We think of tequila as a must-have for margaritas, but did you know that the agave plant that gives us tequila was the plant of survival for rural people in Mexico? The agave gave them medicine, clothing, shoes, drink, weapons, cattle feed, fuel and even the roofs over their heads. All from one plant.

Author Lucinda Hutson is a woman with Mexico in her heart and a fascination with tequila in her soul. It's been a life's work for her, and she's the author of ¡Viva Tequila!: Cocktails, Cooking, and Other Agave Adventures.

Lynne Rossetto Kasper: Lucinda, how did tequila get to you? How did this all begin?

Lucinda Hutson: Well, I grew up on the border -- El Paso -- but I've been traveling through Mexico for the last four decades. And the plant: Oh, it's such an amazing plant, to think of the magical transformation of producing tequila from the agave plant.

It's like a 6-foot artichoke out in the field, and those leaves have to be whacked off to reveal this starchy core that looks like a huge pineapple. And then that has to be baked to produce the fermentable sugars for distillation. Pretty amazing.

LRK: It is amazing, and from what I understand, there's many different kinds of agave plants, but there's only one kind of agave that gives us tequila? 

LH: That's right, and that's the blue agave that's just grown in five states in Mexico. There are many others, something like 400 varieties of agaves like you mentioned, that have had so much historical significance. But one -- blue agave -- makes tequila.

Viva Tequila ¡Viva Tequila!

LRK: So, what is it that we should understand about tequila? Because I know there are different kinds but I'm not quite sure what those differences mean.

LH: Well, another amazing thing for a spirit is that there are four distinct styles.

Once it comes out of the still, you have that beautiful, clear, blanco tequila that's vibrant and bright. Once it's aged for a short while in oak, we get the reposada, the gently reposed tequila.

If it's aged longer, for 1 to 3 years more, we get the extra añejo, the brown spirits people love. It's more like cognac or a good brandy, or scotch or bourbon. So there's the blanco, the reposado, the añejo, and the extra añejo.

LRK: It sounds like the white tequila would be the thing to drink if I really want to taste what that plant is about. 

LH: I think that's true. It's peppery, it's bright, it's fresh, it's clear, but you should still taste the flavor of the agave.

And we know what grapes and grain taste like, but what does agave taste like? It's yammy, it's herbaceous, it's floral. It's like baking yams with molasses in a clay pot with desert rain. I love it. 

LRK: The thing that I was really intrigued by, too, is that that agave plant has to be 10 years old before you make tequila.

LH: Yes. And think grapes and grain. One harvest, one year. This plant takes about 10 years to grow in the field and it needs maintenance throughout that time. So it's a long process. This is a very special spirit. 

LRK: And then it shoots up one shoot that turns into a flower and could go up, what, 20 feet?

LH: Yes, but we don't want it to do that. That has to be cut off about 6 months before the harvest, because otherwise the sugars would go into the sky to feed this flowering stalk.

So that has to happen in the field, too. It's that central core that we want to get the starch from, and the sugar waters that are within it. 

LRK: Yeah. Because with grapes, you can cut them off the plant and the plant lives. With agave, you kill the plant to get what you drink.

LH: The plant is gone. It looks like a war zone when they harvest it. 

LRK: So now, let's talk blends, or a misto. For instance, I'm just thinking of one brand off the top of my head, Cuervo Gold. What is that? Is that pure tequila?

LH: Well, what we want to look for is 100 percent agave tequila, which you will see on the bottle. If it doesn't say that on the bottle, it means that sugars can be added to the tequila.

You see, it has to have at least 51 percent blue agave, but 49 percent could come from added sugars. And so it's not a pure agave tequila. So I encourage people to look for one that says 100 percent agave on the label.

LRK: Are there brands that you particularly favor?

LH: I love Tapatio tequila. I love Tequila Uno. I love 7 Leguas. I'm still a fan of Herradura

But my gosh, it just depends on your taste. Don't let anybody tell you what to drink. You know, you just have to sip and savor, and figure it out for yourself.

Guadlalajara Punch Hutson's recipe: Guadalajara Punch

LRK: I know that the famous way of drinking tequila is straight with a lime.

LH: Well, a lot of people do that, but I prefer just sipping without the lime, or salt or anything. If you don't want it straight, you could make something like a Guadalajara Punch.

But traditionally, in Jalisco, the main state of the five states, if you order a shot of tequila, what comes to the table accompanying it is a shot of sangrita, a non-alcoholic chaser. Sangrita means "little blood" because it's bright red, and it's just the quintessential chaser for tequila. It's salty, and sour, and picante. 

LRK: What's in it?

LH: Well, the traditional recipe is fresh orange juice, lime juice, pomegranate juice, and hot red chili salsa. I use one called Valentina, but unfortunately you'll see people doing a bloody mary mix nowadays with tomato. Mine has no tomato in it. So it's just so fresh and bright and delicious to sip at the same time with tequila.

Lynne Rossetto Kasper
Lynne Rossetto Kasper has won numerous awards as host of The Splendid Table, including two James Beard Foundation Awards (1998, 2008) for Best National Radio Show on Food, five Clarion Awards (2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2014) from Women in Communication, and a Gracie Allen Award in 2000 for Best Syndicated Talk Show.