Tequila is a popular distilled spirit that is rich in a history, far beyond the popular margarita. Originally used during rituals beginning 2,000 years ago, tequila has evolved into the potent spirit we drink today. In recent years, it has transcended a quality that few of us could have dreamed of just a couple of decades ago.
The History of Tequila
The town of Tequila was founded in 1656 in what is now the Mexican state of Jalisco. It didn't take long for tequila to be produced throughout the country and Jose Cuervo was the first to commercialize the product. The late 1800s saw the first exports to the United States and the following Mexican Revolution and World Wars added to the international popularity of tequila.
Tequila is regulated by an Appellation of Origin standard. In 1978, the tequila industry initiated a set of strict standards which regulate where and how tequila can be made, what is on the label, the style (or type) of tequila, 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 made within particular regions of certain Mexican states. They include: 124 municipalities of Jalisco (including the town of Tequila and the majority of modern tequila production), 8 municipalities in Nayarit, 7 municipalities in Guanajuato, 30 municipalities in Michoacan, and 11 municipalities in Tamaulipas.
How Is Tequila Made?
The Agave Plant: Tequila is made by distilling the fermented juices of the Weber blue agave plant with water. The agave is a member of the lily family and it looks like a giant aloe vera plant with spiked barbs on the tips. After seven to ten years of growing, the agave plant is ready to be harvested and used in the production of tequila.
Underground, the plant produces a large bulb called a piña, which looks similar to a white pineapple. The agave's spiky leaves are removed and the piñas are quartered and slowly baked in steam or brick ovens until all the starches are converted to sugars. The baked agave is crushed in order to extract the plant’s sweet juices, which are then fermented.
100% Agave vs. Mixto: According to Mexican law, all tequila must contain at least 51 percent Weber blue agave (Agave tequilana). Really good tequila is 100% Weber blue agave and will be clearly marked that way on the bottle. The law also requires them to be produced, bottled, and inspected in Mexico.
Tequila that is not 100% agave is called mixto (mixed) because it is blended with sugar and water during distillation. Mixto tequilas can be produced outside of Mexico. Until around the turn of the 21st century, mixtos were the main tequilas produced. Today, the majority of the tequila you will find is "Tequila 100% de Agave."
Distillation: Tequila is distilled in either pot or column stills until it reaches around 110 proof. The result is a clear spirit with a significant amount of congeners. These congeners are byproducts of alcohol fermentation that are often thought of as impurities which may lead to more severe hangovers.
Some tequileros (tequila producers) re-distill the tequila to produce a cleaner liquor. Before bottling, the distillate is cut with water to obtain the bottling strength, which typically is around 80 proof, or 40 percent alcohol by volume (ABV).
Some tequilas are clear and are called blanco or silver tequila. Others take on a brown color due to one of two possible sources. Gold tequilas often get their color from the addition of caramel or other additives. Reposado and añejo tequilas obtain their golden-brown color from barrel aging. Some tequilas are flavored with small amounts of sherry, prune concentrate, and coconut, though these are not "true" tequilas, but "tequila products."
The 5 Types (Tipos) of Tequila
When navigating your tequila options at the liquor store, you will encounter five typos (types) of tequila. They vary based on standards set by the CRT due to the manner in which they are produced. Many of the best-known brands of tequila will offer a blanco, reposado, and añejo tequila in their portfolio. You can typically expect to pay $10 more when upgrading to the next level.
Blanco, Silver, or White Tequila (Tipo 1): Blanco tequila is a clear spirit that can be either 100% agave or mixto. These tequilas are "aged"—more like "rested"—no more 60 days in stainless steel tanks, if they are aged at all. The unaged blancos give the drinker the rawest taste of agave available and have a notable earthy flavor that is distinctly tequila. If you have not tasted a blanco, then you are missing out on the pure taste of the agave plant.
Silver tequila is primarily used for mixing and is perfect for almost any tequila cocktail and often smoother than the gold tequilas for shots. If you are looking for a quality, affordable, all-around tequila to keep in stock, a blanco is your best option.
Joven or Gold Tequila (Tipo 2): Joven (young) or oro (gold) tequilas are the ones that many older drinkers are familiar with, particularly if you spent any time doing tequila shots in the last few decades of the 20th century. Gold tequilas are responsible for many bad tequila experiences and were the most widely distributed in the U.S. during that time.
These are often unaged tequilas that are typically mixtos and have been colored and flavored with caramel, oak extract, glycerin, syrup, and other additives. While many gold tequilas leave something to be desired in comparison to the other classes, there are now a few decent bottlings available. If you are going to drink a gold tequila, stick to heavily flavored cocktails or (if you must) shots.
Reposado Tequila (Tipo 3): Reposado (rested) tequilas are aged in wood casks for a minimum of two months and many are aged from three to nine months. The barrels mellow the flavors of a pure blanco and impart a soft oak flavor to the agave as well as giving the tequila its light straw color. It has become popular for distilleries to age their tequilas in used bourbon barrels, which adds another dimension to the finished taste.
A little more expensive than blancos, reposado tequilas are the middle ground of the three main types found that are now pretty standard in a brand's tequila line-up. They are versatile enough to be used in a great number of tequila cocktails, particularly those that have lighter flavors like the margarita or tequini. Reposados also make great sipping tequilas.
