What Is Tequila?

Production, Types, and Recipes

Tequila shot with salt and lime

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Tequila is a distilled spirit made from the agave plant. The liquor can only be produced in designated areas of Mexico. Today, it is one of the most popular liquors in the world, though it's most often consumed in Mexico and the U.S. While tequila is the essential ingredient in margaritas and tequila shots are very popular, there are many other cocktail recipes in which it can be mixed.

Tequila vs. Mezcal

Mezcal is the name for a 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 regulations on production, though mezcal can use any variety of agave grown in nine Mexican states and must be produced in those areas. The biggest difference is in how the agave is prepared. Mezcal distillers traditionally bake the agave piñas in earthen pits. This imparts a noticeable smoky flavor, much like the scotches from Islay.

Other types of 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 shot: 69
  • Origin: Mexico
  • Taste: Earthy
  • Aged: 0 months (blanco) up to 5 years (extra-añejo)
  • Serve: Shots, straight-up, 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 with spiked barbs on the tips. After seven to ten years of growth, the agave plant is ready to be harvested.

Underground, the plant produces a large bulb called a piña, which looks similar to a white pineapple. The agave's leaves are removed and the piñas are quartered and slowly baked in steam or brick ovens until the starches are converted to sugars. The baked agave is crushed to extract the sweet juice, which is then fermented with yeast to convert the sugar into alcohol.

Tequila Label Illustration
 The Spruce Eats / Maritsa Patrinos

In 1978, the tequila industry initiated a set of strict Appellation of Origin standards. These 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 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 is where the majority of modern tequila production takes place.

According to Mexican law, all tequila must contain at least 51 percent Weber blue agave. The best tequila is "100% Weber blue agave" and will be clearly marked on the bottle. Today, the majority of tequila is "Tequila 100% de Agave." Tequila that is not 100 percent agave is called mixto (mixed). It's often blended with sugar and water during distillation and may include additives.

Tequila is distilled in either pot or column stills until it reaches around 110 proof. Before bottling, the distillate is cut with water to obtain the bottling strength. Tequilas are usually 38 to 40 percent alcohol by volume (ABV, 76 to 80 proof) but may not be stronger than 50 percent ABV (100 proof).

There are five typos (types) of tequila, based on standards set by the CRT according to how they're finished. Some tequilas are unaged and clear (blanco tequila). Others take on a brown color from one of two possible sources: caramel or other additives (gold tequila) or barrel aging (reposado and añejo tequilas). Tequila that includes other flavorings are not "true" tequilas according to the law; they are "tequila products."

What Does Tequila Taste Like?

The taste of tequila will vary depending on where the agave was grown as well as the type of tequila. Blanco tequilas offer the purest taste, with an earthy, semi-sweet flavor that is distinctly agave. Tequila made in the lowlands is 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

  • Blanco Tequila (Tipo 1): Blanco (or silver, white) tequila is a clear spirit. These tequilas are rested no more than 60 days in stainless steel tanks if they are aged at all. In general, it's a quality, affordable, all-purpose tequila to keep in stock.
  • Joven Tequila (Tipo 2): Joven (young) or oro (gold) tequilas are often unaged tequilas and typically mixtos colored and flavored with caramel, oak extract, glycerin, syrup, and other additives. It was the most widely distributed type in the U.S. during the late 1900s and has been almost entirely replaced by the other types today because of the difference in quality.
  • Reposado Tequila (Tipo 3): Reposado (rested) tequilas are aged in wood 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 oak flavor while giving the tequila a light straw color. Many distilleries age their tequilas in used bourbon barrels, which adds another dimension to the finished taste. Reposado tequilas are the middle ground of the three main types of tequila today.
  • Añejo Tequila (Tipo 4): Añejo (old) tequila is 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. These tend to be very smooth with a nice balance of agave and oak flavors accented by butterscotch and caramel undertones.
  • Extra-Añejo Tequila (Tipo 5): The change in the tequila market of recent years led to the creation of the 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 whiskeys you can find.

How to Drink Tequila

Tequila is very versatile and you can drink it in many ways. It's commonly enjoyed as a shot, either straight, with a lemon and salt or with mixers. Tequila cocktails are diverse, ranging from shaken martini-like drinks to refreshing soda or juice highballs. Fruity margaritas (blended or shaken) are very popular and tequila's the perfect match for spicy cocktails. You can even find sweet or creamy tequila recipes. Aged tequilas are often sipped straight, whether that's chilled or on the rocks. Tequila is a great 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 there are a few well-known names that remain popular. The majority of 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 either cold or lightly cooked. You'll find it in Mexican, TexMex, and Caribbean recipes, 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 you'll want to only serve it to adults.