Tequila is a distilled spirit made from the blue Agave or Agave Azul, and produced only in five areas of Mexico. It can be drunk on its own or in a cocktail. Find out more in our full guide below.
- Colour: Can range from clear, unaged spirit (blanco) to light gold (reposado – rested) and a vibrant gold (añejo – aged). Some Tequilas are extra-aged giving them a richer gold hue.
- Region: Produced in Mexico – there are five Mexican states that are legally allowed to produce Tequila: Jalisco and parts of Guanajuanto, Tamaulipas, Michoacan and Nayarit.
- ABV: Typically bottled at 35% in Mexico, 40% in the US and 38% in Europe.
- Made from: The agave plant, which although has the appearance of a cactus, is a succulent related to the lily family and native to Mexico. Premium Tequilas are made from 100% blue agave, while lower-end tequilas, called ‘mixtos’, typically contain 51% agave with the remaining made up of molasses, corn syrup or other sugars.
- Translation: The name is derived from the Mexican town of Tequila, which lies to the northwest of the major city of Guadalajara.
What is Tequila?
Tequila is a distilled spirit made from the Agave tequilana Weber Blue, blue agave or Agave Azul, and produced only in five areas of Mexico: Jalisco (where 99% is made and home to the town Tequila) as well as Guanajuanto, Michoacan, Tamaulipas and Nayarit – these are known as the Denomination of Origin Tequila (DOT) and recognised as such in more than 40 countries.
There are 166 different species of agave, 125 of which can be found in Mexico but only the Weber Blue (named after the German botanist who first classified the species in 1905 due to the slight blue hue of its green foliage) can be used to make Tequila. These plants are particularly suited to the silicate-rich, red volcanic soils in the region around the city of Tequila with more than 300 million plants harvested there every year.
The history of Mexican agave dates back more than a thousand years, to 250-300 AD when the Aztecs created pulque, a cloudy, slightly sour tasting alcohol drink made from the extraction of the sweet sap from the plant’s hearts and fermenting it. The drink was a hallowed beverage and consumed at religious ceremonies and sacred rites.
But it wasn’t until the 16th Century when the Spanish conquistadors who had settled in Mexico in 1521 ran out of their supply of brandy and decided to use their knowledge of distillation to turn pulque into a spirit.
Around 1600 the first mass-produced tequila was being made with the first official license to commercially make tequila issued by Spain’s King Carlos IV to the Cuervo family in 1975.
There are currently over 22,000 registered agave farmers in the DOC Tequila region cultivating several hundred million agave plants over 125,000 hectares.
The Mexican government has imposed strict regulation to control what can be called Tequila and how it is made. Those that adhere to these regulations, including the registration of all agave grown for Tequila production, are authenticated by the Tequila Regulatory Council (CRT) and carry a NOM number (Norma Oficial Mexicana) on each bottle’s label identifying the distillery.
It must be made from a minimum of 51% Blue Agave, with legislation allowing for the remainder to be made up of a neutral spirit made from cane sugar juice. Those that are 100% Blue Agave are labelled as such while those made with less than 100% are called ‘mixto’.
All tequilas are required to be aged for at least 14-21 days, it must be made from 100% natural ingredients and be a minimum of 38% alcohol.
Mexican regulations permit Tequila to be bottled at between 35% and 55% ABV but is usually sold at 35% – 38%. The US market stipulates a minimum of 40%, South Africa 43% and Europe 37.5%.
How is Tequila made?
Tequila is made from ripe blue agave plants which take a minimum of six years to mature but those planted in the highlands frequently take much longer to reach maturity and can be up to 12 years.
Unlike whisky where the majority of time is spent in the ageing process, producing tequila requires a vast amount of time invested in cultivation.
At maturity the blue agave plant produces a single flower then dies, but just as the plant begins to flower skilled harvesters called ‘jimadors’ cut off the shoot with a sharp curved tool called a Coa, preserving the starch stored in the heart of the plant.
The hearts are known as the piña as they resemble pineapples with jimadores cutting the plants’ spiky leaves as close to the piña as possible. The ripe hearts, which have an average weight of 32kg but can vary from 10-100kg, are then halved, quartered and slow roasted in traditional ovens called ‘hornos’ for 24-48 hours or baked in faster steam ovens called ‘autoclaves’ for 7 hours where the starches are converted into fermentable sugar.
After cooking the hearts are pressed and shredded to release the sugary juice, known as aguamiel or ‘honey water’. It is then put into fermentation tanks where yeast is added, though traditionally spontaneous fermentation using naturally occurring airborne yeast is still used by a small number of distillers.