Añejo Tequila (Tipo 4): Añejo tequila is "old" tequila. These tequilas are aged, often in white, French oak or used bourbon barrels for a minimum of one year to produce a dark, very robust spirit. Most añejos are aged between 18 months and three years while some of the best can spend up to four years in barrels. Many tequileros believe that aging longer than four years ruins the earthy flavor tones of the spirit.
Añejo tequilas tend to be very smooth with a nice balance of agave and oak. You will often find butterscotch and caramel undertones, which makes these perfect for sipping straight (chilled if you like) or for those really special cocktails.
You can liken an añejo to a high-end brandy or whiskey. Try these tequilas in a snifter to get a real sense of their aromas and flavors. As might be expected, añejo tequilas are some of the most expensive on the market, though there are many reasonably priced options available.
Extra-Añejo Tequila (Tipo 5): The change in the tequila market of recent years has led to the creation of a fifth type of tequila, which is labeled extra-añejo or muy añejo (extra-old).
These tequilas spend over four years in barrels and have a profile that rivals some of the oldest whiskies you can find. Logically, the price of these tequilas reflects their extra time in the barrel and these are ones that you will want to save for straight sipping, enjoying every second of the experience.
How to Read a Tequila Label
There are many brands of tequila on liquor store shelves and choosing the right one can be a daunting task. Here are some of the things you'll find on the label that will help you make a good choice. Keep in mind that you pay for what you get.
- Type (Tipo): Blanco, Gold, Reposado, Añejo, Extra-Añejo, Reserva de Casa (often añejos in limited edition bottlings)
- Purity: Only 100% agave is labeled as such. If the label does not say "100% agave" in some form, it is a mixto.
- NOM: Refers to the distiller's registration number that is used to distinguish more than 500 brands produced by about 70 distillers. All tequila labels are required to have a NOM. No matter what the label says, the NOM does not indicate quality.
- CRT: An indication that the Tequila Regulatory Council (CRT) has certified the product. Again, this is not a guarantee of quality, it simply says that the CRT has approved the production process of the company and this is legit tequila.
- Hecho en Mexico: Made in Mexico. 100% agave tequilas can only be made and bottled in Mexico. Hecho a mano means "handmade" and, while it is not an official term, it usually indicates traditional production processes.
- DOT: Denomination or origin number, indicating compliance with Mexican regulations regarding where the product was made. It may not be on all labels.
- Brand Name: This is the actual brand name (e.g., Sauza, Jose Cuervo, Corazon) and doesn't indicate who makes the product because many distilleries produce a multiple brands.
- Alcohol Content: Tequilas in Mexico are usually 38 to 40 percent alcohol by volume (ABV, 76 to 80 proof). Legally, they may be stronger, up to 50 percent ABV (100 proof).
More Agave Liquors
Tequila is the best-know distilled spirit produced from the agave plant, though it's not the only one or even the oldest. Some of these other agave-based liquors, such as mezcal, are gaining a renewed notoriety and reaching more markets and drinkers.
Mezcal: Unlike tequila, mezcal can use any of eight approved varieties of the agave plant and it has a noticeably smoky flavor, much like the Scotches from Islay. Technically, tequila is a mezcal, but all mezcals are not tequila.
This is also where the tequila worm of legend comes into the story. While the reason is obscure, one version of the story says that the worm was placed in the bottles to prove that the alcohol is high enough to preserve a worm intact. The worm itself is the larva of two moths that live on the agave plant and, as many frat boys have proven, they are safe to consume.
Top-quality mezcals do not have a worm. In recent years, mezcal has seen a new appreciation and a dedicated following.
Pulque: Pulque is an old spirit that was once very popular in Mexico. The main difference between it and tequila and mezcal is that the agave are not cooked prior to extracting the juices. It is not commonly found on the commercial market, though on occasion you may find it in a six-pack of cans.
Sotol: Sotol is a regional variety of mezcal from Chihuahua and is made from another succulent called dasylirion. It is often aged for six months and is rarely found outside of its region of origin.
Raicilla: Pronounced "rye-see-yah," raicilla is often referred to as Mexican moonshine. It is a popular treat for tourists visiting Puerta Vallarta where it is almost exclusively made today. The Agave inaequidens is the plant from which it is made. Until recently, it was illegal to make, but bootleggers kept it alive through the years. This one is typically drunk straight, chilled, or with grapefruit soda (such as the paloma).
Baconara: Baconara has a similar story to raicilla and was outlawed until 1992. It is made in the state of Sonora from the Agave pacifica (or Agave yaquinana), which is roasted underground in lava rock-lined pits. It is rare to find it outside of the region.
Explore Tequila in Person
Tequila is one of the most fascinating distilled spirits available. There's no better way to find a new appreciation for the production and effort that goes into it than to visit Mexico and see it for yourself.
If you're interested in doing that, explore La Ruta del Tequila website. "The Tequila Route" is designed to help tourists find distilleries to visit, learn about exploring the beautiful agave fields, and everything else you need to plan your trip to Jalisco. If you prefer, contact your travel agent and they can find a tour package as well.