No other drink is surrounded by as many stories, myths, legends and lore as tequila. They reach into the heart of Mexico, past and present.

Myth #1:
Where's the worm???
There is no worm in Mexican-bottled tequila! While some American-bottled brand(s) put one in their bottle, it's only a marketing ploy and not a Mexican tradition. There is a worm - called a gusano, in some types of mezcal.

Yes, you're supposed to eat the worm in mezcal. Don't worry: they're often raised just for use in mezcal, cooked and pickled in alcohol for a year. Dispel any idea it has any magical or psychotropic properties, that it's an aphrodisiac or the key to an 'unseen world.' It's merely protein and alcohol - but it's very rich in imagery.

Myth #2:
Tequila, nectar of the cactus...
Tequila is made from distilled sap from hearts (piñas) of the agave plant. This plant is actually related to the lily and amaryllis. It is known as a succulent and, while it shares a common habitat with many cacti, it is not one itself and has a different life cycle. A mature agave has leaves 5-8 feet tall, and is 7-12 feet in diameter. It has a lifespan of 8-15 years, depending on species, growing conditions and climate. The name agave comes from the Greek word for 'noble.'

There are 136 species of agave in Mexico, of which the blue agave, is the only one allowed for use in tequila production. Agave has been cultivated on this continent for at least 9,000 years.

Tequila Myth #3:
Tequila and mezcal, two names for the same thing...

Tequila is a type of mezcal, but mezcals are not tequilas. They both derive from varieties of the plant known to the natives as 'mexcalmetl.' Tequila is made from only agave tequilana Weber, blue variety. Mezcal, on the other hand, can be made from five different varieties of agave - mostly espadin, but including some wild varieties grown without pesticides.

Tequila is double distilled. Mezcal is often only distilled once. Mezcal piñas - the sugar-rich heart of the agave - are baked in a conical, rock-lined pit oven (palenque) over charcoal, and covered with layers of palm-fiber mats and earth, giving mezcal a strong, smoky flavor. Tequila piñas are baked or steamed in aboveground ovens or autoclaves.

Tequila Myth #4:

Tequila manufacture is tightly controlled by the Mexican government and the Tequila Regulatory Council. Statements made on the bottle about age, style and content have legal requirements. Tequila is not moonshine: it is carefully distilled and aged. Most manufacturers take considerable pride in their production, especially of the limited quantity añejo varieties that are carefully aged for up to four years in oak barrels.

There are regional drinks and local home-brews distilled from agave sap. These include sotol, bacanora and raicilla, as well as some simply referred to by the traditional name of 'mezcal.' Many of these regional drinks have only recently been legalized for production in Mexico, and are gaining new acceptance, although distribution is still very limited. Pulque is also made from agave, but it is fermented without being distilled, so has a low alcohol content.

Nor is tequila any stronger than other liquors. Most tequilas have the same liquor content - about the same as any other hard liquor: 38-40%. However, the official norm allows a range from 38-55%.

Forget any story that tequila contains psychedelic drugs or has any such effect. That myth came from people who assumed mezcal meant mescaline and it applied to tequila too. The agave does not contain psychotropic components.

Tequila Myth #5:
Money isn't everything...
Price isn't always a good way to judge things. A lot of the cost in more expensive brands may go to fancy packaging, designer bottles, and large advertising campaigns.

There's a large market of excellent tequilas available in Mexico at $20-$30 US, and a very good choice in the range from $30-$50 US. Under $20, most of the tequilas are mass produced for the local market, and usually mixto (not 100% agave).

Taste is the ultimate deciding factor. Some people prefer the rougher edge of the young blanco tequilas with their more distinct agave flavor. Others like the sharper, almost peppery flavour of a reposado. And some may prefer the smooth, woody aroma in an añejo.

Tequila Myth #6:
Same tequila, different bottle...

Tequilas vary according to the company making them, the process and the growing environment. The temperature, soil, types of equipment, age of the plants and the means by which the plants are baked and aged all affect the flavor and body.

There is a surprisingly wide variation in tequila flavors - especially between styles like blanco, reposado and añejo. Tequilas can accost you, confront you and challenge you - or they can woo you ore seduce you with soft, subtle fragrances and dusky aromas.

Production techniques affect the taste. Generally traditional methods produce much stronger agave flavour than modern, mass production. Aging in barrels also affects the taste. Sometimes, the woody flavour imparted by the oak can overpower the natural agave.

Fancy packaging, wooden boxes and elegant bottles - many handmade or decorated by artisans - and are now common with premium tequilas. They have become collector's items in their own right. While they don't add to the basic quality of the drink in the bottle, they do add to its charm and certainly its visual appeal.


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