Legend Has It…
Alcoholic beverages have been produced from various agave plants in Mexico for centuries. A popular Native American legend relates the tale of a group of natives walking through a field of agaves when a violent storm struck and drove them to seek shelter in a cave. During the storm, intense bolts of lightning struck some of the agaves splitting the plants and cooking the hearts or pineapples. This produced a sweet tasting sap similar to honey. One of the Indians gathered some of the sweet liquid and carried it home. He forgot about his new find for several days until the aroma of the fermenting sap caught his attention. He drank some of the foamy substance and liked it. Mexico would never be the same.
Three Alcoholic Drinks From Agave
Three major alcoholic drinks in Mexico have been made from agaves over the centuries. When the Spanish arrived the Indians were consuming a foamy, milky looking substance fermented from the sap of various agave species. The name of this beverage was pulque (pool-kay) and it had a three to four percent alcohol content. Pulquerias were popular drinking establishments for the working class, mostly men. Consumption of pulque has decreased over the years, but some pulque establishments can still be found in Mexico City.
Mezcal is a distilled alcohol product made from several species of agave. The center of mescal production is Oaxaca and the alcohol content depends on the local distiller, but it can reach as high as 55 percent. Some bottles of mescal contain a larva which has been erroneously identified as a worm. Legend suggests that if you "eat the worm" when you finish the bottle, it will make you a real man. If eating worms made "real men" many of us would have been men by the time we were five, but that has not stopped many people from ingesting the alcohol-soaked larva at the bottom of the bottle.
Tequila is produced exclusively from a double distillation of the juice extracted from the piña or pineapple of (Agave Tequilana ‘Weber Blue’). The Mexican government owns the name "tequila", which is so popular that the word is now recognized around the world. The following requirements must be met before any distilled agave product can be called tequila. The only plant that can be used is the Agave azul. It must be made in the tequila region which includes 181 municipalities in the five Mexican states of Jalisco, Nayarit, Tamaulipas, Guanajuato, and Michoacán. A large majority of the distilleries are near the urban complex of Tequila, Jalisco. Lastly, the product must contain a minimum of 51 percent Agave azul ingredients.
The Growth of Tequila
The growth of tequila consumption has been skyrocketing largely because of consumption in the United States. Tequila consumption in the U.S. has increased 900 percent since 1986. In 2010 the U.S. imported 31.3 million gallons of tequila from Mexico. That is enough for every man, woman, and child to have at least six, two-ounce shots of tequila every year.
Some of the reasons for increased imports of tequila can be traced to popular culture. In the 1980 movie, Urban Cowboy, with John Travolta, Debra Winger, and Scott Glenn, tequila shots were an important part of the bar scene. Cowboy hats, jeans, and tequila sales all received a boost as "urban cowboys," in New York City, Boston, and Philadelphia tried to mimic the action in the movie’s Houston setting.
George Strait, a country-western music icon, racked up a number one hit with "Blame It On Mexico", in which he sang:
Blame it on Mexico, if you need a reason
Say too much guitar music, tequila, salt and lime
Perhaps those were some of the beginnings of tequila’s popularity, but since then, tequila has taken on an importance and an identity that has endeared it to the hearts and Saturday nights of many Americans and others around the world. Tequila is closely identified with Mexico, with margaritas, and with a good time.
Gotty Has A Problem
With that kind of industry growth, it is no surprise that Gotthold "Gotty" Beutelspacher decided to import Agave azul transplants from Jalisco to grow in his fields near Valladolid. Finding the plants was not a problem, and growing them in these ideal conditions was not a problem either. The problem Beutelspacher faced was what he would call distilled Agave azul after he bottled it.
The strict regulations enforced by the Tequila Regulatory Council (CTR) prohibited him from naming it tequila, because the Yucatán is not located in the official delimited region surrounding Tequila, Jalisco. The growers, distillers, bottlers, and marketers in the official region have a strong financial incentive to maintain their control over what can be called tequila, and they defend their marketing territory fiercely. To some outsiders this may seem absurd, but it is their livelihood and a brand they have worked hard to establish. The rules do seem somewhat arbitrary. For instance, the rules of the CTR state that to be called tequila, a drink must meet all rules and be at least 51 percent Agave azul. The other 49 percent can be distilled spirits from sugarcane, grain, or other sources. This is called mixto (mixed), and though it is not pure tequila, but can still be labeled tequila, because it fulfills all the other requirements.
