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Tequila Memories


Tequila, like the Mexican people who created it, derives from mestizaje, the mixing of Indian and European elements. Impose a European distilling process on the native blue agave plant and you have tequila.

But for me, tequila is a personal thing. My aunt Cecilia had an interest in a Guadalajara tequila factory with her husband, Uncle Carlos, who died many years ago. The brand was Rosales, their family name, and they were full of tequila lore. Our families often visited when I was a child.

Of the clan, my favorite was one of the eight children: my cousin Guillermo, better known as El Siki. He was the perfect companion, whether we were in Guadalajara or Cuernavaca. My sister and I both made him best man at our weddings.

During Easter, El Siki used to visit our house in Cuernavaca along with a group of friends we all found irresistible. Every Sabado de Gloria (Easter Saturday), my parents gave a party at which the men would dress up as charros (Mexican cowboys) and the women wore traditional dresses.

At those parties, as the tequila was being served, El Siki would tell us about it. The first people to make tequila, he'd recall, were children of European parents who owned vast lands in the state of Jalisco. They called it "clearer than water and stronger than moonshine."

Once we became captivated by the story, he would tease us with questions he knew we could never answer. "Do you know who began the process, and when mass production began?" he'd ask, and pause for a second for us all to shout "No," and then he would tell us. "Well, in 1758, Jose Antonio de Cuervo and his sons Jose Maria Guadalupe and Jose Prudencio bought large properties in the town of Tequila, a place where blue agave grew in abundance. By 1795, King Charles IV of Spain granted the Cuervo family the license to produce the drink, then known as wine-mezcal. That was the beginning of mass tequila production."

El Siki would also tell us the story of Cenobio Sauza, who used to work for the Cuervo family and was the first to export tequila to the United States. By the end of the century, his exporting empire had also reached Guatemala, El Salvador, Spain, France and England.

It was better to get his history lesson in Guadalajara, where he could point out the different parts of the process in the family tequila factory. Listening to him as I watched the tequila being made, I always wondered how a small group of 18th century entrepreneurs, working in a lost little corner of Mexico, managed to create this drink, so uniquely Mexican, which would go on to become world-famous.

Just a few months ago, I visited Guadalajara once again. Obviously, my first call was to my aunt and cousins. As we reminisced about the good old days, I told them my husband and I were planning to visit a tequila factory, to remind me of El Siki's tequila lessons and to check up on the latest technological advances.

Tequila is a small town a few miles northwest of Guadalajara, the capital of Jalisco. The road there is lined with hundreds of the spiny blue agave plants from whose hearts tequila is made.

The first stage of tequila-making, of course, is planting and caring for those plants, which take eight to 10 years to mature. Then strong men hack off the leaves and remove the hearts, which look like pineapples but are about 10 times as bit. Highly skilled workers then select the ripest and sweetest.

Then the hearts are steamed to soften them and ready them for the mills where their juice is extracted. On my visit to the tequila factory, I had the opportunity to taste a slice of agave heart just as it came out of the oven. It was much like freshly cooked sugar cane.

When the juice is pressed out, it is fermented into a wine and then distilled. The last step is the maturation process. The length of time determines the type of tequila.

White tequila is the youngest of the four types. Gold tequila is white tequila mixed with an aged tequila to give it some color. The third kind is reposado, which matures in wooden barrels from two to 12 months. Then there is anejo, the oldest, which ages in white oak casks for over a year.

Today there are about 75 million agave plants and 33 distilleries in Jalisco. They produce more than 85 million liters of tequila, nearly a third of which is exported, mostly to the United States, at a high proof to save shipping costs. In this country, it's diluted to 80 proof and packaged. Mexican distilleries also have manufacturing plants in Austria, Australia, Belgium, El Salvador and Switzerland.

Tequila is an aperitif that is usually drunk to stimulate the appetite. Because it awakens hunger, it is usually served alongside hors d'oeuvres or botanas such as sopes, zucchini flower or huitlacoche (corn fungus) quesadillas, potato and chorizo tacos, tortillas with fresh Mexican cheese and homemade salsa or fruit salads such as jicama with mangoes sprinkled with lemon juice and red pepper.

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