Close your eyes and take a journey with me south of the border through rolling hills gleaming of azul (blue) and oro (gold). The blue patches covering every hillside are blue agaves, surrounded by grasses that shimmer like gold. The air is crisp and you discover yourself immersed in the charming town of Tequila, in the state of Jalisco, Mexico. The town of Tequila was one of those bucket list items, things to see in a lifetime, that I had the pleasure of exploring–streets filled with music, festivities and a plethora of curio shops proudly selling “everything tequila.” Most everyone is familiar with tequila, but few are aware of the fascinating production, history and pollination connection that is linked to this infamous beverage.
First, agaves, the main ingredient of tequila, are not cactus, but are succulents in the asparagus family (Asparagaceae). Agaves, historically and currently, are used for food, fiber and medicine by indigenous peoples throughout North and Central America. Anthropologists studying ancient settlements in central Mexico have shown that the association of agaves and man began about 10,000 years ago. The human relationship with agaves increased in importance when it was discovered in Pre-Columbian Mexico that the juices of agaves could be fermented to produce a whitish, viscous alcoholic beverage called pulque. The fresh, unfermented juice is called aguamiel (honey-water), and it is consumed for medicinal purposes.
Tequila is only produced in the state of Jalisco and limited regions in the states of Guanajuato, Michoacan, Nayarit, and Tamaulipas. According to the Declaration for the Protection of the Denomination of Origin, only alcoholic beverages made with blue agave grown in these states can be labeled as tequila. No agave grown outside this region, including other countries, can be used for any product labeled as tequila. Tequila is a significant economic crop in southern Mexico, and North Americans alone consume more than a million gallons of tequila a year.
Are tequila and mezcal the same thing? Not quite, although they are often confused with one another. Tequila can only be distilled from one species, Agave tequilana weberi (= A. angustifolia weberiana) or blue agave, whereas mezcal can be made from at least 54 different species of agave in more than 10 states of Mexico. Tequila´s original name is vino mezcal de Tequila, or mezcal wine from the town of Tequila. Because of its superior quality, marketers began dropping the words vino mezcal in the first half of the 20th century. Also, tequila is typically twice-distilled, while traditional mezcal is usually distilled only once (although the new, “boutique mezcals” today often go through two distillations). A less-well-known variety of mezcal is called Bacanora, made from regional varieties of Agave angustifolia from the foothills of the northernmost Sierra Madre Occidental. Bacanora is akin to what has been called “white lightening” in the U.S.
Why is there a worm in my tequila bottle? What you have is not a bottle of Tequila. The worm is found only in certain bottles of mezcal and is nothing more than a marketing gimmick! The worm, by the way, is actually an insect larva, usually either of a moth, butterfly, or weevil that is associated with the living agave plant.
Tequila production requires patience, since you cannot begin harvesting right away. The blue agave plant is nurtured and cultivated by experts known as jimadores and can take anywhere from 6 to 12 years to mature. At maturity, the plant reaches its peak in sugars and will yield the most tequila. The plant’s core, with the leaves removed, is called a piña (Spanish word for pineapple), and this is the heart of the agave from which sugars are extracted and tequila is made. Agaves must be harvested before the flowering stalk begins to grow, lest the plant invests its sugars in flowering and instead they are turned into alcohol. The piñas are transported to the distillery, and traditionally they are cooked underground or in adobe clay or brick ovens at temperatures reaching190 degrees Fahrenheit. This slowly converts the agave’s starches into sugars. The cooked piñas are placed on a milling wheel that is used to extract the agave juice, or aguamiel. The aguamiel is then combined with natural yeast and placed in fermentation vats. After approximately 7 days the sugars are mostly converted into alcohol. The fermented liquid is then distilled twice through copper pot stills. Two-step distillation ensures that the taste, aroma and body of the tequila are optimal. The tequila’s color comes from being aged in wood and also imparts subtle flavors and aromatic overtones that enhance the character of the tequila. After aging, though not all tequila is aged, the tequila is ready for bottling.
The history of tequila is fascinating. The first producer of tequila in the world was Jose Cuervo who began his operation in 1795. He obtained the land from the King of Spain in 1758, before Mexico became an independent republic. He made the first Vino Mezcal de Tequila when he received the first official permit to produce tequila commercially. An interesting fact is that all Jose Cuervo tequila is still made in the town of Tequila and has been in operation for over 250 years. It’s definitely worth taking a tour if you are planning a trip!
Last but not least is the intriguing pollination connection between agave flowers, bats and tequila. A nectar-feeding bat found in the Sonoran Desert region is the main pollinator of blue agave. To understand this remarkable connection we need to begin with the diversity of agaves and flower structure. Mexico has more species of agaves than any other country with about 180 species. Two major groups occur, distinguished by their inflorescence or flowering stalk. The stalk is either branched or not, and bears the flowers that produce nectar at night. Bats are attracted to the floral fragrance, resembling “rotting fruit or ammonia.” The plant will not set seed unless it is pollinated.
Two species of nectar feeding bat species occur in Arizona, the lesser long-nosed and Mexican long-tongued. In both, the tongue and muzzle are elongate, an adaptation for feeding on the nectar that accumulates in the interior of the flowers upon which these species feed. Short ears and the small, triangular nose leaf are signs that these bats rely less on echolocation and probably more on their eyesight and sense of smell to locate the flowers on which they feed. As the bats feed, with their snouts deep inside the flowers, their fur gets coated with pollen grains. When they fly to another plant in search of more nectar, they transfer the pollen to new flowers, assisting in cross-fertilization of the plants. Both species will take advantage of hummingbird feeders as well. If you notice your hummingbird feeders are being emptied overnight, it’s probably a group of nectar bats! Agave nectar and pollen are the main food for nectar bats. Thus, both the plants and the bats benefit from this mutualistic relationship.
A recent article from the Tequila Interchange Project stated “that for more than a century, the industrial practices used for the production of tequila have eliminated almost all the genetic diversity of the tequila agaves. Today, for the first time ever, academics, producers, distillers, bottlers, marketers, and bartenders are joining forces to produce Bat Friendly Tequila and Mezcal and to defend the agave, its pollinators, and Mexico’s national drinks. By allowing 5% of agave plants to flower (about 222 plants per hectare), growers extend an invitation to those responsible for maintaining the genetic diversity of agaves: the bats! The final result is an original, high quality Bat Friendly Tequila and Mezcal.” To learn more about this important work go to http://www.tequilainterchangeproject.org/
The story of tequila is fascinating and the interdependence between bats and agaves is so strong that one might not be able to survive without the other. The next time you sip a margarita, pause for a moment to reflect on the contribution made to the tequila industry by nectar- feeding bats.
Written by Marie Long, Associate Director of Conservation Education & Science