What Is Tequila?

What's the Difference Between Tequila and Mezcal?

Tequila shot with salt and lime

Roxiller / Getty Images

Tequila is a distilled spirit made from the agave plant that can only be produced in certain regions of Mexico. There are several styles of tequila and specific regulations that distillers must follow. Tequila is enjoyed globally and is most often consumed in Mexico and the U.S. While it is an essential ingredient in margaritas and a variety of tequila shots, there are many other tequila cocktail recipes to explore.

Tequila vs. Mezcal

Mezcal is the name for any distilled spirit made from the maguey (agave) plant. Technically, tequila is a mezcal, but all mezcals are not tequila, similar to how bourbon and scotch are types of whiskey. Both have laws governing their production, though mezcal can use a greater variety of agave grown in nine Mexican states and must be produced in those areas. The most significant difference is in how the agave is prepared. Mezcal distillers traditionally bake the agave in earthen pits, which imparts a noticeable smoky flavor.

Other agave spirits include pulque, sotol, raicilla, and baconara. All are technically mezcals, but each has its own attributes and production methods. Only tequila and mezcal are readily available outside of Mexico.

Fast Facts

  • Ingredient: Blue agave
  • Proof: 76–100
  • ABV: 38–50%
  • Calories in a 1 1/2-ounce shot: 97
  • Origin: Mexico
  • Taste: Earthy
  • Aged: 0 months (blanco) up to 5 years (extra-añejo)
  • Serve: Shots, straight, on the rocks, cocktails

What Is Tequila Made From?

Tequila is made by distilling the fermented juices of the Weber blue agave plant (Agave tequilana). A member of the lily family, it looks like a giant aloe vera plant with spiked barbs on the tips. After seven to 10 years of growth, the agave plant is ready to be harvested.

Underground, the plant produces a large bulb called a piña, which resembles a giant white pineapple. After removing the leaves, the piñas are cut and slowly baked in steam or brick ovens to transform the starch into sugar. The baked agave is then crushed to extract the sweet juice, which is fermented with yeast to convert the sugar into alcohol.

The fermented agave juice is distilled in either pot or column stills and often distilled twice to produce a high-alcohol concentrate called tequila ordinario. Depending on the style of tequila, it may rest briefly in tanks or age in barrels, and some tequila is filtered or blended. Before bottling, the distillate is cut with water to obtain the bottling strength. Tequila is typically 35 to 40 percent alcohol by volume (ABV, 70 to 80 proof) but may not be stronger than 55 percent ABV (110 proof).

Tequila Label Illustration
 The Spruce / Maritsa Patrinos

Tequila Production Regulations

In the 1970s, the tequila industry set strict internationally recognized Appellation of Origin standards. These regulate where and how tequila is made, style and labeling, and what can legally take the name "tequila." NOM-006-SCFI-2012 defines these rules, and it is overseen by the Consejo Regulador del Tequila (CRT, or Tequila Regulatory Council).

Tequila can only be produced, bottled, and inspected within certain municipalities of five Mexican states: Jalisco, Nayarit, Guanajuato, Michoacan, and Tamaulipas. Jalisco is home to the town of Tequila, and the state produces the most tequila.

All tequila must contain at least 51 percent of its fermentable sugars from the Weber blue agave plant. There are two categories:

  • The best tequila uses that variety alone and cannot include additives. It's clearly marked "100% de agave" on the bottle. Some distilleries include the words puro, azul, or Weber blue agave, and this category accounts for the majority of tequila today.
  • Mixto tequila is fermented from no more than 49 percent non-agave sugars. It can also include no more than 1 percent of approved mellowing additives (caramel color, glycerin, oak extract, or sugar syrup).

In 2004, it became permissible to label flavored tequilas (e.g., cinnamon, citrus, lime, etc.) "tequila;" before that, they were "tequila products." However, 100 percent agave tequilas cannot be flavored.

