Tequila is a fascinating distilled spirit unlike any other and it is enjoyed throughout the world. Its unique taste, tight regulations and exotic flair give tequila an appeal that whiskey, rum, gin, vodka and brandy simply cannot touch. The process of making tequila is just as interesting as the liquor itself.
How tequila is made is a mystery to many drinkers. There are many myths that surround it and far too many drinkers have had a bad experience, so they shy away from it. However, once you learn the truth about tequila, get a look at its production and even give some of the good stuff a try, you may become a tequila believer.
It's true that tequila does deserve more respect than it often receives, so let's take a peek into the world of tequila before it becomes that margarita-ready spirit.
In the Agave Fields
Tequila must be produced in certain states and municipalities in Mexico. An agave-based spirit can be produced outside of these designated areas, but it cannot be called tequila.
This distinguishes the spirit from all others produced throughout the world and allows the Tequila Regulatory Council (CRT) to hold tight regulations over its production. Standards must be upheld and met for any tequila brand to be sold using this title.
A Contrast in Agave Fields
The Mexican state of Jalisco is where the majority of today's tequila is produced. The lowlands near the town of Tequila (just outside the city of Guadalajara) are home to some of the biggest names in the tequila industry, including Jose Cuervo and Sauza.
Oddly enough, the two rival distilleries are right next door to each other, so if you're planning a trip to tequila country, you can visit both on the same day. Every distillery has their own methods and, despite being neighbors, even these two differ quite a bit.
Up in Los Altos, or the highlands of Jalisco around the towns of Arandas and Jesús María, you will find many of the lesser-known and what many consider more boutique brands of tequila. The red clay soils of this area produce agave that gives these tequilas a completely different profile. Here you will find distilleries making premium brands like Casamigos, Cazadores, Corazon and Tezon.
Agave fields are everywhere in Jalisco and come harvest time, you will see jimadores in the fields removing what look like giant, spiky pineapple from the ground.
Fun Fact: When flying into Guadalajara, you know you're getting closer because the landscape begins to turn blue. This is due to the leaves of the agave plant that give off a blue-grey color. It is a spectacular site, especially when over the red fields of Los Altos!
The Agave Plant
The agave plant is the most intriguing part of the tequila production process. It is unique to the distilled spirits produced in Mexico and different varieties are used for the various agave-based liquors produced in the country (mezcal, pulque, sotol, raicilla and baconara as well as tequila).
The Weber blue agave (Agave tequliana) is used in all tequila and bottles marked with '100% Weber Blue Agave' are the purest tequilas you will find. However, even within that distinction, there can be a great variety in the quality of tequilas.
What is an Agave?
Contrary to common misconceptions, the agave plant is not a cactus. It is a succulent that is actually within the lily (amaryllis) family.
Above ground, long spikes grow in rosettes. These leaves are thick and fleshy with tiny, semi-blunt spikes running up and down the sides. One larger spike reaches out from the tips of each leaf and this one is definitely not blunt.
Below ground is the heart, or piña, of the plant and that is what the jimadores are after for tequila. The piña really does look like a giant, white pineapple once it is unearthed and its flesh will be baked and juiced at the distillery to make tequila.
- Fun Fact: An agave plant can grow to a height of 5-7 feet and have a span of about that same height. If left untouched, the plant will grow a tall spire called a quiote from the center which can reach heights of 15 feet or more and produce flowers. Most quiote are removed for commercial tequila production so the plant can concentrate its energy on producing the highest sugar concentration possible in the piña.
How are Agave Harvested?
I have been around many harvests for a variety of crops and the agave harvest is the most backbreaking that I have witnessed (or attempted) to date. There is no machination in the process as it all needs to be done by hand, one agave plant at a time.
Plants are mature after around 7-10 years. Once ready for harvest, each agave plant is dug from the ground to reveal the fleshy piña. The jimador then uses a special tool called a coa to slice off each of the leaves until they are left with a bare, white ball.
