What is Tequila you ask! In popular culture, tequila is treated like a chore to be choked down during a wild night out on the town. But tequila is so much more than the domain of Cinco de Mayo margaritas and shots to chase with salt and lime! Read below to learn all about the glorious spirit called tequila.
Spirits Table of Contents
Good tequila, like good whiskey, is meant to be sipped and savored. Rich and complex, tequila has a flavor all its own due to its origins in the arid Mexican climate.
- Cheap = Hangover
Tequila is a specific type of mezcal, a distilled spirit made from the agave plant. Different mezcals, like sotol, pulque, and raicilla, can be made from multiple types of agave in several regions of Mexico. But to be called tequila, it must be made of at least 51% blue agave, and it can only come from specific areas of five Mexican states.
Tequila also pairs well with food, music and some cannabis strains.
Frequently Asked Questions
Unlike the annual sugarcane grown for rum or grain grown for rye, the blue agave plant has to grow for seven to ten years before it’s ready for harvest. So agave farmers, or jimadors, must constantly be thinking ahead to the next decade of tequila production.
Once the plants are mature, the spiky outer leaves are removed to expose the piña — a large central bulb that resembles a white pineapple. The piñas are quartered and baked over low heat, converting starches to sugars.
Then, the piña is crushed to extract the sugary juice. Yeast is added, which eats up all that sugar and turns it into alcohol. This alcohol is distilled in pot or column stills until it reaches 110 proof (55% ABV). Finally, it’s cut with water to reach 38-40% ABV.
To be called “tequila,” the spirit must contain at least 51% Weber blue agave. While most tequila is 100% agave, it’s not all 100% Weber.
All tequila must be produced, bottled, and inspected in designated areas of Jalisco, Nayarit, Guanajuato, Michoacán, and Tamaulipas. And most of the blue agave used in tequila production is grown in the area surrounding the city of Tequila.
It’s a truly regional creation that belongs entirely to Mexico and the Mexican people.
The rules governing the tequila industry are set and regulated by the Consejo Regulador del Tequila (CRT). This group was established in 1994 to verify the authenticity of tequilas. The CRT has identified five types of tequila, based on how they’re aged and finished.
Just like white rum, blanco (or white) tequila is aged in stainless steel — if it’s aged at all. These tequilas are usually affordable, and are often used in margaritas and other tequila cocktails.
Joven is Spanish for young. Like blanco tequila, Joven tequilas are usually unaged. They often have additives for colors and flavors. Although they were popular in the 1980s and 1990s, they have fallen out of demand in favor of better blanco and reposado varieties.
Reposado, or rested, tequilas have aged in wooden barrels for at least two months. They have a light golden color from the aging process and won’t contain any additives. The barrels may be unused, or they may be second-use bourbon barrels for a more complex flavor.
Añejo tequila is older, often aged in white French oak. These must age for at least a year to earn the añejo designation, and they’re often aged for up to three years.
Extra-añejo is a new category added by the CRT in 2006 as aged tequilas grew more popular. These extra-old tequilas age for more than three years and have a deeper, richer flavor profile. This is definitely not shot tequila!
Here are a few popular cocktails made with Tequila.
- Tequila Sunrise
- Jalisco Express
- Tequila Sour
Where Tequila is From
Tequila originates from Jalisco Mexico.
History of Tequila
Humanity has been fermenting plant matter and drinking the result for millennia. It’s practically in our DNA — the ancient Chinese were making a fermented rice and grape drink in 7000 B.C., and the Syrians were brewing beer in 2500 B.C.
And in 1000 B.C., the Olmec people in the lowlands of Mexico were fermenting agave sap. Later, the Aztecs did the same and used the resulting pulque to worship the goddess of maguey (agave) and the god of pulque. Ancient cultures also used Tequila as medicine to treat and cure numerous ailments.
When the Spanish arrived in the 1400s, they brought war with them — and a method of distillation. One story says that when the Spaniards ran out of brandy, they used the local knowledge of agave to distill a precursor to today’s mezcal.
By the early 1600s, the first large-scale distillery was in operation in what would become Tequila, Jalisco. Family distilleries popped up over the next two centuries, including famous names like Cuervo and Sauza. In the late 1800s, Don Cenobio Sauza decided that blue agave was the best plant for tequila, and the word spread.
Tequila didn’t gain much of a foothold with American drinkers until the failed experiment of Prohibition. Banned from buying legal hooch, Americans began hopping the border to Tijuana to get their hands on legal booze. Bootleggers got in on the action, too, smuggling tequila supplies from Mexico to Texas.
Tequila’s popularity waned after the repeal of Prohibition. But with the mid-century invention of a little drink called the margarita, our thirst for tequila was renewed.
In 1974, the Mexican government claimed the term “tequila” as its intellectual property to protect the integrity of the spirit. The CTR was established to establish the rules of production and aging, and tequila was safeguarded from adulteration or dilution.
Today, most tequila is limited to the United States and Central America. But that just means that this Mexican elixir has room to grow. Tequila is currently the second fastest-growing spirit worldwide, thanks partially to new European markets. As the global appreciation for this craft liquor grows, jimadors must be extra vigilant to protect their slow-growing supply — or risk leaving us with a world without tequila.