The liquid is left to ferment in open or closed vats of wood or stainless-steel tanks for 24-96 hours. Sometimes distillers add some of the agave fibers from which the liquid was extracted to the tanks which form a seal and trap aromatics in the fermentation. The resulting liquid has a 6% alcohol content which then has to be distilled a minimum of two times by a combination of pot and column stills made of copper or more commonly stainless-steel. The style of tequila produced is controlled considerably by the distiller who must find a balance between different flavour compounds and the temperatures they’ll evaporate at. The resulting alcohol content varies between 70 and 110 Proof and is the basic Tequila Blanco, or silver Tequila.
Main types of Tequila:
- Blanco (white) or plata (silver) – can be bottled directly after distillation or rested in stainless steel or neutral oak barrels to allow oxidisation for up to two months. These have a bold taste and work well in cocktails.
- Joven (young) or Oro (gold) – sometimes blends of unaged and aged tequilas but more commonly unaged tequilas produced in the same way as blancos but given a golden hue from the addition of colouring and additives for flavour.
- Reposado (rested) – must be aged in oak barrels of unspecified size or vats called ‘pipones’ for a minimum of two months and up to a maximum of 12 months. Best for mixed drinks and sipping.
- Añejo – must be aged in oak casks with a maximum capacity of 600 litres for at least one year, or between one and three years. These often have a toasty, vanilla and citrus flavour.
- Extra Añejo – must be aged at least three years in oak barrels with a maximum capacity of 600 litres. These generally have more of a smoky flavour and can be compared to fine French Cognacs with similar price tags.
- Curados – a new category launched in 2006 – tequilas flavoured with natural ingredients such as lemon, orange, strawberry, pineapple and pear. A minimum 25% agave spirit must be used with 75% of the fermentable sugars coming from cane or corn and the addition of sweeteners, colouring and/or flavourings up to 75ml per litre.
Distillers can choose to use new casks for ageing or those that previously held tequila or more commonly American whiskey. The type of wood, toast level, thickness of stave, temperature and humidity all combine to dramatically effect how Tequila matures. To comply with regulations, all containers must remain closed, and have paper seals applied, for the duration of the ageing process which only the Compliance Assessment Agency can remove at the designated time.
In Mexico the most traditional way to drink Tequila is neat at room temperature without fruit slices or salt. In some regions it is popular to drink equal sized shots of tequila and sangrita (little blood in Spanish) a typical Mexican beverage made traditionally with orange juice, lime juice, pomegranate juice and hot chilli-sauce. These are sipped alternately without salt or lime.
When served neat, Tequila most often comes in a narrow 2-ounce shot glass called a caballito (little horse).
A common mixed drink consumed in Jalisco is a ‘Cantarito’ which is made with freshly squeezed orange, grapefruit and lime juice with tequila, a pinch of salt and sparkling grapefruit soda. The mix is usually served in little clay cups (Cantaritos) – a diminutive version of cántaro meaning jug.
In 2002, an official tequila glass was approved by the Consejo Regulador del Tequila called the Ouverture Tequila glass made by Riedel. The margarita glass, rimmed with salt or sugar, is also a widely used for the entire genre of tequila-based drinks.
- Margarita / Frozen margarita
- Tequila Sunrise
- Tequila Paloma
- Tequila Martini
- Tequila Slammer
Did you know?
- Some artisan and craft Tequilas are made using one of the oldest and most labour-intensive techniques known as the ‘Tahona Process’ where the cooked hearts of the blue agave plant are moved into the path of a huge, volcanic stone that has been chiselled into a rough, hulking wheel. The wheel is attached to a long pole and mechanical arm, or more traditionally a mule or oxen, which slowly pulls the wheel to press the juice out of the agave hearts. The Tahona is the name of the wheel itself and comes from the Nahuatl language of the indigenous Aztecs. The process isn’t widely used in the tequila industry with many large brands preferring more efficient extraction methods but a handful of producers use it for the complexity of flavour it gives the resulting juice. Patrón’s Roca line is produced in small batches and made exclusively using the Tahona Process.
- It’s not just the hearts of the agave plant that are important, at one point in history local inhabitants of Tequila county used the leaves to build roofs, make needles and pins, wind strong rope and manufacture paper as well as using the dried fleshly leaves as fuel, the ashes as soap or detergent and the sap to heal wounds.
- In 2006 a white gold and platinum bottle of Ultra Premium Tequila Ley .925 sold for $225,000 making it the most expensive bottle of Tequila ever sold.
Biggest selling brands:
- Jose Cuervo – Becle
- Sauza – Beam Suntory
- Patrón – Bacardi
Other key brands:
- El Jimador
- Don Julio
- Olmeca Altos
- Cabo Wabo
- Pepe Lopez