Tequila 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 and in recent years has transcended a quality we could not imagine a few decades ago.
The History of Tequila
The town of Tequila was founded in 1656 and shortly thereafter tequila was produced throughout Mexico, with Jose Cuervo being the first to commercialize the product.
The late 1800’s saw the first imports to the U.S. and the following Mexican Revolution and World Wars added to the international popularity of tequila.
Tequila is also 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 produced, what is on the label, the style (or type) of tequila, and what can legally have the name take the name tequila. NOM-006-SCFI-2005 (updated in 2011) defines these rules.
Among the list are the regions within certain Mexican states in which tequila can be made and they include: 124 municipalities of Jalisco (including the town of tequila and most of today's 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 blue agave plant (a member of the lily family that looks like a giant aloe vera plant with spiked barbs on the tips) with water.
After 7-10 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 has the look similar to a pineapple. The agave's spiky leaves are removed and the piñas are quartered and slowly baked in steam or brick ovens until all starches are converted to sugars.
This product 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% Weber blue agave (Agave tequilana). Really good tequila is 100% Weber blue agave and will be clearly marked on the bottle with the law requiring them to be produced, bottled and inspected in Mexico.
Tequila that is not 100% agave is called mixto because it is blended with sugar and water during distillation. Mixto tequilas can be produced outside of Mexico. Until a few years ago, mixtos were the main tequilas produced, though now the majority of the tequila you find is the 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. Some tequileros 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% alcohol by volume.
The brown color of tequila comes from one of two sources: gold tequilas often get their color from the addition of caramel or other additives, while reposado and añejo tequilas obtain their brown color from barrel aging.
Other tequilas are flavored with small amounts of Sherry, prune concentrate and coconut. Blanco tequilas are clear.
The 5 Types (Tipos) 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. 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 that is agave.
Silver tequila is primarily used for mixing and are 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 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, or rested, tequilas are aged in wood casks for a minimum of 2 months and many are aged from 3-9 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 often found 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 and many of the reposados available today 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 1 year to produce a dark, very robust spirit. Some of the best añejos are aged between 18 months and 3 years while some of the best can spend up to 4 years in barrels. Many tequileros believe that aging longer than 4 years ruins the earthy flavor tones of the spirit.
Añejo tequilas tend to be very smooth with a nice balance of agave and oak, often with butterscotch and caramel undertones and are perfect for sipping straight (chilled if you like) or for those really special cocktails.
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.
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.
These tequilas spend over 4 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, 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 it is a mixto.
- NOM: Refers to the distiller registration number that is used to distinguish more than 500 brands produced by about 70 distillers. All tequila labels are required to have an 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. Not on all labels.
- Brand Name: This doesn't indicate who makes the product (see NOM).
- Alcohol Content: Tequilas in Mexico are usually 38-40% alcohol (76-80 proof), but legally may be higher, up to 50% (100 proof).
More Agave Liquors
Mezcal: Unlike tequila, mezcal can use any of 8 approved varieties of the agave plant and it has a noticeably smoky flavor, much like the Scotches from Islay.
This is also where the tequila worm of legend comes into the story. While the reason is obscure, one version 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 1 of 2 moths that live on the agave plant and, as many frat boys have proven, are safe to consume.
Top-quality Mezcals do not have a worm and 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: Pronounce "rye-see-yah," raicilla is often referred to as Mexican moonshine. It is often a treat for tourists visiting Puerta Vallarta where it is almost exclusively made anymore. The Agave inaequidens is the plant from which it was made and 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.
Continue Exploring Tequila
- 10 Great Tequilas for Shots, Margaritas and More
- A Guide to Popular Brands of Tequila
- How to Shoot Tequila
- The Aztec Legend of Agave and Tequila