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How Tequila is Made

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Oh, tequila. For many drinkers, the liquor’s name conjures up memories of blurry nights and painful mornings. But to lump all tequilas in with the cheap stuff is to ignore half a millennia of drinking history and some really tasty liquor.

Agave You My Liquor

Under Mexican law, tequila must be made by a Consejo Regulador del Tequila (CRT)-certified location in one of five Mexican states. Most of the 140 odd distilleries that meet these requirements are located in Jalisco.

The spirit must be made from blue Weber agave, and it must be distilled from at least 51 percent agave. This requirement results in two different labels for tequila: mixto and 100 percent agave. Instead of distilling only from agave, mixto tequila is made with agave mixed with sugar from other sources.

Growing agave plants takes a good deal of patience. Despite modern breakthroughs in farming, most agaves are still farmed, tended and harvested by hand. Given that an agave plant traditionally takes 8-12 years to fully grow and mature, it’s not surprising that some tequila makers might choose to add other sugars.

Agave plants are also becoming more difficult to farm. Over the past 15-20 years, says Jose Valdez, Master Distiller for Tequila Partida, “[growing has taken] shorter times—about 6-8 years—due to global climate change, domestication, use of pesticides, [and] abuse of the land and soil, just to name some of the important causes.” This condensed time can cause plants to grow faster while not taking up as many nutrients from the soil. Resulting plants may not have as high of a sugar or acid content, making them less suitable for tequila making.

Roasting time

After the mature agave plants are harvested, the sharp outer leaves are cut off. The heart, or piña, is then roasted at a low temperature to preserve enzymes and break down complex proteins and starches into fermentable sugars.

The plants are then milled with a large stone mill to separate the ropy pulp from the sweet juice called the mosto. The pulp, or bagazo, is often reused as animal feed, compost material, or fuel, but some producers will add some of the bagazo into the fermentation tanks to give the tequila a stronger agave flavor.

The mosto is then put into a fermentation tank with yeast and allowed to ferment. As the yeast eat the sugar, it is broken down into carbon dioxide and ethylic alcohol, says Valdez. The result from this step is a low alcohol fluid that can be distilled.

Stilled Spirits

At its most simple, distillation is the process of purifying or separating liquids using heat. Alcohol and water boil at approximately 173°F and 212°F, respectively. As the mosto is heated, more alcohol than water will evaporate, and the resulting vapor is collected as it condenses in an externally cooled pipe.

Most tequilas are distilled twice. It can be distilled more times, but becomes much more neutral and can lose its flavor and personality, says Valdez. Under Mexican law, producers can add artificial flavoring or coloring to make the tequila more consistent.

Age and Beauty

If you’ve been to your local liquor store, chances are that you’ve seen many different types of tequila that vary substantially in color and price. The most common are blanco (white), plata (silver), joven (young), oro (gold), reposado (rested), añejo (old), or extra-añejo (extra old). Blanco tequila is aged for no more than 60 days, and is often not aged at all. Oro tequilas are usually un-aged as well, but are often artificially colored mixtos. Reposado tequilas are aged for at least 2 months in wood, while añejo tequilas must age for at least a year. For a tequila to be extra-añejo, it must be aged for at least 3 years; this is the newest designation.

Hit The Lab

With National Margarita Day coming up on 2/22, it’s the perfect time to cozy up with a margarita. Like many other cocktails, this drink’s history is murky at best. It first shows up in the 1940s, but didn’t really become popular until the '70s.

If you’re not sure about whether or not to use salt with your beverage, check out its taste benefits. Or just experiment with it—it’s all about what tastes best to you.

Margarita

2 oz tequila
1/2 -1 oz Cointreau, triple sec, or dry curacao (to taste)
3/4-1 oz lime juice (to taste)
1/2 – 1/4 oz simple syrup (also to taste)
Lime wedge, for garnish

Mix all ingredients in a cocktail shaker. Add ice and shake vigorously for 15-20 seconds or until chilled through. Strain into a chilled glass with a salted rim (if you please).

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What's the Right Way to Make a Sazerac?
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If you pronounce New Orleans "New Or-leens," or if you can’t get enough of those Big Ass Beers sold on Bourbon Street, you’re probably not actually from New Orleans. But if you’re feeling adventurous and missing the Big Easy, a Sazerac might be just what the doctor ordered. 

‘Tails and Stories

A few hundred years ago, you might have actually gotten a doctor’s order for a Sazerac. One of the drink's origin stories claims that it was invented by New Orleans apothecary Antoine Amedie Peychaud. According to this tale, Mr. Peychaud mixed up the drink with his eponymous bitters and served it in an egg coupe in his shop. 

A more likely origin story states that the drink was invented by a different New Orleans resident (though in the same neighborhood). Around 1850, Sewell T. Taylor sold his bar to Aaron Bird and went into the import business. One of his products happened to be Sazerac-de-Forge et Fils brandy. While Taylor was importing, Bird renamed his bar the Sazerac House and began serving a house cocktail that featured Taylor’s brandy and, as the story goes, bitters made by his neighborhood apothecary, Mr. Peychaud.

