LIFESTYLE

So THAT'S Where Tequila Comes From

It starts off with something that looks like an insanely giant pineapple.

04/05/2017 12:02 SAST | Updated 04/05/2017 13:38 SAST

Before you even think about licking your hand, sprinkling some salt and downing a shot of tequila in honor of Cinco de Mayo, there is something you need to know: that’s not how you’re supposed to drink tequila. Downing tequila in that way was common when cheap tequila dominated the market, but things have changed ― our tequila options have improved to the point where we can slowly sip the better tequilas.

And if you knew where tequila came from, you might give this Mexican liquor a little more respect. There’s a whole lot of work that goes into making tequila ― back-breaking work, too. And it all starts with the most impressive of all succulents, the blue agave plant that famously grows in the state of Jalisco, Mexico. (It also grows in the states of Colima, Nayarit and Aguascalientes, but the majority of Mexico’s agave comes from Jalisco.)

  • Tequila is made from the blue agave plant, a perennial succulent.
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    Blue agaves are large plants that thrive mostly in the highlands of Jalisco, where 80 percent of Mexican blue agave grows, and where most of the country's tequila distilleries are located.
  • The pina is the part of the blue agave used to make tequila.
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    The pina -- protected by tall, spiny leaves -- is the heart of the blue agave plant. A mature pina, once the leaves are removed, can weigh anywhere between 80-200 pounds. The high production of sugars in the core of the plant is why this plant is used in the production of alcoholic beverages. (Blue agave is also used to make mezcal.)
  • Agave harvesters are known as jimadores.
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    A jimador is not only skilled at  harvesting the pina, but also at identifying which pina is actually ripe. This is a difficult task since the pina is surrounded by thick, spiny leaves -- and because agave plants mature at different rates. The jimador uses a coa, a long wooden handle with a sharp circle cutting blade at the bottom, to cut the leaves off of the agave plant and harvest the pina.
  • After harvest, pinas are transported to distillers where they are first steamed.
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    Steaming not only softens the pina -- making it easier to mash and extract the juice from the fruit -- but it also converts complex carbohydrates into simple fermentable sugars.
  • Pinas are crushed to release the juice, also known as aquamiel.
    Marc DEVILLE via Getty Images
    The juice is what's later fermented to make tequila. Some premium tequilas still use the “tahona” process --  a 2-ton volcanic stone that crushes the shredded, cooked agave -- but mechanical processes are commonly used these days to separate the fiber from the juice.
  • Once the juices are extracted, they're left to ferment.
    Chicago Tribune via Getty Images
    The agave juices ferment for several days, allowing the sugars to convert into alcohol. After that process, the liquor is distilled at least twice -- amping up the alcohol content and making it the tequila we know and love.
  • Finally the tequila is bottled and shipped out to a liquor store near you.
    Bloomberg via Getty Images
    After the distillation, tequila is bottled and ready for sale. Quality tequila should not be taken back as a shot, masked with salt and lime, but sipped and enjoyed for the robust liquor that it is.
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