That description makes the process sound easy, but it is not. The coa is quite heavy and the circular blade at the end is extremely sharp. A sharp eye, precise aim with every blow and a lot of upper body muscle is required to do the job with any degree of efficiency.
Travel to Mexico and Experience it for Yourself
In my travels through tequila country, it was the agave fields that truly amazed me and have led to the personal fascination I have for tequila. The landscape, the plant and the labor that each jimador puts into growing and harvesting agave are worthy of tremendous respect.
I have to encourage every tequila lover (or even passive admirers) to travel to the tequila fields at some point in their lifetime. It will give you a new respect for the drink and it's an opportunity to immerse yourself in the real culture of tequila.
Talk to your travel agent, there are many guided tours available that will take you to a number of distilleries in a few days.
The Ovens: Traditional Clay
Once the agave plants are harvested and transported back to their distillery, they begin the transformation into tequila.
The goal is to convert the raw agave piña's carbohydrates and starches into fermentable sugars, much in the same way that grains are turned to mash that ferments to eventually become whiskey. The first step in this process is to bake the agave.
Traditionally, the agave was baked in rock-lined pits and this can still be seen in today's mezcal production. Today's tequila producers have moved above ground and use one of two styles of ovens.
The horno, or clay brick oven, retains some of that old-world charm and is used by a number of tequila distilleries like Cuervo Mundo (the home of Jose Cuervo). The piñas can weigh anywhere from 50-150 pounds and are loaded into the ovens when fresh.
The Ovens: Modern Stainless Steel
Most distilleries will bake the agave for 2-3 days using steam. At many of the modern distilleries, stainless steel autoclaves are used instead of the brick ovens.
Like those at San Nicholas, home of Corazon Tequila, these modern ovens are often towering structures that can bake an astounding amount of agave in a single run. San Nicholas has two rows of autoclaves under their shelter and when fully loaded, a grown man can stand atop the agave with an additional 4-feet of headroom to spare.
In either oven, when the baking process is complete, the agave pinas are reduced to a fraction of their original size. They become a dark brown and look as if they have been caramelized - that is not a stretch from the reality of what took place.
They are also very sweet and delicious. The best way to describe it is to like the baked agave to a soft honeycomb dipped in sticky agave nectar, but with the texture and consistency of semi-dried apricots. It is candy!
- Fun Fact: At this stage, the agave could also be used to produce agave nectar, but these are destined to become tequila!
Is One Oven Better?
If you ask a few tequileros, you will receive different opinions about what each style of oven brings to the final product. It is a great debate, one as contested as whether to use a column or a pot still.
Some people will compare the modern autoclave to a microwave and the brick oven to using a traditional oven in your kitchen. Do tequilas from an autoclave have a diminished flavor? I have not noticed the difference personally and some of my favorite tequilas (Corazon included) use the modern technology.
In my opinion, this single step does not determine a bad tequila. Instead, it is a culmination of every step in the tequila-making process - from the agave to the barrel - that will affect the final product's quality.
Extracting the Sweet Agave Juices
Those sweet juices found inside the baked agave now need to be extracted. Just like every other step in the process, tequila distilleries employ different methods.
The majority of the time, mechanical shredders are used to pulverize and separate the agave fibers, allowing the sweet juice, or mosto, to be collected for fermentation. The shredders are reminiscent of those used to mill sugar cane and has long been used in the production of rum.
The Legendary Tahona Wheel
A handful of tequila distilleries choose to do it the old-school way. The tahona is a large wheel often made from volcanic rock that rolls around a stone pit, crushing the agave and extracting the juice as it goes.
Using the tahona wheel is a very traditional method and it was originally pulled by horses, mules or oxen. Today's tahonas are operated either by tractors or a central engine that slowly moves the arm attached to the wheel around the pit.
Yet, the tahona is still not a completely mechanized operation. It requires a worker or two to work the pit as the 2-ton wheel crushes the agave. Using mallets or hoes, the laborers move the agave around the pit to ensure every last drop of juice is removed from every fiber.
