THE OLD AZTECS AND THEIR LEGENDS OF THE AGAVE
The old civilisations of South and Central America had so many mysterious way to express the secrets of nature or to hide them in forever riddle for the modern world. We can witness that all what the pharmacy nowadays is sharing with us has actually origin in the ancient cultures and their discoveries, to heal or to destroy. Everything is somehow connected and has some logic that we all try to understand but still with no real success.
I have never been really interested in the history of alcoholic beveriges or to taste them but then I met Miguel, a friend from Mexico, who was so proud of Mexican famous liquor, Tequila. For me, as an explorer, it was nothing really inviting about that drink that I didn’t try yet but for Miguel, the 38-year-old man from Acapulco, Tequila was the part of Mexican identity, no matter if you are into drinking or not. As he said, the Tequila has its own story and legend that captured the hearts of Mexican people.
Did you know that Tequila has roots in the Aztecs mythology ? Not directly but definitely through the famous agave plant, that is used for producing the Tequila. According to that legend, the agave plant has been created as the gift from Gods to the humans, to comfort devastated human hearts, after losing someone they loved. It all started with the sad end of the love destiny between Quetzalcoatl, the “Feathered Serpent” and the granddaughter of the evil goddess, Mayahuel, also known as the goddess of fertility. Quetzalcoatl wanted to fight evil spirit of Tzintzimitl but instead of killing her, he found the love of his life, took her to the Earth and tried to live away from the revengeful goddess from the darkness. When they didn’t manage to find a right shelter, they have turned themselves into the trees but the bad spirit found them and killed the beloved Mayahuel. The broken Quetzalcoatl killed the Tzintzimitl but he never could heal his heart and soul, without not being with Mayahuel. The good spirits from the Sky decided to give him some kind of comfort and as he always had visited the grave of his love, they created the plant over there that began to grow and lonely Quetzalcoatl could drink the elixir and find some kind of peace, during his rest days on the Earth. The other myths are pretty much similar and they all are based on the important figure in the Aztecs religion, Mayahuel, that has been worshiped as the goddess of fertility and also as the goddess of maguey or agave plant.
Now, what is so special about agave plant that is even noted in the writing of Aztecs ? The wise people believe that Mayhuel or “The Woman of 400 Breasts”, invented the different magic effects of agave plant and created the pulque, the specific beverage or some kind of predecessor of the agave-based drinks, usually known today like mezcal and tequila:“The primary difference between the three spirits is the species of maguey plant used. Additionally, pulque is not distilled. Instead, the aquamiel (literally “honey water”, or sap of the plant) is allowed to naturally ferment in a process similar to making wine. Pulque continues to have spiritual and sometimes medicinal customs associated with it. For instance, some people believe that a man who has not produced sons can harvest six plants, drink the pulque elixir made from it, and his next child will be a boy. Women also drink a pulque elixir to aid menstruation and lactation and it’s believed to be an aphrodisiac.Not as widely available today as mezcal and tequila, you generally can only find pulque in certain areas of Mexico. It has an interesting texture that is completely different than the distilled spirits. Pure pulque is uncured and pulque curado is cured pulque, which is typically mixed with fruits that are intended to make it more palatable.”
The agave plant is not a cactus but succulent from the lily family. The heart of agave or piña is harvested to be used in producing drinks. The experts for this inform that agave heart could be only taken when ripe, usually between 7-14 years and only sometimes, even takes up between 20-40 years. After the heart is taken, the plant dies. Nevertheless, there is some misunderstanding, especially talking about two categories: tequila vs. mezcal. You only need to know that all tequilas are mezcal but not all mezcals are tequilas.
How we can know that ? The tequila could be only produced in the certain states of Mexico,regulated by Consejo Regulador del Tequila (CRT): Jalisco, Nayarit, Guanajuato, Michoacán and Tamaulipas. The Jalisco is very famous since it has Highlands and Lowlands. For tequila, it is only one agave plant allowed and approved: Agave tequiliana Weber or Blue Agave, in 51%, at least. The rest could be the blends. The name itself comes from the town in the middle of the state Jalisco, the state that is the king of 99% of produces tequilas.
On the other side, mezcal could be produced in the following states: Oaxaca, Guerrero, Guanajuato, San Luis Potosí, Zacatecas, Durango, Tamaulipas, and recently added Michoacán. If it is not produced there, it is fake. The agave plant could be divided into 24 different types and it is almost like in the wine production and grapes. In the nature, this master of evolution, has even 252 different species. From those adapted for production, each flavour gives another beverage. Espadín is the most common agave used, but arroqueño, barril, tepextate, tobalá are also on the list and frequently taken into the liquor production consideration.
