How Tequila is Made and Other FAQs About Your Favorite Spirit

Tequila, the spirit that has charmed palates and sparked countless celebrations across the globe, is one of the fastest-growing in popularity. With its recent surge in fame, tequila has become a staple in many home bars and the star of numerous cocktails. Despite its widespread appeal, tequila remains shrouded in mystery for many.

Where does this enigmatic spirit originate? How is tequila made? What distinguishes its varying hues?

Let's pull back the curtain on tequila, answering your burning questions and deepening your appreciation for this iconic Mexican spirit. Whether you’re a seasoned aficionado or a curious newcomer, there’s always something new to discover in the world of tequila.

What is Tequila Made From?

Tequila is made from the blue agave plant, scientifically known as Agave tequilana Weber Azul. Specifically, it is produced from the heart (or “piña”) of the blue agave plant. This core contains sugars, primarily fructose, essential for the fermentation process that produces tequila. It's important to note that while there are over 200 species of agave, only the blue agave is used for making authentic tequila.

Does Tequila Have to be Made in Mexico?

Absolutely, yes. Just as Champagne must come from the Champagne region of France, genuine tequila must hail from specific regions in Mexico. According to the Denomination of Origin (DO) established for tequila, the spirit can only be produced in the state of Jalisco and in limited municipalities in the states of Guanajuato, Michoacán, Nayarit, and Tamaulipas.

These regions’ unique climates, soil, and growing conditions influence the blue agave plants from which tequila is derived, imparting distinct flavors and characteristics. Any “tequila” produced outside these regions cannot be labeled as tequila. Instead, they are considered “agave spirits” or something similar, lacking the official recognition of authentic tequila.

How Long Does it Take to Make Tequila?

The process of making tequila, from planting the blue agave to bottling the final product, is a journey that spans several years:

  1. Growing the blue agave: The plant takes 6 to 8 years to mature, accumulating the sugars necessary for fermentation.
  2. Harvesting: Once matured, skilled jimadores harvest the piña from the agave’s central core.
  3. Cooking the piñas: The piñas are then cooked to convert the starches into fermentable sugars, a process that can take several days, especially if traditional brick ovens (hornos) are used.
  4. Extraction: Post-cooking, the juices (aguamiel) are extracted from the piñas using traditional methods like the Tahona stone or modern roller mills.
  5. Fermentation: The extracted juice undergoes fermentation, where yeast converts the sugars into alcohol. This can last from a few days to weeks.
  6. Distillation: The fermented liquid is distilled, often twice, to refine and concentrate the flavors and alcohol content.
  7. Aging: The final step in production is aging. While Blanco tequila is bottled immediately after distillation, Reposado, Añejo, and Extra Añejo tequilas are aged in oak barrels for several months to years. For instance, Reposado might be aged for a few months, whereas Extra Añejo could be aged for five years or more.

In essence, the entire journey, from planting the blue agave to producing a bottle of tequila, can range from 7 to 12 years, depending on the variant and the aging process.

What Gives Different Tequilas Their Unique Colors?

The color variations in tequila come primarily from the aging process and the type of barrels used. Here's a breakdown:

  • Blanco or Silver Tequila: This variant is clear, capturing the essence of pure distilled agave without any aging. Bottled immediately after distillation or after a short rest in stainless steel tanks, it retains a crystalline appearance.
  • Reposado (Rested) Tequila: Aged in oak barrels for at least two months, it develops a pale golden hue. The barrels add color and subtle wood flavors, melding beautifully with the agave notes.
  • Añejo (Aged) Tequila: Aged for at least one year, Añejo tequilas have a richer golden-brown color. This extended contact with the wood results in deeper hues and enhanced flavor profiles, with notes of caramel, vanilla, and wood.
  • Extra Añejo (Extra Aged) Tequila: Aged for a minimum of three years, these tequilas take on a deep amber or mahogany shade and offer exceptionally layered and rich flavors dominated by wood, spices, and hints of dried fruits.

How is Tequila Different from Mezcal?

Tequila and mezcal, both iconic spirits from Mexico, derive from the agave plant but have distinct differences.

  • Tequila: Crafted solely from the blue agave plant and primarily produced in Jalisco and a few other regions. Its production involves steaming the agave’s heart (piña) inside large ovens, leading to a smoother, sweeter profile with flavors like citrus and pepper.
  • Mezcal: Can be made from over 30 types of agave and is primarily produced in Oaxaca. Its hallmark smoky flavor comes from roasting the piñas in underground pits before distillation, resulting in a diverse taste spectrum from sweet and fruity to earthy.

Why Is There a Worm in Tequila Bottles?

The idea of a worm in tequila bottles is a widespread misconception. The “worm,” actually a larva of a moth that infests agave plants, is more commonly found in mezcal bottles, not tequila. The inclusion of the “worm” or “gusano” in mezcal bottles began as a marketing gimmick in the mid-20th century. Some believed the larva could enhance the flavor, but many traditionalists view it as a novelty that detracts from the spirit’s authenticity.

How Should Premium Tequila be Enjoyed?

Premium tequilas, especially aged varieties like Reposado, Añejo, and Extra Añejo, are best savored neat, much like a refined whiskey or cognac. This method lets the drinker discern the delicate flavors and aromas nurtured during aging. Tequila also takes center stage in iconic cocktails, with the Margarita being a universally celebrated example. Ultimately, the best way to enjoy tequila is the one that resonates with your palate.

Why Does Tequila Cost More Than Other Spirits?

Tequila’s pricing is often higher than other spirits due to its unique production process. The blue agave plant requires 7 to 10 years to mature before harvesting, compared to grains for whiskey, bourbon, and vodka that can be planted and harvested within a year. Harvesting agave is labor-intensive, requiring skilled jimadores to hand-harvest the piña.

Higher tequila prices also stem from its aging and purity levels. Aged tequilas demand time, optimal storage conditions, and premium barrels. Premium brands like Suavecito Tequila use 100% blue agave, pushing up production costs. With global demand for quality tequila surging, blue agave prices can fluctuate, sometimes heightening costs.

In essence, crafting premium tequila takes time, effort, and hard work, contributing to its higher price.

The world of tequila is rich with tradition, meticulous craftsmanship, and a depth of flavor that’s captivated connoisseurs and casual drinkers alike. While many relish the sip of a smooth tequila shot or the tangy refreshment of a margarita, exploring the intricacies behind this storied spirit reveals a tapestry of processes and decisions that contribute to its uniqueness.

We hope by unraveling some of the mysteries and nuances of tequila, we enhanced your understanding of tequila and the choices you have as well as your appreciation the next time you raise a glass. Cheers from the WhiskeyD Family!!