Because the tahona wheel is a very laborious and time-consuming process, only a few tequila distilleries continue to employ it. Among those are the Olmeca Distillery where Tequila Tezon is produced and Tequila Tapatio, producers of El Tesoro de Don Felipe, as well as the distillery producing Patron Tequila.
In the Fermentation Tanks
When we reach the fermentation room, the process of making tequila mirrors every other distilled spirit. Again, each distillery will have their own methods, tricks and standards, but the general process is the same for all.
Those sugary juices known as mosto are added to fermentation tanks with water and yeast. During fermentation, the yeast will convert the sugar of the diluted mosto into alcohol. It is the same method that makes all alcoholic beverages and is a vital step in the process.
Great care is taken to ensure fermentation is a success. Distilleries will use either wood or stainless steel fermentation tanks, a strict ratio of water to mosto (or mash in the case of grain alcohol) and often proprietary strains of yeast (some passed down for generations). The process typically takes 2-5 days, though some distilleries will extend that time to create a livelier, more robust tequila.
Fermentation is a carefully controlled process, but it is nothing new to the human knowledge base. We have been controlling this process since the first alcohols were made many thousands of years ago.
Keeping the Yeast Happy
Yeast is a living organism and if you travel to enough distilleries, you will quickly pick up the fact that distillers will go to great lengths to keep their yeast happy. It seems a bit ridiculous at times, but they swear by it.
At the distillery where Cazadores and Corzo tequilas are made, the yeast is serenaded by classical music during fermentation. At San Nicholas, home to Tequila Corazon, “not classical music, not rock-n-roll, but a nice instrumental” music fills the fermentation room. Similar strategies are used at some rum, whiskey and other distilleries throughout the world.
After tasting these tequilas, one might find some truth to the 'happy yeast makes happy tequila' theory. I'm a believer!
Off to the Stills
It is in the still room where tequila becomes tequila. The fermented mosto (or wash) is 4-10% alcohol and the goal is to distill it to a concentration of around 55% and this is typically done with two distillations.
- Fun Fact: Many tequila distillers will get their tequila to bottling strength—typically 40% ABV (80-proof)—during distillation. This eliminates the need to dilute it with water.
Spaniards introduced the alembic still to Mexico in the late 1500's and it continues to be the most commonly used among tequileros. Some of the finest tequilas are distilled in small copper pot stills. Others use a combination of alembic (aka pot) stills and the more modern continuous column stills.
Distillation is another carefully controlled process and master distillers worldwide take great care in the operation of their stills. Without a quality still operating at tight standards, they would not be able to consistently produce the quality liquors we enjoy every day. It is a scientific art form and master distillers are the mad scientist/artist.
What Happens During Distillation?
Many products, from gasoline to water, are distilled and the basic process is the same. In its most basic definition, distillation is a method to separate components of a mixture via heat and create gasses that are condensed back into liquid. In the case of liquor, the goal is to transform that fermented liquid into highly concentrated alcohol.
When making tequila, the distillation process looks something like this:
- The mosto is added to the still's vessel or holding tank.
- Heat is added until it reaches the mixture's boiling point.
- The alcohol in the heated mixture vaporizes and is captured by the condenser. Water, solid particles and some congeners are left behind in the vessel.
- The alcohol vapors run through the still and are collected through the outlet tube and into a flask.
Tequila typically takes two trips through the still. After the first distillation, it is called ordinario. Some tequileros use an alembic (alambique in Spanish) for the first distillation and a column still for the second.
The columns in this second type of still are designed to further refine the final spirit. They are also more efficient because the mash does not need to be cleaned out of the vessel after each use.
Some tequilas are distilled a third or fourth time, but two distillations are standard.
The Heart of Tequila
The liquid that comes out of the still has three parts: the top is called the 'head,' the middle is the 'heart' and the bottom is the 'tail.' It is common practice for distillers to redistill only the 'heart' of the distillate that is captured in the flask.
- Most distillers throw away the heads and tails because these hold the majority of the impurities. The heart holds the best liquor.
- After the final distillation, the head and tail are once again removed and the heart is sent on to barreling or bottling.
