Is Tequila an Upper? A New Look Inside the Age-Old Question
Muttered between shots or eagerly proclaimed at the dinner table, the age-old question of whether tequila is an upper or a downer has perplexed spirits enthusiasts for centuries.
It’s a tried and true belief, but one that you’ll quickly hear dismissed as a debunked fairy tale. In fact, if you were to search “is tequila an upper” on Google right now, the top result would almost certainly say something along the lines of:
“As much as we wish this myth was actually true, all alcohol types act as a depressant.”
Scientifically (and legally) speaking this is true; the US Department of Human Health and Services has long classified all forms of consumable alcohol as depressants.
But that doesn’t mean that rumors of tequila’s stimulating effects are entirely anecdotal.
In fact, distillers have long speculated that agave possesses unique chemical properties, ones which may explain why so many drinkers feel that tequila doesn’t leave them with the same lasting hangover as other spirits.
The Debated History
The oldest rumors of tequila’s uplifting properties existed not in anecdote, but in actual myth.
Running parallel to the idea that tequila is a stimulant you’ll sometimes hear that tequila is a psychedelic.
This rumor, which was particularly popular in the 1950s, is often thought to have been popularized by a common confusion between mezcal, the spirit, and mescaline, the hallucinogenic drug.
A more specific iteration of this rumor alleges that the agave worm you’ll see at the bottom of certain bottles is the hallucinogen culprit.
Though also completely untrue, this rumor is substantiated in a grain of truth; these maguey worms, which feed on the insides of naturally occurring agave plants, are sometimes found within the peyote cactus from which mescaline is refined. Suffice it to say though, those aren’t the worms you’ll be finding in your tequila anytime soon.
So why would people keep repeating that tequila is a stimulant?
The Devil Is in the Details
Agave spirits writer Chantal Martineau did a deep dive into the topic when she traveled the globe in search of tequila’s cultural and chemical history.
On her journey she met Marko Karkasevic, a thirteenth-generation distiller with decades of experience making whiskey, rum, brandy, liqueur, wine, port, and of course, tequila.
Karkasevic revealed that tequila’s chemical makeup is completely unlike that of any other spirit that undergoes distillation.
A quick rundown: alcoholic liquid is heated into vapor within a still during distillation. The first compounds released into the still, which are heavy on methanol and acetaldehyde, are known as “heads.” Distillers will remove the heads from the still then continue vaporizing until they acquire the “hearts”, and then continue vaporizing some more before they remove the low-alcohol remainders, the “tails.”
Trimming the heads and the tails is a ubiquitous technique within alcohol production. But Karkasevic and other distillers contend that the process is inexplicably flipped for tequila.
“Methanol is a smaller molecule so it should boil at a lower temperature, which is in the beginning, or the heads, of a run of distillation. But in the world of agave, that methanol is being collected at the end [the tails] with the highest boiling point of the run,” said Karkasevic.
“To a trained master distiller who is used to dealing with methanol in the heads versus the tails, it blows me away. It’s pretty bizarre because it’s physically not supposed to happen, but it does.”
Put simply, lower alcohol-content molecules are the first ones to appear within the still during tequila distillation.
The origins of this phenomenon are unknown, as are its effects.
Though this anomaly technically exists within the world of anecdote, Martineau and other agave spirit researchers have proposed that this unique chemical composition may be the secret that lies beneath tequila’s rumored stimulating properties.
“Is it possible that the backward chemical behavior of agave spirits has a rather backward effect on those of us who drink them, imparting a high rather than a low?” concluded Martineau.
This explanation, if true, would apply to 100% agave spirits, ones which aren’t overly processed with additives or additional distillation.
As tequila continues to explode in popularity, scientists will come to understand and quantify its yet-undiscovered characteristics.
For now though, we just have to take the word of distillers when they tell us that there’s something different, inexplicably different, about what goes into our tequila.
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