MOORHEAD — Whether you're going "Ten Rounds With Jose Cuervo" or enjoying another "Tequila Sunrise," there is no shortage of references to the straight shootin' drink often served with a sprinkle of salt and a slice of lime.

But there is so much more to the smoky-sweet liquor than making your clothes fall off — something Justin Blanford, sommelier and manager of 99 Bottles in Moorhead, is trying to show through his classes on tequila.

While the liquor may bring about bouts of, well, amnesia to some, the history of tequila goes back quite a ways.

"Using agave to make alcohol goes back pretty far in Mexico," Blanford says. "They make what is called pulque, which is a beer made from the agave fruit, a traditional drink in the area. Then the Spaniards and the Dutch came over in the 1500s. When they ran out of brandy, they turned to distilling agave into tequila."

Currently, more than 100 distilleries make over 900 brands of tequila in Mexico, which, by law, is the only country allowed to distill, create and bottle tequila.

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What is tequila?

A sample of tequila is photographed at 99 Bottles in Moorhead on Wednesday, Oct. 2. Tequila is protected as a Mexican designation of origin in dozens of countries, including the United States. Ann Arbor Miller / The Forum
A sample of tequila is photographed at 99 Bottles in Moorhead on Wednesday, Oct. 2. Tequila is protected as a Mexican designation of origin in dozens of countries, including the United States. Ann Arbor Miller / The Forum

"Tequila is a really interesting thing," Blanford says. "The process of how it's made is definitely worth knowing."

Blanford says there are more than 150 species of agave. However, by law, tequila can only be made with one type of the plant: Blue Weber Agave. The other 149 species can be used to create mezcal, a distilled spirit made from the agave plant that tends to taste a bit sweeter than tequila.

After the jimadores, or Mexican farmers who harvest the blue weber agave plants, do their work, they cut the raw fruit to prepare it to be roasted or steamed.

"Steaming is a newer process," Blanford says. "It yields more product, the so called diffusers. A lot of major brands, like Patron, use diffusers because they can get more product. But it doesn't taste as good as an enclave, which uses direct fire as a heat source."

Once the agave is cooked, it is put in a shredder or puller to pull the fibers. The fibers are then laid out on a stone wheel where they are crushed to extract the juice, or nectar. The nectar is then created into a beer, or pulque, then distilled into tequila.

"It's the same way whiskey is made from beer," he says. "You're doing the same thing, you're distilling an agave beer instead of a grain beer."

Types of tequila

For consumers interested in taking their tequila experience up a notch or two, certified sommelier Justin Blanford recommends purchasing tequila labeled more than 50 percent de agave. The higher the percentage, the better, he says. Ann Arbor Miller / The Forum
For consumers interested in taking their tequila experience up a notch or two, certified sommelier Justin Blanford recommends purchasing tequila labeled more than 50 percent de agave. The higher the percentage, the better, he says. Ann Arbor Miller / The Forum

Once it's distilled, the tequila is put into barrels to rest before being bottled — much like whiskey.

Barrel-aging tequila is not a new development, but Blanford says its popularity has been booming. Tequila is divided into four main categories in regards to barrel aging: blanco, reposado, anejo and xtra anejo.

Blanco tequila is rested in either concrete or steel for three months or less, and is considered by enthusiasts to be the superior option as it best represents the agave fruit.

"(The blanco) is entered into a barrel if it's going to become reposado, anejo or xtra anejo," Blanford says. "That's essentially it. The type of yeast you use, your distillation method, how fast or slow you ferment to make the pulque — these can all have an effect on the taste."

There are also two distinct styles of the beverage. Highland is tequila made from blue agave grown in clay soil and warmer climates and generally carries sweeter, fruitier notes, while lowland tequila boasts more earthy, peppery and herbaceous notes, thanks to the volcanic soil and less intense heat.

Tequila education classes

Certified sommelier and store manager Justin Blanford is photographed with an assortment of tequila at 99 Bottles in Moorhead on Wednesday, Oct. 2. Ann Arbor Miller / The Forum
Certified sommelier and store manager Justin Blanford is photographed with an assortment of tequila at 99 Bottles in Moorhead on Wednesday, Oct. 2. Ann Arbor Miller / The Forum

While the most common way many drink tequila involves a shot glass, some salt and a lime, tequila is meant to be sipped, usually neat.

"I think what people need to understand is that it's an incredibly complex spirit, comparable to whiskey," says Blanford. "It's a very different product, but its complexities, intricacies, terroir, everything — if you're interested in whiskeys, tequila can offer you the same experience in a different package."

In addition to the variety of products offered at 99 Bottles, Blanford hosts various classes centered around the many unique spirits of the world. Unfortunately, his tequila class scheduled for Saturday, Oct. 12, is sold out. However, those interested are invited to check out the 99 Bottles Facebook page at facebook.com/99BottlesMHD for upcoming events.