A Step-by-Step, Beginner’s Guide to Tequila

Blue agave being harvested / Photo by Penny De Los Santos
Blue agave being harvested / Photo by Penny De Los Santos

If shots in college and blended margaritas are the extent of your experience with Tequila, it’s time to go back to school. This Mexican spirit is more complex than you might expect. It can be enjoyed in many ways, if you know what to look for and how to order it. Consider this your Tequila 101 guide.

What is Tequila?

Tequila is the most well-known and recognized spirit produced in Mexico. While stories of its origin vary, many believe the spirit has been produced for thousands of years.

To be legally called Tequila, a spirit must meet three requirements, says Iliana Partida, master distiller for Tres Agaves.

First, it can only be made in in five specific Mexican states: Jalisco, Michoacán, Guanajuato, Nayarit and Tamaulipas. Second, it must be made with blue agave, or Agave tequilana, one of more than 200 recognized varieties of the agave plant. Finally, it must be approved by Mexico’s Consejo Regulador del Tequila (CRT), or Tequila Regulatory Council.

Blue agave waiting to be harvested in Jalisco, Mexico / Getty
Blue agave waiting to be harvested in Jalisco, Mexico / Getty

You can tell if a Tequila meets these requirements by checking out its label. A CRT-certified Tequila will have a small rectangle that bears the letters somewhere on the back.

While the highest-quality bottlings are made with 100% blue agave, they’re only required to have 51% to legally qualify as Tequila. The remaining ingredients can be any other sugar or neutral spirit, which can significantly affect the flavor profile.

“That’s important, because many Tequilas are not 100% blue agave,” says Partida. “You have to be able to recognize that as a consumer.”

Jimadores, or Mexican agave farmers, at harvest / Photo by Penny De Los Santos
Jimadores, or Mexican agave farmers, at harvest / Photo by Penny De Los Santos

How is Tequila made?

The process of making Tequila begins in the field with the blue agave plant, which takes at least seven years to reach maturity. It’s still harvested by hand, an extremely labor-intensive effort, before being cooked one of four ways. “[Agave is] a really complex sugar, so it won’t taste like anything until it’s cooked,” says Partida.

In the early days, most producers cooked their agave underground. Distillers would dig a hole, fill it with agave, pile wood and rocks on top and set it ablaze. This method imparts a smoky flavor to the Tequila desired by some, though Partida says is considered “dirty” by others.

The second method is called horno, which means slow-cooking the agave in a brick oven for about 24 hours. It’s also a traditional technique, but cleaner and more effective than underground cooking.

Blue agave "pineapples," roasted in a horno, or brick oven / Getty
Blue agave “pineapples,” roasted in a horno, or brick oven / Getty

Autoclave, or stainless-steel oven cooking, is a modern technique that’s more efficient, cooking the agave in around nine to 11 hours.

The most modern and cheapest way to cook agave is through a diffuser method, which washes and cuts the raw agave, then cooks the resulting liquid, says Partida. In as little as three hours, this process can produce thousands of liters of soon-to-be Tequila. However, this method causes all parts of the agave, even the wax, to go into the final spirit, which can compromise the flavor.

Regardless of the technique used, a chemical reaction breaks down the sugars as the agave is cooked to make them edible. The agave juice is pressed out of the plant, traditionally using a large stone wheel called a tahona. The sugar-rich liquid that’s extracted is then fermented and distilled into Tequila.

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At this point, the distiller decides the type of Tequila they want to make. Some add a little water to bring the final spirit to desired alcohol levels and bottle it right away. Others age their Tequila in barrels.

“From that period of time, you can play with it,” says Partida. “That’s how you make your own formula.”

The type of barrel used will affect a Tequila’s profile. Some distillers use old barrels from Jack Daniels and Four Roses, for instance. The former imparts a bit more sweetness, while the latter lends spicier notes. Many Tequilas are made from a blend of barrels to create consistent, unique flavor profiles.

Roasted agave being moved for pressing / Getty
Roasted agave being moved for pressing / Getty

What affects a Tequila’s flavor?

Where agave is grown has a major impact on how a Tequila tastes. Many distillers source their agave from both the Highlands and the Lowlands (or “the Valley,” as locals say) of Jalisco. The area is known overall for its volcanic soil, but the main difference is elevation. The Highlands average around 6,000 feet above sea level, while the Lowlands average about 3,800 feet.

If a distiller uses only Valley agave, the Tequila will have a more herbal, citric profile. Highlands agave tends to produce a sharper, spicier flavor, says Partida.

