Tequila: Marrow of the Maguey

by Devin D. O'Leary

November 11 - November 17, 1999

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(September 23, 1999)

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(August 26, 1999)

Cocktail Culture
(July 29, 1999)

Long (and rather unfairly) considered strictly a "party beverage," tequila is now experiencing a renaissance, with numerous high quality (and high dollar) tequilas competing with fine Scotch whiskies for "top shelf" space.

First of all, we must make a distinction. Tequila is a specific kind of mezcal. All tequilas are mezcal, but not all mezcals are tequila. (Just like all bourbons are whiskey, but not all whiskies are bourbon.) Mezcal is a plant distillate (as opposed to a fruit or grain distillate), placing it in the same category as rum (which is made from sugar cane). The plant in question here is the agave (or maguey), which is commonly known in the United States as the Century Plant. Contrary to popular belief, the agave is not a cactus. The spiky green monster was, for many years, classified with lilies and aloes, but now resides in its own unique family, known as Agavaceae. Mezcal is produced primarily from the espadin agave, but other varieties such as the agave azul and silvestre agave are also utilized.

It takes eight to 12 years for an agave plant to mature -- as a result, mezcal production is extremely susceptible to the whims of mother nature. Once the agave reaches maturity, the roots and leaves are chopped away, leaving an enormous (50 to 200 pound) pineapple-shaped heart. Traditionally, these agave hearts (or piñas) are roasted to maximize sugar content. Many modern distillers do away with this step and simply bleed out the plant's sweet sap (known as aguamiel) and mix it with previously fermented agave juice (known as pulque), ensuring a quick and strong fermentation.

It usually only takes about two and a half days for this agave mixture to ferment. Good mezcal is then double distilled, and the clear, white results may be aged in oak casks to produce a gold to cognac-brown color. Unlike grape or grain distillate, the agave plant is virtually free of congeners (toxic chemicals that form during fermentation and are a primary cause of hangovers), so aging is not as important. Few mezcals are aged more than three years. Some are aged as little as a few months.

True tequila is a mezcal made only in the Jalisco region of Mexico, near the town of Tequila. Only agave azul is supposed to be used in tequila production. Some unscrupulous modern distillers have appropriated the more popular name of tequila for mezcal made under any circumstances. Some of the larger distillers also add cane sugar to the fermentation process, because it's cheaper than pulque.

If you're going to drink mezcal/tequila, get a brand made only from 100 percent agave. A good mezcal, like a good Scotch, is a complex drink full of competing tastes and textures. Don't cheat yourself by buying some mass-produced crap in a plastic jug. ... And whatever you do, steer clear of anything with a worm in it!


  • 1 1/2 ounces tequila
  • 1/2 ounce Triple Sec
  • 1 ounce fresh lemon or lime juice
  • 1 glass cracked ice
Shake lightly and strain into stemmed cocktail glass. If you prefer, rim glass in rock salt. Garnish with slice of lime.


  • 1 1/2 ounces tequila
  • 1/2 ounce creme de cacao
  • 1/2 ounce cream
Shake well with crushed ice and strain into stemmed cocktail glass. Top sparingly with whipped cream. Sprinkle lightly with cocoa.


  • 1 1/2 ounces tequila
  • 1 teaspoon honey
  • Juice of 1/2 lime
  • Dash Angostura bitters
Shake all ingredients over crushed ice. (Heat honey in spoon over flame first, to make pouring easy.) Shake well. Strain into stemmed cocktail glass.

Candybar Cocktail

  • 1/2 ounce tequila
  • 1/2 ounce Pernod
  • 1/2 ounce lemon juice
Shake well over cracked ice. Strain into a stemmed cocktail glass.

Tequila Sunrise

  • 1 1/2 ounces tequila
  • 1 teaspoon grenadine
  • 1/3 teaspoon creme de cassis
  • Juice 1/2 lime
  • Orange juice
Fill tall highball glass with cracked ice. Add tequila, grenadine and creme de cassis. Top off glass with orange juice. Do not shake: Grenadine and creme de cassis should sink to bottom of glass. Serve with straw.


  • 1 1/2 ounces tequila
  • 3 ounces grapefruit juice
  • 1 teaspoon bar sugar
  • Soda water
Shake first three ingredients well over cracked ice. Strain into tall highball glass with ice cubes. Top with soda.

Tequila Mockingbird

  • 1 1/2 ounces tequila
  • 3/4 ounce creme de menthe
  • Juice of 1/2 lime
  • Soda water
Pour first three ingredients over crushed ice in a short highball glass; add spent lime shell. Top off with soda.

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