Tickled by tequila

It’s not just the ‘lick-shoot-suck’ routine that makes this Mexican drink one of the most intriguing in the world of liqueurs.

Dhiman Chattopadhyay | Print Edition: November 16, 2008

This drink hits you hard. Really hard. Consumed neat, it can knock the stuffing out of you. Even a tequila cocktail is sure to make you feel warm on a January evening in Ladakh. Made from the cactuslike agave plant, over 300 million of which are harvested each year in Mexico, tequila is not just the country’s national drink but is one of the most sipped liqueurs in the world today.

Tickled by tequila
And India is fast waking up to this potent spirit with over 10,000 cases sold in the country in 2007 (the figure is growing rapidly, almost at the rate of 25 per cent a year).

From pubs in whisky-addicted Delhi to high profile private dos in wine-loving Mumbai and the beer capital of Bangalore, tequila shots are being downed like never before—straight, mixed with spirits to create exotic cocktails (does Tequila Sunrise ring a bell?) or even spiced with a dash of cinnamon.

But in popular perception, tequila is still thought of as a unidimensional liqueur like Tia Maria or Baileys. Not true. Tequila comes in as many as five different varieties depending on the vintage, and that’s not even counting the tweaked ‘flavoured tequila’.

The best way to research tequila would be to down a few shots. But let’s not begin this piece by telling you how to crawl on all fours. So, let’s just say that this agave-based spirit is made primarily in the area surrounding Tequila, northwest of Guadalajara in the highlands of Mexico.

Funnily enough, despite its closeness to the cactus family, the blue agave plant looks a bit like a giant pineapple tree (so, here’s a warning—when in Mexico, don’t go chopping up anything that looks like a pineapple and putting a piece in your mouth! ‘Fibrous Tequila’ may not be the best way to start your breakfast).

The leaves of the plant are chopped off, leaving only the egg-shaped ‘piña’ (the main plant)—which can weigh as much as a fully-grown male.

Once at the distillery, the juice is extracted from the plant and double distilled to make the base. And this is not a drink for the weak-hearted.

More powerful than most other liqueurs, it usually has 38–40 per cent alcohol content (76–80 proof). There are some varieties with a higher alcohol content as well.

It’s no surprise that this is a powerful drink. The people who created it were power-hungry pirates. The story goes that when the Spanish conquerors ran out of brandy, they began to distill the agave drink to produce North America’s first indigenous distilled spirit near the town of Tequila in Mexico.

 Tequila types

Broadly, there are two categories of tequila—mixtos and the 100 per cent agave. Mixtos use up to 49 per cent of other sugars in the fermentation process while 100 per cent Agave Tequila is a far smoother and more powerful drink. Depending on the vintage or ageing process, tequilas fall into five classic categories.
  • Blanco (white) or plata (silver) —White in colour, un-aged and bottled straight after distillation.
  • Oro (gold)—These are un-aged tequila, blended with aged tequilas, and often with caramel colouring.
  • Reposado (rested)—These are aged for a minimum of two months, but less than a year, in oak barrels.
  • Añejo (aged or vintage)— These are aged a minimum of one year in oak barrels;
  • Extra añejo (extra aged or ultra aged)—The finest tequilas —these are aged a minimum of three years in oak barrels.

The India story
India is just waking up to tequila and its charms. While Sauza (from Jim Beam) is the biggest and best brand available at present, Diageo’s Jose Cuervo is the other big player. Newer players like Voodoo Tiki and Brown Forman are also entering the market. PRICES: Sauza Gold Rs 1,750 Sauza Silver Rs 1,675 Jose Cuervo Rs 1,700

* All prices are for one litre bottles, ex-Delhi


Around 1600, Don Pedro Sánchez de Tagle, the Marquis of Altamira, began mass-producing tequila at the first factory in the territory of modern-day Jalisco. By 1608, the colonial governor of Nueva Galicia had begun to tax his products, such was the popularity of the drink.

Its popularity has never dwindled ever since. In fact, global sales of ultrapremium and super-premium tequilas have grown at a rate of 8 per cent per year all through the 21st century. In 2007, sales crossed the magical 10 million cases.

And in 2006, a one-litre bottle of limited edition premium tequila was sold for $225,000 (Rs 1.08 crore) in Mexico, by the company Tequila Ley .925. The manufacturer received a certificate from Guinness World Records for the most expensive bottle of liquor ever sold.

Such is the pride that Mexicans take in this drink that there is actually a ‘Tequila Regulatory Council of Mexico’. The council did not permit flavoured tequila, which they considered ‘not the real thing’ to carry the tequila name till 2004, when they finally relented.

The Council has also approved an ‘official tequila glass’ called the Ouverture Tequila glass, made by Riedel, an Austrian firm. Of course, you may choose to swig tequila straight out of the bottle if you wish, but don’t do it in Mexico. The Council may haul you up for insulting their national drink!

Achtung Baby
As tequila has grown in status, new ways of drinking this white (or sometimes golden) liqueur have been discovered. While the ‘salt and lemon’ routine remains the most popular method, it is by no means the only way to down a shot. Here are three others:

The Neat Trick: In Mexico, tequila is drunk straight, without salt and lime. It is popular in some regions to drink tequila with a shot of sangrita—a sweet, sour and spicy drink typically made from orange juice, grenadine (or tomato juice) and hot chillies. Equal-sized shots of tequila and sangrita are sipped alternately, without salt or lime.

In many countries, including in most pubs in India, a single shot of tequila is often served with salt and a slice of lime. This is called ‘tequila crude’ or ‘lickshoot-suck’ (referring to the way in which the combination of ingredients is imbibed). The drinker moistens the back of his hand below the index finger and pours on the salt. Then the salt is licked off the hand, tequila is drunk and the fruit slice is quickly bitten.

Achtung Baby: In Germany, tequila gold is often consumed with cinnamon (before sipping the drink) and slices of orange (after the drink is downed).

Tequila cocktails
Tequila cocktails
1 part tequila gold
3/4 part triple sec liqueur
1 part sweet & sour mix

Run a juicy lime round the rim of your margarita glass. Dip it in salt, add ice. Fill a drink shaker with ice and the ingredients. Shake hard. Strain into the glass, garnish with a lime wedge. Pop in a stirrer and make yourself comfortable.

Gold Berry-Rita
3/4 part tequila
3/4 part raspberry liqueur
1 ½ parts sweet & sour

Sugar the rim of a margarita glass, wetting first with lime. Add ice. Fill a drink shaker with ice and the ingredients. Strain it into the glass.

Tequila Sunrise
Tequila Sunrise
1 shot tequila
1 large dash grenadine
Top up with orange juice

Half-fill a highball glass with ice cubes. Add tequila. Top up with orange juice to a little below the rim. Add a generous dash of grenadine which will sink to the bottom of the glass, colouring the orange juice on its way down. Garnish with a wedge of orange.

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