In the 1870s and 1880s, Europe's grape crops were decimated by an infestation of American aphids. In just four years, French wine production was cut by 67 percent, and even the most dedicated cognac drinkers switched to whiskey. For New Orleans, that meant switching to rye whiskey that was shipped to the city down the Ohio River and through the Mississippi. Thomas Handy, who owned the Sazerac Bar during that time period, likely switched the drink's main ingredient. This take on the signature cocktail is the one that found its way into the 1908 edition of The World's Drinks and How To Mix Them, with the recipe calling for "good whiskey," not Sazerac cognac. 

The origins of the Sazerac’s name is vague. It’s possible that it was a nod to the fact that it was the bar's house cocktail, but it’s also possible that it’s a reference to the brand of brandy. In those days, “cocktail” referred to a specific alcoholic drink format. As put forth by The Balance and Columbian Repository in 1806, a “cock-tail” is “a stimulating liquor composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters.” If you wanted this type of drink with whiskey in it, you would ask for a Whiskey Cocktail. If you wanted Sazerac brandy (until the aphid plague, at least), you'd ask for a Sazerac cocktail.

Hit the Lab

Sazerac Recipe:

2 dashes Peychaud's bitters
.25 oz simple syrup (or a sugar cube)
2 oz good rye whiskey (use the good stuff)
lemon peel for garnish

Place the sugar cube into an absinthe-rinsed rocks glass. Dash the bitters onto the cube and muddle. Add whiskey and one large ice cube and stir to combine. Garnish with a lemon twist.

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What’s the Right Way to Make a Caipirinha?
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Flickr User Janice Waltzer // CC BY 2.0

The Rio Olympics start in just a few weeks, and all eyes are on Brazil. To celebrate, we decided to focus on the country’s most famous cocktail creation: the Caipirinha.

In form, the Caipirinha is pretty much a Brazilian Daiquiri. It’s made from sugar, lime, and cachaça. Cachaça could be considered a cousin to rum, but it is altogether unique. While most rum is made from molasses, cachaça is made from fresh sugarcane juice.

Unlike rum, which can be made anywhere, cachaça can only be made in Brazil. Though it’s often sold unaged, it is usually matured in woods that are native to Brazil, like peanut and balm. As with wine, beer, and whiskey, different kinds of wood affect the product inside differently.

The classifications of cachaça aren’t based on the type of cask in which it’s aged. It can get a bit confusing: Spirit that is not stored in wood or is kept in stainless steel vats before it’s bottled is often called branca (white). But cachaça aged in wood that doesn’t color the liquor may also be labeled as branca. This category goes under several other names, including prata (silver) and clássica (classic).

Cachaça that’s stored or aged in wood is usually labeled as amarela (yellow), in reference to its color. These may also be labeled as ouro (gold). Envelhecida (aged) cachaça, a subtype of amarela, is a bit more involved: it’s considered aged if more than 50 percent of the content of the bottle has been aged for at least a year in a barrel that’s 700 liters or smaller.

Cachaça is the “third most produced distilled drink in the world,” according to Alcohol In Latin America: A Social and Cultural History. Though more than 5000 brands existed in 2008, it was relatively ignored outside of Brazil until the recent resurgence of craft cocktails. In fact, until 2013, it had to be labeled “Brazilian rum” to be imported into the U.S. As a result, it’s often mistaken by many people for being a type of rum.

Unfortunately, we don’t really know anything definite about the origins of the Caipirinha. Like the Mojito and the Old Fashioned, the formula was perhaps first used in folk medicine. Carlos Lima, the executive director of IBRAC (the Brazilian Institute of Cachaça) told Casa e Jardim that a mix of lime, garlic, and honey with a pour of cachaça was probably used in São Paulo around 1918 as a remedy for the Spanish Flu.

As the story goes, someone eventually decided to skip the garlic and honey. Then, to balance the acidity of the lime, sugar was added. Over time, the drink spread into bars, ice entered the equation, and it became the Caipirinha we know today.

HIT THE LAB

Like the Mojito, the classic Caipirinha recipe is quite simple, but it’s also been the subject of many, many variations. We’ve included the International Bartenders Association (IBA) recipe as well as a modern take on the drink.

Caipirinha
Modified from the IBA website.

2 ounces Cachaça
1/2 of a lime
1 tablespoon sugar

Muddle lime and sugar in an Old Fashioned glass. Fill with ice and pour cachaça over it. Stir and enjoy.

Prata B. (Puerto Rico Asta Ah Brazil)
Recipe by Luis Ramos, bar manager of Bourbon and Branch in San Francisco.

1 3/4 ounces Avua Prata Cachaça
3/4 ounce lime juice
3/4 ounce pineapple gomme syrup
1/2 ounce Pedro Ximenez sherry
1/4 ounce Punt e Mes
Grated nutmeg, lime zest, lime wheel for garnish

Combine all ingredients in a Collins glass. Add crushed ice and stir until glass frosts. Top glass with grated nutmeg, lime zest, and lime wheel.

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