What is May 5th, or Cinco de Mayo? Is it a Mexican holiday? How about a day when Mexican-Americans celebrate their culture? Or is it just a day in the beginning of the month where bars and restaurants have agave-based drink specials and an excuse to party? To be fair, it is all of those things.
In Mexico, May 5th is celebrated predominantly in Puebla, where in the 1860s a rag-tag group of Mexican soldiers stood up to the French and defeated a much larger and well-equipped force. This was also the first decisive battle in the Franco Mexican War. Although this is not a national holiday, people still re-enact that historic battle at Puebla to this day.
In the United States, Cinco de Mayo is celebrated in a couple different ways. Many Mexican-Americans celebrate their culture on this day, which can include parades, mariachi players, traditional foods, and folk dancing. Some of the largest celebrations happen in Chicago and Houston. For the rest of us, we use May 5th as a day to indulge in a bit of culture and perhaps too many agave-based spirits.
Agave-based spirits include tequila, mezcal, sotol, and raicilli. We can find these products in most liquor stores and restaurants. However, the most common are tequila and mezcal.
Let’s delve into this a bit further and confuse everyone for a moment. In a very broad sense, all distilled agave spirits are mezcal. It is where they are distilled and from what type of agave, along with a few other things like the still used and how the plant is processed before distillation, that make them different.
Sotol and Raicilla are not very common here in the Northeast. Raicilla is produced only in Jalisco from wild harvested agave. The Pina (or heart) is roasted before being mashed and then distilled. The flavor is very unique.
Sotol, on the other hand, is made using the sotol plant (otherwise know as the “desert spoon”). It is found at high altitudes. The heart is roasted in clay ovens before being double fermented and finally distilled in a copper pot. It has a funky nose and even funkier flavor, but that is what makes it so good.
Mezcal and tequila are produced in a similar fashion, and both are made from agave plants. Tequila has to be produced with Blue Weber agave, whereas mezcal can be produced from a variety of agave plants. To make both, the agave is harvested and the leaves are cut off, leaving the heart. This is where we see another difference. Tequila producers will cook or sometimes steam the hearts before mashing them in ovens. Traditionally this was done in a clay oven, but now it more is more common to use stainless steel devices that use steam. Mezcal producers will dig a hole in the ground and roast the hearts of the agave. The best analogy is to think of a clam bake. The fire roasting method is what gives the finished product a smoky flavor.
Now that the the heart is cooked, it needs to be mashed. The traditional way is called the Tahona method, in which the agave is mashed in a stone disk. The other way is to use large machinery, as this is more efficient and much faster. Your larger distillers will do this because it allows them to produce much more product.
For the distillation phase, most use pot stills or some sort of modified pot still to make the tequila or mezcal.
Now comes the fun part. As mentioned before, mezcal is distilled from many different types of agave. Each plant will have its own unique flavor. The most common mezcal is produced from the Espadin plant. Along with using different plants, distillers will hang herbs and animals, such as pigs or roosters, over the top of the still. The natural juices will fall into the distillate, offering a unique flavor. This was originally done for spiritual reasons. The producers thought they could ingest the soul of the animal. However, practice still takes place today.
Tequila is a bit different. The spirit is cut to 80 proof, and in most cases it gets aged. There are a few types of aged tequila out there: Reposado (or rested) is tequila that has been aged in oak barrels for up to 1 year, and Anejo (or aged) has been rested in barrels for up to 2 years. Extra anejo is tequila that has been aged for 3 years and beyond. Some small tequila producers are starting to treat their product like fine whiskies and have stock aging well past the 20 year mark.
Gold tequila is made by adding caramel coloring to white tequila. The caramel coloring a bit of flavor to the tequila. It is fine for mixing in cocktails and doing shots at the bar, but in most cases this is lower quality product.
So what can we do with our distilled agave products? The easiest thing is to drink it straight or over ice. But you can also have a lot of fun with it in cocktails. The most common cocktail is the margarita. It is very easy to make at home and just about every restaurant and bar has one on the menu.
- 2 oz Los Rijos Silver Tequila or your favorite Silver or Blanco Tequila*
- 1 oz fresh lime juice
- .5 oz paisley and sage triple sec
- .5 oz simple syrup or agave nectar
Combine all ingredients in a shaker filled with ice. Shake vigorously then strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with a lime wedge and enjoy.
*Mezcal can be used in place of tequila for a smoky alternative.
A great use of anejo tequila is in a tequila old fashioned. This is great on a cooler summer evening, or the beginning of fall.
Tequila Old Fashioned
- 3 oz Los Rijos Anejo Tequila or your favorite Anejo Tequila
- .25 oz agave nectar
- 3 dashes of chocolate or mole bitters
Combine all ingredients in a mixing glass filled with ice. Stir well to combine then strain into a rocks glass. Garnish with an orange twist.
Give these two a try and feel free to make your own variations. For a margarita, the possibilities are endless: try using different fruit juices or blend them with ice to make frozen drinks.