I met Ishmael, a fourth-generation jimador, in Mexico this week. He is a farmer who, like his forefathers, tends and harvests blue agave. That’s the plant they use to make agave syrup. And tequila. And Ishmael, now in his 50s, is a master cutter of cacti. In the video I took of him below, he’s moving at a snail’s pace to demonstrate how it’s done. Typically, he can harvest several thousand tons of blue agave in an hour.
Normally, my international boozing shenanigans wouldn’t end up in this space. But tequila, I’ve learned, is probably the greenest spirit out there, and a lot of the reason has to do with the plant itself. Of course, it goes without saying—tequila is pretty delicious stuff too.
Agave thrives in an environment void of almost all water. The plantations are not irrigated—unlike cornfields for bourbon or potato crops for vodka—which saves water. For this reason the plant is also considered one of the best sources for biofuel. Unlike sugarcane or corn, agave does not utilize land that might otherwise be used for food crops—a huge problem in countries like Guatemala, where farmers are resorting to growing their families’ food on road medians after been pushed out of crop fields by sugarcane-ethanol producers. Agave grows where no food can—in the desert.
Once harvested, the agave hearts are steamed, converting their starches to sugars, then they are pressed, extracting what is called the honey (watered-down agave syrup). The leftover pulp is then recycled in one of many ways. It can become compost. It can be repressed to make biofuel (in fact, agave is more efficient than other biofuel crops and even the post-tequila agave can be made into ethanol, reducing the need for more land use). It can be used for livestock feed. Or it can be reused in a variety of paper and natural fiber products, like twine or burlap.
The final green factor of tequila is in your hands. Some tequilas are aged (or rested) in oak barrels—not green—but, unlike bourbon, which requires a new barrel for each batch, tequila barrels are used five to seven times. However, you can choose to drink tequila blanco, the un-aged version, which is just as good, uses fewer resources, and is usually cheaper.
Finally, a recipe.
The locals here like to make a cocktail called a Paloma, a mix of tequila blanco and a grapefruit soda called Squirt. Instead, I’ve stirred together some fresh grapefruit juice, a little sparking water and a shot of tequila.
Fresh “Squirt”-Tequila Cocktail
2 tablespoons tequila blanco
1/4 cup fresh grapefruit juice
Place ice in an 8-ounce glass and top with tequila and grapefruit juice and stir. Top with sparkling water.