Today, according to whoever decides these things, is National Tequila Day in the United States. We could argue that it's odd to have a national day for a liquor that can't be legally produced in this country, but why quibble when you have an excuse to drink tequila?
Tequila has a fascinating backstory, well worth appreciating while you're slurping a margarita or sipping a glass of fine anejo, neat (the way most Mexicans drink it). It is derived from the blue agave plant, which is, for the record, not a cactus. It's a succulent with large, spear-like leaves that grows in west-central Mexico. It is one of many varieties of agave in Mexico, which collectively were known to the Aztecs as maguey plants. Maguey were an important source of both food and drink in pre-Columbian cultures, who squeezed the plants' nubbly cores (the pina) to extract sap that they fermented to produce a mildly alcoholic drink called pulque. The Aztecs were so enamored of the plant and its products that they assigned it its own deity, Mayahuel, the goddess of the maguey. The sap of the agave was her blood.
Into this sacred relationship of people and plants came, of course, the Spanish. While conquering and colonizing in the 1500s, the invaders tended to run dry on whatever hooch they had brought with them across the Atlantic. Looking for locally sourced intoxicants, they seized on pulque -- and found it not nearly potent enough for their tastes. So they applied their alcoholic know-how and distilled the milky liquid to its essence. The result was the smoky kick in the head we call mezcal. The spirit derived from the blue agave in particular had its own distinct distillation process and flavor profile, and eventually took on the name of the largest city in its growing region: Tequila.
Tequila is now a geographically protected "appellation of origin" product, meaning it -- like Champagne or Rioja -- can only be produced in its native territory. (This primacy was even recognized in the North American Free Trade Agreement.) Its subsequent adoption as the party drink of choice of generations of U.S. vacationers and college students is well known, with the requisite salt and lime acquired along the way. Recent years have seen a growing appreciation here for the full range of tequilas, which are distinguished primarily by how long they are aged. The cocktail commandos at Death and Co in New York City even brought the drink back to its spiritual origins with an agave bar named for Mayahuel. Sadly, that bar will be closing next month, a victim of rising Manhattan rents.
Fortunately, you can pay tribute to the goddess in your own fashion. We at Libacious suggest a siesta, pictured above, which adds grapefruit and Campari for a brisk summer cooler. ¡Salud!