Tequila: It isn’t just an ingredient for margaritas, nor is it just for shots during happy hour.
Tequila is a spirit with a rich history and a wide diversity of styles, production distinctions, and flavor profiles. Just as you have to keep tasting wines, gins, or whiskeys to find the ones that are right for you, so it is with tequila.
Once you do, you’ll discover a spirit that’s subtle, playful, and full of flavor—with none of the cheap burn you may remember from your youth.
What is Tequila?
Just as French law states that champagne can only be made in the Champagne region of France using specific ingredients and methods, Mexican laws detail what is and is not a tequila. These laws are recognized by more than 40 countries through various trade agreements.
Mexican guidelines state that tequila must meet the following guidelines:
- Tequila can only be distilled from only the blue agave plant.
- Tequila can only be produced in the state of Jalisco and limited municipalities in the states of Guanajuato, Michoacán, Nayarit, and Tamaulipas.
- Fun fact! The name tequila comes from the city of Tequila, which was established in 1666, though tequila was produced long before the town was born.
How Is Tequila Made?
While grapes, wheat, or corn can be harvested a few months to a few years later before being processed and distilled into alcohol, the blue agave plants used to make tequila are different. They take about 10 years to grow before they’re ready to be harvested for tequila.
The labor-intensive harvesting is done by hand by agave farmers. Here are the main steps for turning agave into tequila:
- Agave harvesting: When ready to be harvested, the spiny leaves and roots are cut off the main plant body, called the agave heart or piña, which goes to processing.
- Process the agave: The hearts are slowly baked, which can sometimes take days. The slow cooking reduces caramelization and prevents the juices from turning bitter, thus maintaining the flavor of the agave.
- Crush the agave: Afterwards, the cooked hearts are crushed to release their sugary juices. This can be done by a mechanical crusher and grinder, or by the traditional way using a volcanic stone wheel called a tahona. Historically, a mule pulled the tahona, but these days an electric motor does the job. In theory, this slower practice of extracting agave nectar that will be fermented and distilled creates a more robust and complex flavor.
- Ferment the agave into tequila: The extracted juices are then fermented and twice-distilled as dictated by regulations. The distilled alcohol can then be bottled straight away or aged in wooden containers.
Mixto Tequila Versus 100% Agave Tequila
A tequila can be organized into two categories, mixto tequilas and 100% agave tequilas.
Mixto tequilas are made with no less than 51% agave, with the other 49% usually being fermented sugar cane juice. The result is a tequila that’s very sweet in both smell and taste. However, the flavor usually stops there.
These mixto tequilas are often harsh in flavor, burn on the way down, and thus are inferior to other tequilas. Golden-colored mixtos are called joven (young) or oro (gold) tequilas and have oak flavoring and coloring added. The reason these are made in the first place is because they’re affordable to make for producers and, frankly, they sell well in stores due to their low price point.
Mixtos aren’t ideal and I generally don’t recommend buying them. But if you’re planning a big party with a tequila-based punch that has a lot of juices and flavors to help mask the mixto, then a mixto is a practical option.
If a tequila is labeled as “100% agave,” this means that the tequila in question was made with only blue agave. Generally, it’s recommended by most bartenders and tequila enthusiasts (and by your friendly Simply Recipes team) that you only buy tequilas which clearly state this on the label, as it will guarantee you a much better product that has a more complex flavor and significantly less burn.
The amount of aging and the amount of agave used to make a tequila are what create the different varieties. Each variety has a different type of flavor, aroma, and price point.
These are Blanco, reposado, añejo, and extra añejo.
- Blanco: Blanco means “white,” but these tequilas are also known as plato (silver) tequilas. These tequilas are bottled right after distillation, or they are rested in wood barrels (both French and American oak barrels are used, but some companies even use old Spanish sherry barrels) for up to 60 days. The flavors and aromas of these tequilas can be herbal, floral, citric, and a bit fruity. Vegetal notes of poblano and green pepper can predominate.
- Reposado: Reposado translates to “rested,” and these tequilas are aged in wooden barrels anywhere from 2 months to a year. Their color is usually a softened, amber color. The flavors will be a bit woodier and less herbal, with hints of vanilla, butter, and brown sugar.
- Añejo: Tequila aged for 1 to 3 years are añejos, which translates to “old” or “aged.” The colors will be darker and more golden from the extended time spent aging in wood. Expect a much smoother tequila with big notes of spice, earth, smoke, vanilla, caramel, and peat. Añejos are generally more expensive than reposados due to the extended aging, though for most cocktail purposes the two are interchangeable. I recommend you start with reposado and see how you like it before dropping the extra cash for an añejo.
- Extra Añejo: Añejos that are aged in wood for more than three years. These are the priciest tequilas and, generally, should only be sipped so as to appreciate the nuanced flavors, aromas, and craftsmanship. The flavor is intensely woody, with a more pronounced burnt caramel flavor similar to very aged whiskey or even rye. If you find yourself striving to become a tequila connoisseur (aka: a Maestro Tequilero, or Tequila Master/Expert) then these are worth the investment.
- Mezcal: While all tequilas are mezcals, not all mezcals are tequilas. Tequila can only be produced using blue agave, but mezcal can be made from up to 28 different agave varieties. The agave is usually cooked for a few days underground over hot rocks or in cone-shaped fire pits. The result is a spirit defined by smoky flavors and aromas. Mezcal is often a bit heavier and sweeter than tequila. If you’re a fan of peaty scotch and the aroma of smoky BBQ pits, then mezcal may be for you.
Keep in mind that añejo doesn’t mean “best,” it just means “oldest.” If you prefer the flavor of blanco, then buy blanco. Extra añejos are often the most expensive tequilas.
Author: Garrett McCord