This Cinco de Mayo, revelers throughout Mexico and the United States will be getting into the spirit of the holiday with a glass of tequila in hand. But other than its taste or where it’s produced, most of us don’t know a thing about Mexico’s national liquor.
In other words, our collective knowledge of tequila could fit in a shot glass.
In honor of Mexico’s victory at the Battle of Puebla May 5, 1862, we’re taking a closer look at the history, etymology and growing practices behind everybody’s favorite Cinco de Mayo beverage:
1. Not all agave-based beverages are created equal.
In order for a spirit to legally advertise itself as tequila, it must be made from weber blue agave plants grown in a territory specified by the General Declaration of Protection of the Appellation of Origin of "Tequila" (and also manufactured and bottled in facilities therein). Anything else — even if it's made to near-identical standards — is a mezcal, which is the term for any spirit distilled from the agave plant. Therefore, all tequila is technically mezcal, but not all mezcal can call itself tequila.
2. The etymology of the word “Tequila” is a little murky.
Tequila gets its name from the town of Tequila in Jalisco, Mexico, but the etymology of the word is much more ambiguous. Some claim it comes from the Nahuatl words "tequitl" and "tlan," which can be translated as "place of work," "place of duty," "place of job," or "place of task" (some take it to mean "place of wild herbs," "place where they cut" or "place of tricks," too). Others say it comes from the names of native tribes once known as the Ticuilas and the Tiquilos. A final theory claims that "tequila" is simply a corruption of the word "tetilla" — meaning "small breast" — which is also the name for the summit of a tiny volcano near Tequila.
3. Agave plants are pollinated by bats.
Agave plants are chiropterophilous, meaning that they’re pollinated by bats as opposed to insects or birds. The plants flower at nighttime, attracting the bats with the smell of rotting, over-ripened fruit. While drinking the nectar, the bats become covered in pollen and spread the grains to other plants. However, agave plants can also reproduce asexually in two different ways: either by vegetative propagation, during which a genetically identical plant grows from part of the original plant; or by producing tiny clone-like growths called bulbils, which are later harvested and re-planted. However, the agave used to produce tequila is often harvested before it has a chance to flower, meaning that most tequila producers don’t rely on bats to pollenate their agave farms.
4. We really love our Don Julio.
According to Drinks International, the 10 best-selling tequila brands in the world in 2016 were Don Julio, Calle 23, Ocho, Tapatio, Patron, Cabeza, Jose Cuervo, Herradura, El Jimador, and Espolon.
5. Ironically, prohibition made tequila more popular.
Thanks to prohibition, tequila's popularity in the United States grew during the 1920s. Americans weren't about to sit back and not drink alcohol, and liquor from Mexico was easier to smuggle into the country. Later, during World War II, tequila experienced another boom in popularity when overseas liquor shipments decreased.
6. Tequila can (technically) be used to make diamonds.
Physicists at the National Autonomous University of Mexico have discovered how to make artificial diamonds out of 80-proof tequila, which contains the perfect ratio of ethanol to water for the process. They begin by evaporating the tequila into a vapor, and then they heat that vapor to a temperature of 1400 degrees Fahrenheit. Once the vapor hits a silicon or stainless steel tray, it creates a "diamond film" containing microscopic diamonds free of impurities. Too small for jewelry (as of yet), these diamonds can be used for a wide variety of practical, industrial and electronic purposes. What's more, the scientists say that even the cheapest of tequilas can be made into these diamonds.