisted it into a sad, dirty, shadow of its true self. Think about it. When someone says “tequila” you probably think nauseous nights, throbbing hangovers, and Tijuana (which is really more an American suburb than anything Mexican).

And it’s a damn shame because tequila is delicious. It’s sophisticated. It’s complex. Good tequila has flavor (unlike vodka) and that flavor is good (unlike gin). It’s the Mexican version of scotch. It’s meant to be sippedslowly and savored like most Mexicans drink it.

But instead of us envisioning people talking politely over a glass of tequila (neat), thanks to the America we picture pale, obese tourists talking loudly over margaritas and 20-year-old Spring Breakers pounding shots and showing their boobs to inebriated frat house douchebags. While this isn’t all bad (set them free!) it’s not how it started.

Where it all started was a plant called the blue agave. Real tequila comes primarily from the region surrounding the city of Tequila near Guadalajara in the Mexican state of Jalisco. Alcohols like mescal can be made from agave but can’t called tequila. In that way, it’s like champagne which, like all sparkling wines, comes from grapes and has bubbles, but specifically comes from a specific region of France. Sadly, tequila lacks champagne’s cachet.

The agave is still harvested by hand. Skilled laborers decide when the agave is ripe and harvest the plant’s piña(pineapple) shaped heart by hacking away the tough leaves with a half-moon blade at the end of a long stick (a coa). The piñas are cooked in an oven where the sugars are released. Otherwise, the agave meat tastes like nothing. I know because I tried it.

The charred juice (and sometimes the pulp) is, through the magic of distillation, turned into tequila.

Tequila comes in five types main types. The blanco (white) is sometimes called plata (silver) and is hardly aged. Bottled right after it’s distilled, it’s clear in color. Oro (gold) is a mix between plata and reposado. Reposado (rested) is aged for at least two months in oak barrels. Añejo is aged for one year in small oak barrels. Extra Añejo (“extra” is a Spanish word, too) is aged for three years. The more aged the tequila, the less it tastes like moonshine.

Which is all to say you pay more for some and less for others. And it’s all alcohol.

Which brings us back to the whole America bit. We Americans do not know how to handle alcohol. We have few long held traditions or rituals with our drink. There are no societal rules and few mores (one exception: it’s not for the kids, a period which apparently lasts until you’re 21).  When we drink it’s choose your own adventure and too often we choose to drink to get drunk.  Really f’en drunk.

Our land-of-the-free super-sized tequila. We chose quantity over quality.  We guzzled what should have been sipped.  We turned tequila from something to be appreciated slowly into something we shoot as fast as we can.

How we think about tequila also happens to play on how we see Mexico. Our 19-year-olds snuck across the border and begged Mexico for booze. When they got it on the cheap from a brown man they assumed it was dirty and low grade (it probably was, you think any teenager’s thinking about quality?) and made you puke (translation: teenage drinkers are morons). Suddenly every tequila was lumped into every bad stereotype about Mexico. Tequila was gutter water swilled by lazy Mexicanos who came to our country to sit in front of a Home Depot and not work. Exacerbated by MTV Spring Break Cancun and Cheech and Chong-like caricatures of what it means to be Mexican, tequila got a bad rap when it is what it is: alcohol that can be good or bad. We stripped it of any dignity and let it support every wrongheaded view about our complex, interesting, North American brother to the south.

Let’s just be glad we never got our hands on pulque (which also happens to come from agave).

So—my fellow Americans— the next time you raise a glass of tequila please make sure you buy something of quality (100% agave, for starters, perhaps an añejo), you raise that cup slowly, and you sip. Appreciate tequila’s complexity, its subtle flavor, and uniqueness, then ask yourself, “If we got this so wrong, what else about Mexico do we have to rethink?”

If, however, you ignore this advice and insist on pounding tequila shots—please, make sure to set the sweater puppies free.

GALLERY: No bonus pictures. If you want to see Mervyn acting all American, check out his experience in Ica, Peru with pisco.


Mervyn is a traveler who brings too much, eats too much, and writes way too much.  To learn more, read his overwritten FAQ or flip through the archives.  If you enjoyed this post, feel free to recommend it using the buttons below.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. El Flaco permalink
    June 15, 2011 11:02 am

    So jealous. Tres Mujeres is actually my favorite tequila. And it is impossible to find in the U.S. — JAS

  2. Marie permalink
    June 16, 2011 2:30 am

    Lovely article… I really liked the special outline about “douchebags”… Just one thing: Is that water I see on the first picture? Boohhhh…..

  3. Gibralter217 permalink
    June 21, 2011 9:54 am

    Good to know. I had a margarita once and hated it. The alcohol actually tasted greasy. Maybe I’ll have to give tequila another shot. (pun intended.)

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