Tequila must be made from a specific type of agave plant — here's why it matters
- Tequila is produced in one of five Mexican states and made exclusively from the Weber azul agave plant.
- The entire agave plant is harvested, trimmed, pressed, and distilled to make the final product.
- Tequila can be bottled directly after distilling for a blanco variety or aged for an añejo variety.
Tequila is arguably one of Mexico's greatest national treasures. Made from the heart of the Weber azul agave plant, this spirit has been mass-produced since the 1600s and is one of the first indigenous distilled spirits of North America.
Since its creation, tequila has rapidly grown in popularity and is one of the most consumed spirits in the US thanks to its reputation as a versatile, enjoyable, and according to some, more health-conscious spirit.
Like wine, its quality is highly dependent on the caliber of the agave plants it is made from. "Tequila should have a vegetal and earthy flavor profile accented by a roasted marshmallow note that is a typical note from a mature cooked agave," says Robert Gonzales Jr., spirits expert and judge for the San Francisco World Spirits Competition. Additional flavor characteristics, like vanilla or honey, are typically the result of aging and blending after the distillation process.
What is tequila made from?
In the same way that Champagne must be made in the French region of the same name, authentic tequila must first and foremost be made in one of five authorized states: Guanajuato, Michoacán, Nayarit, Tamaulipas, and the most famous, Jalisco, where most tequila is produced.
According to Gonzales, tequila must be made from a minimum of 51 percent Weber azul agave, a native succulent plant with long spiky leaves that grows extremely well in the volcanic soils of the region.
Other requirements include a minimum of 35 percent alcohol by volume (with a maximum of 110 proof) and a minimum of two rounds of distillation which helps to remove impurities and concentrates the amount of alcohol in the final spirit.
Premium tequila is made from 100 percent Weber azul agave; tequilas with lesser percentages might contain additives like molasses, corn syrup, or other sugars in place of agave nectar.
All tequilas are mezcals, but not all mezcals are tequilas. Mezcal is any spirit distilled from agave, but tequila is specifically made from Weber azul. Today, the terms can mean two different spirits entirely. While the heart of the agave plant is steamed and pressed to make tequila, its preparation for what we typically refer to as mezcal includes a roasting and fermentation process that gives it a distinctively smoky flavor profile.
Blanco. "This is the category for the tequila in its purest form," says Gonzales. "Clear and unaged, it is typically bottled right after distillation." This is the most popular category in the USA, often used in margaritas and other light, acidic drinks.
Joven. Young and unadulterated, this is the term to describe a mix of blanco and more aged tequilas. "It is also now kind of the new it term seen more and more often to describe a blend of 100 percent agave tequilas," says Gonzales, "An example is blending and bottling a 100 percent agave blanco with a 100 percent agave reposado."
Reposado. This is the most popular category in Mexico. "It means rested, because it was rested in an oak container for a minimum of two months," says Gonzales. "Most reposados are aged an average of six months in used bourbon barrels." This type of tequila is more flavorful than a blanco or joven, and comparable to that of a bourbon or whiskey and can be used similarly in
Añejos and extra añejos. Translated to "old" or "vintage", these tequilas are matured the longest. "These must be aged in an oak container no larger than 600 liters," says Gonzales. "Añejos for a minimum of one year, and extra añejos a minimum of three years." Darker in color and more intense and complex in flavor, these are typically considered "sipping" tequilas.
How is it made?
The process for making tequila starts in the field, where agave farmers, called jimadores, grow and trim the plants until they are ready to be harvested. Once the plant is between 7 and 14 years old, the plant's leaves are stripped until only the heart remains. At this point, the plant is referred to as a piña.
The piñas are transferred to an oven and steamed for up to 56 hours, softening their cores. The cooled piñas are then crushed, and the resulting liquid is fermented in steel or wooden vats, converting any sugars in the juice to alcohol. After the alcohol reaches around four to nine percent ABV, it is ready for distillation and is transferred to a still.
Mexican regulation requires at least two rounds of distillation to remove impurities and concentrate the alcohol to at least 35 percent ABV, and it is then ready to be aged in oak barrels, blended, or bottled.
How does tequila differ from other types of liquor?
"Tequila is vastly different from any other alcohol in that it is the only [spirit] in the world where you have to kill the plant to produce its liquor," says Gonzales. "Grapes for brandy, corn for whiskey, sugar cane for rum, [they all] grow back." This makes the production of tequila — from the cultivation and harvest of agave to distillation and aging — a pretty remarkable process that requires plenty of time and a lot of land.
Tequila is often deemed a "healthier" choice since it has less sugar and calories than other spirits, and is also considered paleo-friendly since it is minimally processed and derived from plants.
Tequila is a distinctively Mexican spirit made from Weber azul agave, a native succulent plant. Maintained and harvested by hand, the heart of the agave plant is cooked, pressed, and distilled, and ready to be aged, blended, or bottled. Minimally processed and easy to mix into cocktails or enjoy on its own, it's no wonder tequila is one of the hottest spirits in the drinks business.
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