To Age or Not to Age
After distillation, tequila begins to take on its final personality and it is split into classifications. Tequila is divided into two classifications and five classes (or tipos). Where a batch of tequila goes after the still room is determined by the final product it is destined for.
Classifications of Tequila
- 100% Agave: Tequila produced only from Weber blue agave with no other additives. The majority of good tequila sold in the market today falls under this classification and it must include at least the words "100% Agave" on the label (many include the words blue or blue Weber as well).
- Tequila: Other sugars and enhancements can be blended with the Weber blue agave musto prior to fermentation. However, 51% of the sugars need to come from the Weber blue agave plant. Often called mixtos, these tequilas can have any number of additives and may even be colored to a golden hue, which often gives them the designation as a "gold" type of tequila.
Types of Tequila
- 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" no more 60 days in stainless steel tanks if they are aged at all (rested is actually a better word).
- Joven or Gold Tequila (Tipo 2): Joven (young) or oro (gold) tequilas are often unaged tequilas that are typically mixtos and have been colored and flavored with caramel, oak extract, glycerin, syrup or other additives.
- Reposado Tequila (Tipo 3): Reposado, or rested, tequilas are aged in wood casks for a minimum of 2 months and many are aged from 3-9 months.
- Añejo Tequila (Tipo 4): Añejo tequila is "old" tequila. These tequilas are aged for a minimum of 1 year to produce a dark, very robust spirit. Some of the best añejos spend between 18 months and 4 years in the barrel.
- Extra-Añejo Tequila (Tipo 5): Extra-añejo or muy añejo tequilas spend over 4 years in barrels. They are rare and expensive.
The Barrels Used for Aged Tequilas
Most tequilas are aged in used barrels, often coming from the bourbon industry where barrels can only be used one time for the whiskey. Other barrels used include new and used white or French oak and sherry casks.
Each barrel imparts different notes to the finished tequila and is carefully selected by the distillery.
It is also important to understand that, just like whiskey and rum, the barrel gives tequila its final color and an oaky flavor. That is why blanco tequilas are crystal clear (they do not touch wood), reposado tequilas have a golden color, and anejo tequilas get an amber hue.
It's Time for the Bottle
After each tequila has spent the appropriate amount of time resting, it is time for bottling. There is nothing really special to speak of as much of the process is mechanized, but the tequila bottles themselves can be quite interesting.
Bottles That Compete for the Drinker's Attention
Liquor bottles tend to have a certain shape or style and each style of liquor tends to follow a trend. Though there certainly are exceptions, most vodka bottles are tall and lean and many whiskey bottles can be shorter and stout. These tend to appeal to the consumers who enjoy them most - vodka and women, whiskey and men. Tequila is a completely different animal when it comes to bottle design.
Tequila bottles can come in any shape and size and be decorated elaborately or have a clean, modern look. It's actually quite fascinating to observe and it is all about grabbing your attention on the liquor shelf.
Many tequila brands have a story behind their bottle design. For instance, the bottles of Tequila Tezon have two metal plates engraved with symbols for the elements that are essential the tequila: Agave, Fire, Tahona and Spirit. Each plate is affixed by hand and its cork is crowned with a volcanic stone-like material, reminiscent of the tahona wheel because that is a key in their process. It is a work of art.
Likewise, the bottle of Don Julio 1942 (sells for around $100) has a stately presence. This bottle is tall and skinny, giving off a very regal flair that dwarfs every other bottle on the shelf.
It is all quite fascinating and tequila bottles are fun to collect and display.
This entire explanation of how tequila is made has been intentionally simplified. The regulations enforced by the Tequila Regulatory Council are actually quite detailed, complex and go far beyond what I have written.
The point of this tight control is to make sure that every tequila leaving Mexico meets certain standards. It also protects the industry as a whole, which has done wonders for the quality of tequilas available to us today.
If you are interested in reading more about the regulations, they can be found at Tequila.net: Official Mexican Standard for Tequila NOM-006-SCFI-2005.