Tequila And Agave

Although thought to be mostly a coarse drink made from the Mexican or Blue Agave plant, tequila and other products of the agave plant have a major economic impact on Mexico and are used in many applications throughout the world. The agave plant has been used in Mexico for thousands of years but the distillation process used to make tequila was brought to the Aztecs by the Spaniards in the fifteenth century.

The Agave plant is actually a very slow growing plant and it is reported to only flower once or twice every three or four years in excellent conditions and as few as five times in a hundred years in poor conditions. Poor weather can result in no production for a period of several years. However the plant itself is very resilient and can survive in very hostile low water conditions.
The agaveís flowers however may reach up to 20 ft. and grow very rapidly. The plant is harvested by cutting of the top of the flower shoot and collecting the sap. One plant may yield as much as 1000 liters of sap in optimal conditions. This is the pulgue sap that is fermented to make mescal (the national drink of Mexico) and later distilled twice and aged to make tequila.
Some of the other products that are made with the sap include soap, tortilla flavoring, a chemical for stunning fish, a vitamin mixture for livestock, and a chemical to enhance the whiteness of the pulp in paper making.
Agave is actually a monocot in the Sisal Family, Agavacae. There are 12 genera and 400 species that make all sorts of products from sisal hemp (rope like fiber) to medicines and drinks such as tequila and mescal. They are flowering plants that have rosettes of large succulent leaves and short spines. Most plants are found in tropical and subtropical regions and particularly in arid areas.
Tequila is the product of agave we are going to concentrate on the most here. The drink, named for the town of Tequila in the state of Jalisco where it is produced, has become a favorite of the average drinker and the college student alike and is a strong flavored alcohol of moderate potency. It is actually 40-50% alcohol (about 80-100 proof) and is consumed either strait or in mixed drinks such as the tequila sunrise, salty dog, sea breeze, or the long island iced tea ( a personal favorite) and the margarita. The popularity of the drink has continued to increase even in more social circles as the drink has become smoother and more refined.
In the days of the wild west one of the favorite drinks is the southwest was the much less refined mescal. Made famous by the effects it supposedly had on Indians and its leathery taste. An interesting note is that the Apache Indians charred the tip of the bulb of the plant and when ground and mixed with water, made a black ink used for cave drawings and face paint. The rest of the bulb was rich in saccharine and used for food and as a sweetener.
The uses and the importance or the Agave plant in Mexico have been demonstrated since the beginning of recorded history. The plant has been both food and Shelter to the Aztecs and bread to the modern day Mexicans who depend on itís crop in a very poor region of the country. It provides more than the alcoholic drink that it is best know for and has played a major role in the development of both civilization and industry in Mexico. The plant can be both beautiful and durable and is a source of sustenance in a land where little else will grow.

Colliers Encyclopedia volume 22 1997
Laurna Bauhr Copyright 1996
Collier Publishing

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