How the fermented juice of an agave plant became the liquid love of Texas
Tequila is living the American dream. Dirt poor to silver spoon.
Here’s something that began life in a scrappy, spike-covered, desert shrub, then acquired a long history of disreputable associations with bandits and border town roustabouts, yet somehow has become second only to oil as the liquid love of Texas.
Even its parent, the oft worm-infested, cactus-looking behemoth called the agave, only reproduces because a single kind of mangy desert bat finds its less-than-aromatic flowers attractive. It’s not the first or last time tequila has had something to do with questionable, late-night romances.
Just why and how some pre-Columbian man in what is now central Mexico decided the heart of this blue-hued, needle producing, acidic plant would ferment into something drinkable is just another unsolved mystery in history.
But he did, and people have been savoring — often with salt and limes — his ingenuity ever since.
Even the tequila name now has blue-blood rights, allowed only when directly born in the original Mexican neighborhood. In fact, its first American-born cousin, created by Kelly Railean, owner and master distiller of the Railean Distillery in San Leon, goes not by the family name, but by the registered moniker American Agave Spirits.
With this kind of ancestry, it’s no surprise there’s a lot of confusion and misconceptions about tequila and its family, even before drinking it.
This is a drink that prompted Tom Robbins, author of the 1980 book, “Still Life With Woodpecker,” to write, “O tequila, savage water of sorcery, what confusion and mischief your sly, rebellious drops do generate!”
It’s the same stuff that prompted someone else to say, in less poetic terms, “Exercise makes you look better naked. So does tequila. Your call.”
First of all, tequila is like Champagne and port in that unless it comes from a designated place, in the case of tequila that being the Mexican state of Jalisco, it cannot assume the name.
All tequila is made only from the bluish agave plant called Weber Azul. The heart of the 8- to 15-year-old plants are removed, heated, fermented and then distilled.
For most of its history, all this production was done in Mexico with the resulting tequilas shipped to the United States in bottles or bulk. Over the years, some distillers have tried to grow their own blue agave, but the results were mixed, mostly negatively. More recently, however, it has been possible to get true blue agave syrup from Mexico and process it in this country, which is what Railean did.
“I got interested in distilling this several years ago,” Railean said.
She and her husband started Railean Distillers in 2005 with a vision of re-establishing the American rum industry. By 2007, the distillery was producing a number of small batches of specialty, hand-crafted rum and winning praise for it. But while rum was the goal in those early years, tequila was never out of mind, Railean said.
“Look, margaritas are the No. 1 cocktail of Texas, so you do pay attention to that,” she said.
Time after time, she was shown what was claimed to be Texas-made tequila, but time after time, she discovered it was simply tequila made in Mexico and bottled either there or in the United States under a Texas label.
“They’d say this is Texas tequila, and I’d say, ‘No, it isn’t.’ That’s when I said, I was going to do it,” she said.
By 2008, the distillery began importing blue agave syrup from Jalisco. The syrup was then fermented, distilled and bottled in San Leon. The first out of the barrel in 2011, Railean El Perico, became the first Handcrafted American Agave Spirit, a trademarked name. It also comes labeled with the stamp, “Made in USA Certified,” another first.
El Perico is Spanish for parakeet, by the way, which is the distillery’s mascot. There is a thriving population of wild parakeets in San Leon, a town described as a small drinking community with a large fishing problem.
Railean’s agave products are 100 percent blue agave, but that’s not always the case in the broader tequila market. In addition to the pure tequilas, there are others known as mixto tequilas. By law, mixto tequilas have to be a minimum of 51 percent blue agave but the other 49 percent includes additives such as water, cane or corn syrups and coloring. That said, all tequilas have some kind of additive, even if it’s just water. Tequila is distilled to about 110 proof and then diluted before bottling to bring it down to anywhere from 40 to 80 proof.
Aging is a gauge of quality, determining whether tequila should be sipped, mixed or gulped with a ready chaser. White, silver or blanco tequilas have the least aging and probably taste closest to the original drink the conquistadors first experienced. They’re preferred by some consumers for the raw agave taste they provide. They also are the ideal ones for mixing in cocktails, something that actually came late in tequila history.
Joven or gold tequila has been the most widely distributed in the United States for the past century. These are unaged, almost always mixtos and have been colored and flavored with additives. These are best used for cocktails, particularly Molotov, or shots where everyone wants to see people make funny faces.
“There’s no question that what a lot of Americans drink when they drink tequila is some pretty cruddy stuff,” Railean said.
Rested tequilas, called reposados, are tequilas aged in oak barrels, usually from four to nine months. The barrels mellow the tequila and give the liquid a more golden color, plus a taste of the oak. In recent times, distillers have been using bourbon barrels purchased in the United States to add additional flavor. These are a favorite for lighter cocktails, including the margarita, and are also suitable for sipping straight.
Railean produces its El Perico Reposado, which it ages in its own recycled rum barrels, producing hints of that rum in the new spirit.
Añejo tequila is the tequila that moved across town and over the tracks. This is aged in white French oak or used bourbon barrels from one to four years. Smooth, aromatic and full of subtle flavors, these “old” tequilas are best served as one would fine brandy. Expensive as they are, their use in a cocktail should be limited to those cocktails one truly loves to savor, as opposed to ones paired with nachos and chili con queso.
“This is definitely one for sipping,” Railean said of her distillery’s version. “For a cocktail, at most I would use it in something like our Mexican Old Fashioned.”
This calls for Railean Blue Agave Añejo, dashes of grenadine, bitters and triple sec and then to be topped off with a desired amount of club soda.
Finally, nearly 2,000 years after tequila first began making people happy, one type of tequila has moved into the big house. Extra-añejo tequila became a classification about a decade ago. That means it has been aged in barrels three or more years. Most brands have aged at least four and a number advertise their tequilas have been aged up to five years, although many distillers feel aging this long degrades rather than upgrades the drink. Because of the time it takes to make them, these are the most expensive, with many bottles on the regular retail market priced at more than $200.
Not long after this new class was created, a 1-liter bottle of limited-edition premium tequila sold for $225,000. This is probably not a good choice for the tequila sunrise cocktail after a day at the beach.
Railean Distillers’ Jalapeño-Pineapple Margarita
1½ ounces Railean Blue Agave Blanco
1½ ounces pineapple juice
3 ounces Simply Lime Limeade
Several wheels of fresh jalapeño
Place a few slices of jalapeño in a shaker and muddle. Add ice and all other ingredients, shake and then pour into a sugar or salt rimmed margarita or high ball glass. Garnish with a lime wedge and jalapeño wheel/slice.