Mayapan is 100% Pure Something
On the other hand, Beutelspacher’s Agave azul distillate, which is 100 percent pure, could not be called tequila and had to be given a different name. He selected the brand name ‘Mayapán’. When questioned about the choice he stated, "since Tequila was a small town in Jalisco, I chose Mayapán, a small town in Yucatán." All this controversy over an official name is reminiscent of Juliets’s response to Romeo Montague in Shakespeare’s famous play, Romeo and Juliet.
What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet."
In this case, it may not be called tequila, but for all intents and purposes, it IS tequila.
Mayapan Distillery in Valladolid
Since Gotty’s first planting turned seven years old in 2010, he built a distillery on the edge of Valladolid and began production. He hired his son-in-law Enrique Sánchez Duran as General Manager. Enrique is the person you are most likely to meet if you go to the distillery for a tour. He is an affable, outgoing young man with an accomplished understanding of the distillation process. With a degree in architecture from Tec de Monterrey in Guadalajara, he has had unique professional experiences across Central America and in Germany. He is fluent in Spanish, English, and German, and he is one of the best tour leaders I have ever encountered (that is Enrique to the right in the distillery gift shop).
The distillery is open for tours from 7 AM until 5 PM, Monday through Saturday. The admission fee for the tour is $30 pesos and includes a personal guide, permission to photograph the entire operation, three shots of the different grades of Mayapán, and access to sparkling new and spacious bathrooms. In addition, the Gift Shop has some beautiful Mexican products at very reasonable prices. Directions to the distillery can be found at the company’s website (linked at the end of this article).
The Tour of Mayapan’s Distillery
The tour begins with an opportunity to walk in the Agave azul fields. If you’ve ever driven through the center of Mexico and passed by the town of Tequila, you’ll recognize the fields of blue created by the rows and rows of this beautiful plant. When you enter the distillery you can see how the pineapples are quartered and placed in an oven for four days to cook. The pineapples cook over a layer of rocks one meter (39.37 inches) thick to keep from burning the tissue.
When the quartered pineapples come out of the oven they are pulled apart and the pieces are laid on the floor of the molienda. The molienda is a circular concrete structure with an inner ring that contains the cooked Agave azul. A horse walks slowly around an outer ring pulling a round 2,000-pound stone, which crushes the flesh of the pineapple. This creates a soft fibrous material saturated with its own juices.
The saturated fibers are transported to large oak barrels with a mixture of 75 percent fiber and 25 percent water. This mixture ages in the vats and ferments while changing the natural sugars to alcohol. The fermentation process takes six days.
The liquids from the barrels are moved to the alambique, or what we would call a still. The juice is heated over a wood fire for three hours and brought to a boil. The steam from this process is transferred to a tank where the steam cools and condenses into distilled Agave azul spirits. This process is conducted twice to insure the purity of the product. At this stage it is ready to drink and is referred to as blanco (white). If it is placed in a white oak barrel and aged for at least two months for tequila (but three months for Mayapán) it is labeled reposado (rested). Allowing the liquid to age one full year or more produces an amber-colored, smooth distillate termed añejo (old).
The entire operation is conducted with environmentally friendly processes. All electricity is generated from solar panels on the roof. All waste is recycled as organic fertilizer. Renewable energy in the form of local woods and the cores of the pineapples are used for heating the ovens. A windmill draws water from an underground aquifer using only the power of the wind. A horse powers the molienda. No pesticides or herbicides are used on the fields.
Distribution of this unique drink is the next challenge on the list. The three types of Mayapan liquor are now selling on the Mayan Riviera. At this writing, the drink is not yet sold in Merida or anywhere in Yucatan except at the Valladolid distillery and store, which is located just off the carretera between Cancun and Valladolid, as you are entering Valladolid.
New Kid In Town
The agave plant has played a large role in the Yucatán’s history and economic welfare in the form of henequen. Now, at the beginning of the 21st century, there is a new kid in town. Henequén is still here, but not in a big way, and teq…., oh wait, we can’t call it that, is coming up and may just be taking the spotlight in the near future.
I will leave you with the old proverb,
"if it looks like a duck, and it walks like a duck, and it quacks like a duck, it is probably a duck."
Well, if it looks like tequila, and it smells like tequila, and it tastes like tequila, it probably is ……………. You can fill in the blank. Next time you are on your way between Cancun and Merida, visit the distillery and see for yourself this exciting new development near Valladolid.
Click here to read Part One of this article, all about the history of agave on the Yucatan Peninsula, a brief story of henequen, and the new agave plantings that are centered around Valladolid.
The Mayapan website