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By Verena Wagner
Most mornings, in the desertic outskirts of Tequila, in the Jalisco province of Mexico, you can see troops of workers, machete in hand, cutting through dusty rows of huge blue agave.
The combination of dry climate -it only rains from June to September- and volcanic soil make Jalisco and the states of Guanajuato, Michoacán, Nayarit and Tamaulipas, the only government approved and recognized terroir for tequila - the 80-proof liquor that is made only in Mexico.
Tequila which derives its name from the eponymous town on the hillsides near Guadalajara, the capital of Jalisco in central Mexico, literally means "lava hill" in Aztec.
Like fine wines grown in the different terroirs of Alsace or Burgundy in France, tequilas made from blue agave grown in the dry, mineral-rich volcanic soil of highlands of Jalisco have a distinctive flavor and a different aroma than those made in Michoacán.
No longer just a drink for salt-licking rowdy bachelors and somber desperados, tequila is now establishing itself among its more sophisticated peers. And on the shelves of today's upscale bars it is not unusual to find a score of aged tequilas along single malts and cognacs.
Tequila has come a long way from the days it was mistaken for mezcal, made famous by the traditional worm in the bottle, or pulque. Although both spirits are made from blue agave, unlike tequila, they can also be made from other types of agave and with a different sugar content.
Though there are about four hundred types of agave plants tequila is made from only one - the blue agave. The prehistoric cactus-like plant, from the lily family, takes about 10 years to reach its mature size, about four feet.
Once mature expert cutters use a tool called Coa de Jima, taking great care not to harm the heart of the plant or piña, (pineapple in Spanish).
Piñas are shipped to the tequila factory, where the process of transformation begins: the piña is baked in traditional brick ovens or modern autoclaves, a process that transforms the starches into sugar. After being ground, it is washed with water and the resulting juice is fermented and distilled.
Not all tequilas are created equal
There are strong government regulations supervising the tequila production: Tequila must contain at least 51% of agave sugar, only natural ingredients, and must be distilled twice. The remaining 49% of the liquid can be a mixture of water with cane sugar.
Tequilas made with 100 percent blue agave are required to list this percentage on their label. A NOM, (Norma Oficial Mexicana, 'official Mexican Standard" -a kind of Appellation Contrôllée), number -a four digit plus one letter characteristic- is only issued to tequila distillers who pass government inspections and comply with the rules and regulations established in 1978 by the Mexican government. This number identifies any of the 45 companies that produce the tequila.
Not all tequilas are created equal. And neither are all tequilas "Made in Mexico".
There is a vast chasm between tequilas which are bottled in the United States (while all 100% blue agave tequilas must be bottled in Mexico, the cheaper kind can be transported and bottled elsewhere), premium tequilas (that comply with the regulation minimum of 51% blue agave) and the better-quality super-premium tequila (distilled from 100% blue agave juice) which can only be bottled in Mexico.
Within the premium and superpremium category, there are different kinds of tequila. And while all make great margaritas, they have distinctively different tastes, nuances and unique characters, as fine wines do.
Plata or Blanco (silver or white) the most common of premium tequilas, is freshly fermented and bottled immediately after distillation. No aging.
Gold or joven abocado (young and smooth) is also unaged but has been artificially colored in golden caramel -which does not reflect in the taste or aroma.
Reposado (rested) refers to mostly superpremium (100% blue agave) tequila that has been aged in oak barrels from 2 months to a year. Though it usually is a little smoother than the gold tequila, it's flavor does generally not differ much from it.
Añejo (aged) is a superpremium tequila that has been aged in oak barrels at least a year, and has naturally acquired a soft golden hue.
Muy añejo (very aged) is also a superpremium tequila that has been aged more than two years. Like fine cognacs, it is of a darker color and is meant to be sipped.
The Mexican government must certify the aging process for both, añejo and muy añejo. Unlike wine or other spirits, tequila cannot be aged for a long time and reaches its peak in 2 to 4 years. However, once bottled, it continues aging gracefully.