Also important is how long the Tequila is aged. In broad terms, unaged Tequila (blanco) has notes of citrus and floral. Slightly aged Tequila (reposado) is a little spicy, with sweet aromas of caramel and vanilla. Aged (añejo) is sweet and oaky, with thicker “legs” in the glass, says Audrey Formisano, Tequila sommelier at Marriott Puerto Vallarta Resort & Spa.

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Common Tequila terms

Ready to talk Tequila? Here are the words you need to know.

Agave: A drought-tolerant, slow-growing succulent plant. One variety, blue agave, is the primary ingredient of Tequila.

Mezcal: Tequila is a form of mezcal, a broader category of spirits made from many varieties of agave. All Tequilas are mezcals, but not all mezcals are Tequilas.

Jalisco: The western Mexico state where Tequila is said to have originated. It’s home to the town of Tequila, which has red volcanic soil that’s ideal for growing blue agave. While Tequila is produced in four other states, Jalisco is considered by many to have the best terroir.

NOM: Norma Oficial Mexicana, the regulating government body that oversees official Mexican standards of Tequila. Look for the NOM number on Tequila labels to guarantee authenticity. The number is unique to each producer, but it can be used on multiple products if they come from the same distillery.

Blanco: Also called white or young Tequila, it is not aged, spending no more than two months resting in steel tanks before bottling. Blanco Tequila is often ideal in cocktails, and it pairs well with foods like fish or shrimp.

Reposado: Slightly aged Tequila that has spent at least two months, but less than one year in wood barrels.

Añejo: Aged Tequila that has spent at least one year in barrels, but less than three.

Extra Añejo: A relatively new category, created by Mexico’s Consejo Regulador del Tequila in 2006, extra añejo denotes Tequila aged more than three years. Previously, these Tequilas were simply lumped in to the standard añejo classification.

Mixto: A mixed Tequila that’s 51% agave, cut with sugar additives or neutral spirits often derived from sugarcane. Popular brands like Jose Cuervo Gold and Sauza Silver are mixto Tequilas.

Gold: Generally used as a term for Tequila that hasn’t been barrel-aged, but given a similar hue, usually through the addition of caramel or other artificial colorings.

Agave hearts waiting to be turned into Tequila / Getty
Agave hearts waiting to be turned into Tequila / Getty

What makes good Tequila?

The best way to evaluate a new Tequila is to start with a blanco. “It hasn’t been on the barrel, so it tells you everything you need to know—there’s no disguise,” says Formisano.

Blanco Tequila allows you to easily identify an agave’s true flavor. Nuances can be harder to detect in aged Tequilas because they’ve already gained other flavors from the wood. “If you like the blanco…you can continue with reposado and añejo, because by default, they are going to be great,” says Partida.

When trying a Tequila for the first time, there are two things you should taste for, says Jessica Sanders, owner of DrinkWell in Austin. First, does it smell and taste like cooked agave (sweet and earthy), or like cotton candy, marshmallow or processed sugar? “The best Tequilas should smell and taste like the agricultural product that produced it,” says Sanders.

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Second, consider the texture. “Is it a lush, luxurious mouthfeel that bounces across your entire palate, or a thin, sharp, one-note flavor?” asks Sanders. Tequilas that are not well made tend to be bitter and have an almost water-like mouthfeel. As with any spirit, she says, you should smell first and sip, then repeat to pull out all the flavors.

Expensive doesn’t always mean quality when it comes to Tequila, says Miranda Breedlove, bar director at Good Fortune in Chicago. Instead of price, research the distillery to find out how they make the Tequila. “The best [technique] is always going to be horno…autoclave is second best,” says Breedlove. “If you find a diffuser Tequila, it’s not as well produced.”

Can't go wrong with a classic margarita / Getty
Can’t go wrong with a classic margarita / Getty

How to mix Tequila

Margaritas may be most people’s introduction to Tequila, but there are many ways to expand your repertoire. If you enjoy cocktails, try a Paloma, made with blanco Tequila, lime, grapefruit, simple syrup and soda. A Tequila riff on a classic two-ingredient mixer is also taking off. “We’ve been crushing through Tequila sodas,” says Breedlove. She says it’s a more flavorful option for traditional vodka-soda drinkers. Once you find a Tequila you like, it’s something you’ll likely enjoy on its own, she says.

Other cocktails lend well to añejo and reposado Tequilas. “I think it can blow people’s minds to try an Old Fashioned with añejo Tequila,” says Breedlove. “It has the same body, spice and warmth that a Bourbon would have, but with a little more sweetness.”

Tequila has also taken on new form compared to previous decades, as something to be sipped neat, not downed as a shot. “We went through an era when people wanted to mask the flavor of alcohol,” says Sanders. “Now, they want to taste what they’re drinking.”

Published on September 17, 2019
Topics: Spirits


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