Even the process of getting the heart of the agave plant has some kind of spiritual meaning. The piña is extracted and the leaves are shaved off by the jimadores (local farmers) that use a coa, that is similar to hoe. Then, there is a transport of those piñas that goes by trucks but with the problems on the road, coming from monkeys that are interested in those agave hearts. Once when they reach distillery, the sacred work could bee started. Do not forget that harvesting time is year-round which is not in the case of grapes, that could be only taken in the fall.
The further processing of the piñas or cooking is actually how we know if there will be produced tequilas or mezcals. The formula for tequilas is to keep traditional ovens ( hornos) on slow-roasting the piñas for 3 days. In mass-production, there are automatised ovens that manage it( for larger brands) up to 12 hours. The mezcals are being born from the ground oven, when the piñas are slow-roasted for several days, using wood fire, covered with banana leaves and soil, to get the smoky flavour.
For any kind of agave spirit, you need to crush the juice from the cooked agaves. This is so called honey water or aguamiel, then comes fermentation and distillaton.
When we discuss only tequilas, it is good to know that pure is one always with 100% Blue Agave and no additives, but the law allows up to 1% of the different additives for a flavour paradise: “including caramel extract (for color), glycerine (for a smoother mouthfeel), oak-extract (for an aged taste), and sugar-based syrups (which can provide just about any flavor you like.”
I found awesome that Mexico is the only country allowed to produce tequilas and this is for Mexicans a national drink, pride and the symbol of freedom after winning independence from Spain, in 1821.
There are more tequila styles and we can learn about: Silver/White/Blanco – sweet flavour of the blue agave, bottled immediately after distillation ( Familia Camarena Silver Tequila, El Sativo Blanco, Pueblo Viejo Blanco, Jose Cuervo Tradicional Plata, and 1800 Silver); Reposado – aged in a wooden barrels for at least 2 months, for a golden colour and aged taste ( Lunazul Reposado, Corralejo Tequila Reposado, Ayate Reposado, or Calle 23 Reposado.); Gold/Oro– silver tequilas blended with aged tequilas or with caramel colouring, oak extract or sugar syrup ( usually for cocktails); Añejo– aged for a one year, minimum in the oak barrels to get amber colour ( Tres Agaves Añejo, Codigo 1530 Añejo, Corralejo Añejo, and Tequila Tapatio Añejo.); Extra Añejo/Ultra Añejo– aged for 3 years in oak barrels (Jose Cuervo’s Reserva de la Family Extra Añejo.)
If you get it to drink it, the best way is like they do in Mexico, without lime and salt. This shouldn’t lead you to the alcoholic madness but to the joy of digging into the ancient Aztecs book of delicious recipes and drinks, given from gods. There are so many untold tales, mystical formulas and the alchemy solutions that are making me always even more in love with ancient cultures in South American continent. The brilliant history of agave plant and its deep meaning for Mexicans is not just considered in the tequilas but in the whole narration that has been born once when the human heart cried for the lover that died.
2 thoughts on “THE AGAVE PLANT: GIFT FROM THE GODS AND TEQUILA SPIRIT”
What a beautiful article, Sarah !
This brings back memories of my younger years in my beautiful California where I mingled with so many people from Mexico. I found them, and still do, to be very warm and genuine people. They know how to live and enjoy life !
I learned a lot from your article as to how Tequila is made and where. Excellent writing as always !
Sarah’s elucidating and holistic article induced me to ponder the evolution of Agave tequiliana…
The Agave itself is a genus of monocots (i.e. angiosperms requiring an extensive period to flower and then only flowering once on a specific appendage).
The fossil evidence is meager, but the Agave species emerged early on in the first appearance of angiosperms, circa 120 million years ago. This alludes to the possibility that the Agave diversified and was able to spread throughout different climes and topographies (e.g. arid regions and highland areas). The insects (e.g. moths and butterflies) that access them as a source of food for larvae reflect the evolution of environments in which the Agave species diversified.
Ostensibly, the monocots first began as marine plants, before adapting to terrestrial environments, circa 150 million years ago. Seagrass is an example of a monocot genus that exists today.
Though, botanists and biochemists continue to debate upon the evolution of the monocots, as they are unique among the angiosperms…