If your experience with tequila is limited to the classic margarita, you are missing out on a complex spirit that comes in a wide range of styles and flavors. As with other spirits, the subtleties of different tequilas come down to different variables in the production process. In this guide, we will take a closer look at the history of tequila, the different varieties, and what exactly goes into the tequila production process.
What is Tequila Made Of?
Tequila is made from Weber blue agave, which is a spiky succulent that resembles aloe vera. This plant contains a core bulb known as the piña. Tequila producers will remove the piña before baking it and extracting the juice, which is then fermented in barrels containing yeast. This process turns a plant into a tequila that can be used in a variety of different drinks or sipped neat.
Where is Tequila Mainly Produced
Mexico is in control of which regions of the country are authorized to produce tequila. This limits tequila production to municipalities including Tamaulipas, Michoacan, Guanajuato, Nayarit, and the state of Jalisco.
What Classifies a Tequila vs an Agave-Based Spirit?
Tequila is just one of many agave-based spirits. The key factor that separates tequila is the fact that it is only made from the Weber blue agave plant. Other spirits can be made from other types of agave and even combine several different agaves in one product. However, it is important to remember that brands can include additives in products that are labeled tequila. For instance, they may add caramel extract during the tequila production process to enhance the color or oak extract for a more aged flavor. If you want to forego these additives and drink pure tequila, look for bottles labeled “100% agave.”
Different Types of Tequila
Tequila is an agave-based spirit that is derived from agave and produced in Mexico. Essentially, there are five different types of tequila. You may have heard of the main three types, reposado, blanco, and añejo, but there are two other lesser-known types that we will also discuss.
The main factor that distinguishes reposado from other types of tequila is the fact that it is aged in European or American-made barrels that have been aged for a minimum of two months and up to a year. Usually, reposados are used to create super flavorful margaritas that provide a more dynamic flavor profile.
Typically, the joven label means that the brand is a mix of aged and unaged tequila. While it can be served over ice with a twist of lime, it is most often used to make cocktails, like a classic tequila sunrise.
You may also know this type of tequila as silver. During the tequila production process for blanco tequila, it is distilled from blue Weber agave grown in Jalisco, one of five different western states in Mexico. If you want a true blanco, look for brands that are labeled blue agave. For those who enjoy a margarita, a blanco tequila is usually the way to go.
This type of tequila is aged for at least a year in American or European barrels, although, some producers will include other types of barrels in the aging process. Tequila añejo is ideal for sipping or as a replacement for brown spirits, like whiskey, that are usually used in cocktails.
This tequila is rare because it must be aged for a minimum of three years. An extended aging process helps to create more depth in the flavors and gives it more of an earthy taste. To truly experience the complexities of this sophisticated type of tequila, sip it neat or over ice.
The History of Tequila and Evolving Tequila Production
The origins of Tequila can be traced back to around 250-300 AD. Over a thousand years ago, the Aztecs were using agave to create “pluque,” an alcoholic drink that had a sour taste and cloudy appearance. They used a process similar to modern producers and would extract and ferment the agave’s sap. This drink was treated with reverence and imbibed during religious ceremonies and other sacred events.
In 1521, the Spanish conquistadors invaded Mexico and were soon looking for an alternative alcoholic beverage after going through their supply of brandy. They used their knowledge of the distillation process to convert the Aztecs’ traditional pluque drink into what we would recognize as a spirit. Just nine years later in 1600, tequila was being mass-produced. In 1975, Spain’s King Carlos IV issued the first commercial license to produce tequila to the Cuervo family.
Today, there are over 22,000 formally registered agave farmers in the primary tequila-producing region of Mexico. Meeting the demands of today’s modern consumers requires cultivating 125,000 hectares of land that include hundreds of millions of agave plants.
Steps to Producing Tequila
As with any spirit, there are specific steps used to produce each type. Here are the basic steps involved in making tequila.
First, the agave needs to be harvested. Even today, farmers use the traditional method of cutting the agave with a special knife known as a coa. This tool is used to remove the leaves from the piña bulb.
Next, the piña needs to be baked so that the sugars can be extracted. Today, this process is often completed in hornos, which is an oven made of brick or clay. Originally, tequila producers would bake piñas in large pits containing rocks to hold in the heat.
Once the piña has been baked properly, it is time to shred it and extract the juice, called mosoto, from the bulb. Today, a mechanical shredder can be used to expedite this process, but some producers prefer to use a stone wheel, known as a tahona, to crush and juice the piña.
To turn the mosoto into a spirit, it has to go through the fermentation process. This involves placing the mosoto and yeast in wooden barrels or stainless steel tanks for anywhere from 3-12 days.
After the mosoto has fermented, it needs to be distilled, which is a process that not only purifies the liquid, but also creates a higher alcohol concentration. In most cases, tequila will be distilled twice. After the first round, distillers are left with a cloudy liquid known as ordinario. Going through the second round will create a clear silver liquid. From there, the tequila is ready to be aged.
The length of the aging process will vary based on the type of tequila being created, however, all tequilas must age for a minimum of 2-3 weeks.
Tequila Production Wrapped Up
In 2022, tequila is the second most popular spirit, behind vodka. The global tequila market was $9.89 billion in 2021 and is projected to reach $15.57 billion by 2029. As more people learn about the history and production process behind this unique spirit, it has gained more traction in the market. Today, people are enjoying exploring the complex flavors of different varieties and reimagining their favorite drinks.
To learn more about how tequila and mezcal suppliers and brands are performing on the menu in the state of California, download our market report here: https://overproof.com/agave/.
What is tequila?
Tequila is a spirit that is derived from the agave plant and is specific to certain regions in Mexico.
What are the different types of tequila?
The three main types are blanco, reposado, añejo and there are two subcategories known as joven and extra añejo.
What is tequila made of?
Tequila is made from the core of the Weber blue agave plant. This central bulb of the plant is also known as the piña and contains the natural sugars that are at the heart of tequila.
What is the history of tequila?
Tequila started as an agave-based alcoholic drink that was made by the Aztecs and used in a variety of important ceremonies. When the Spanish conquistadors arrived in Mexico, they used their knowledge of the distillation process to purify the original drink and turn it into what we now know as tequila. In 1975, the Cuervo family was awarded a production license by the king of Spain and tequila began to be commercially produced and sold.
Where is tequila mainly produced?
Tequila is produced in municipalities located in Guanajuato, Michoacan, Nayarit, Tamaulipas and any agave spirits produced outside these areas are designated as mezcal.
What are the steps to producing tequila?
Harvest the agave, bake the piña bulb, shred the piña in order to extract juice, ferment the juice for 3-12 days, distill the liquid, and age the tequila for at least 14-21 days.