In Mexico, Cinco de Mayo is just a small holiday celebrating an 1862 Mexican victory in the Battle of Puebla, back during the Franco-Mexican war. But in the United States, the day has become an opportunity to celebrate Mexican pride and heritage—or as a convenient excuse to indulge in tequila, the distilled beverage hailing from the Mexican state of Jalisco. But there are many more reasons to appreciate tequila than as a quick route to unconsciousness, as both tequila and the agave plant used to create it have potential health benefits and interesting scientific applications.
Roots Of Tequila Taste
Tequila—a subset of a type of liquor called mezcal—is created by starting with the core of the blue agave plant (Agave tequilana). The plant’s core is full of inulin, an energy-storing chain of sugars that yields a sweet liquid when hydrolysed (when its chemical bonds are split by the addition of water). The hydrolysis step of tequila production is typically performed in an autoclave or steam oven. The resulting liquid is then fermented and distilled twice. (Some producers distill a third time, but some producers think this eliminates too much of tequila’s real flavor.) After distillation, the product can be sold as a silver tequila, or it can be barrel-aged for varying amounts of time. Reposado tequilas, for example, are aged between two months and a year, while Extra Añejos are aged at least three years.
Researchers have delved into the structure of tequila by chemically separating the components that make up its distinctive smell and taste. One study found more than 60 odor-producing compounds in tequila. The most powerful components were isovaleraldehyde (a malty compound that flavors beer, olive oil, cheese, and more), isoamyl alcohol (also a compound in black truffle’s aroma), β-damascenone (a key odorant in some bourbon), 2-phenylethanol (a floral-smelling alcohol), and vanillin (what it sounds like).
While the flavor of aged tequila changes over time, mellowing and picking up oak notes from the barrels, all ages of tequila tend to fall in the alcoholic range of 76 to 110 proof. Chemically, different varieties of tequila look pretty similar; a 2003 study examining 100% agave tequilas and mixto tequilas (51-100% agave, mixed with water and sugar) found nearly identical ratios of ethanol, methanol, higher alcohols, and aldehydes across a range of ages of tequila. But the older tequilas had higher concentrations of esters, chemical compounds that often provide fragrances.
A Cuervo A Day Keeps The Doctor Away?
Then there’s the question of whether Cinco de Mayo revelers are getting any health benefits from knocking back all that tequila. In general, tequila shares the same benefits of other distilled spirits, like potentially helping to lower “bad” cholesterol (LDL) and raise “good” cholesterol (HDL). Agave itself provides clear benefits, but they don’t necessarily survive the transition to tequila.
The potential health boost from agave comes from that previously mentioned sugary compound, inulin. Inulin is a type of fructan, a fructose-based carbohydrate. Fructans are also found in artichokes, garlic, and onions, among other foods. Small studies in recent years have shown that fructans might aid in bone health, by way of encouraging bacterial growth in the large intestine that lets the body absorb minerals like calcium more effectively. Another fructan found in agave, agavin, also shows promise—it could be useful as a sugar substitute that wouldn’t raise glucose levels in the blood, which has potentially great implications for diabetics and people trying to lose weight. But unfortunately, hitting the tequila bottle won’t avail you of any of these benefits. Fructans convert to alcohol when tequila is made, so you probably won’t lose weight or get stronger bones from overindulging in margaritas on May 5.
Besides granting us festive Cinco de Mayo memories (or taking them away), tequila has added awesomeness in its ability to be turned into diamonds. Scientists have found that if they heated an unaged 80-proof tequila, the vapor would form diamond films on a silicon or stainless steel surface. The resulting material isn’t quite jewelry-quality, but it has solid implications for industrial applications. Tequila-based diamonds could be used as an insulating coating on things like semiconductors and radiation detectors.
No Worms Here
Lastly, what about that worm at the bottom of the bottle? Actually, worms are never found in tequila bottles, only in non-tequila mezcals. Plus, that “worm” you find in a bottle of booze is not really a worm; it’s a larva of the Hypopta agavis moth. Adding a moth larva to a bottle of mezcal started as a marketing gimmick in the 1950s, courtesy of the Nacional Vinicola company. Even if you avoid eating the worm, you’ll still be ingesting some of it—researchers have detected traces of larva DNA in bottles of mezcal. Legend has it that the “worm” has hallucinogenic properties, but this seems to be mostly mythical…and if you’re at the end of a bottle of tequila or a bottle of mezcal, you’re probably not seeing straight anyway.
We hope you enjoy Cinco de Mayo responsibly, with a newfound appreciation for tequila!