What Does Tequila Taste Like?

Generally, tequila has a unique earthy flavor with an alcohol kick. Dependent on where the agave was grown and the style, each tequila is slightly different. Blanco tequilas offer the purest tequila taste, with an earthy, semi-sweet, distinctly agave flavor. Tequila made in lowland areas tends to be fruitier and earthier, while tequila from the highlands is greener and brighter. With barrel aging, tequila begins to take on oaky flavors of varying degrees.

Types

There are five types of tequila. The distinctions are based on standards set by the CRT according to how they're finished. Some tequilas are unaged and clear, while others take on an amber color from one of two possible sources: additives like caramel color or barrel aging.

  • Blanco Tequila: Blanco (or silver, white) tequila is a clear spirit. These tequilas are rested no more than 60 days in stainless steel or oak tanks if they are aged at all. In general, it's a quality, affordable, all-purpose tequila for mixed drinks and shots.
  • Joven Tequila: Joven (young) or oro (gold) tequila is a blend of white and aged tequilas, and it may include any of the approved mellowing ingredients. Often, inexpensive "gold" tequila is a mixto that includes caramel or a similar additive, and joven tequila can be quite impressive.
  • Reposado Tequila: Reposado (rested) tequilas are aged in oak casks for a minimum of two months; many from three to nine months. The barrels mellow the flavors of a blanco and impart a soft oakiness and light straw color. Many distilleries age their tequilas in used bourbon barrels, which adds another dimension to the finished taste. These tequilas are enjoyable straight and in high-end cocktails.
  • Añejo Tequila: Añejo (old) tequila is aged, often in white French oak or bourbon barrels, for a minimum of one year to produce a dark, very robust spirit. Many añejos are aged between 18 months and three years. These tend to be very smooth with a nice balance of agave and oak flavors accented by butterscotch and caramel undertones.
  • Extra-Añejo Tequila: The change in the tequila market of recent decades led to the creation of the fifth type of tequila in 2006. Labeled extra-añejo or muy añejo (extra-old), these tequilas spend over three years in barrels and have a profile that rivals some of the oldest whiskies you can find.

How to Drink Tequila

Tequila is very versatile, and you can drink it in many ways. Aged tequilas are often sipped straight or on the rocks. Blanco tequilas are popularly used in tequila shots, drunk either straight with lemon and salt or with mixers. Any tequila, especially blancos and reposados, are excellent in mixed drinks.

Margaritas are the most famous tequila cocktails. They range from the original lime margarita to an array of fruity flavors and are either shaken or blended. Tequila's a great match for nearly any fruit (particularly citrus) and a fun base for spicy cocktails. You'll find also find drier martini-style tequila cocktails, tall and refreshing soda or juice highballs, and even a few sweet or creamy tequila recipes.

Tequila is an excellent pairing for Mexican and Tex-Mex food, and tequila cocktails make a nice addition to barbecues and summer parties.

Cocktail Recipes

While tequila cocktails are very diverse, there are a few essential recipes that should be included in everyone's tequila experience:

Popular Brands

The tequila market is continually expanding, though a few well-known names remain popular. Most tequila brands offer a blanco, reposado, and añejo tequila in their portfolio. You can typically expect to pay $10 more when upgrading to the next level.

  • 1800 Tequila
  • Don Julio
  • Jose Cuervo
  • Herradura
  • Hornitos
  • Patrón 
  • Sauza

Cooking With Tequila

You can incorporate tequila into food as well. It's most often used in marinades and salsas that are cold or lightly cooked. You'll find it in Mexican, Tex-Mex, and Caribbean recipes, often paired with bold flavors like cilantro, chile peppers, and citrus. Keep in mind that in uncooked foods like fresh salsa, the alcohol will not cook-off, so serve these to adults only.

Article Sources
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  1. Consejo Regulador del Tequila. International Protection of the Tequila Designation of Origin. 2019.