Tequila Basics



100% Agave Tequila vs Mixto

Not all Tequila is created equal. There are two categories: plain ol' Tequila (sometimes called mixto) and 100% agave Tequila. Purists insist on the latter, whose only source of sugar (and therefore alcohol) is the blue agave. These Tequilas tend to be more flavorful and are less likely to produce a hangover.

"Mixtos" are so named because their sugar source is mixed. Up to 49% can come from any non-agave source - cane sugar, beet sugar, even high fructose corn syrup! It is important to always ask for 100% agave Tequila wherever you go, as it's the only way to know what you're really drinking!


Five Classes of Tequila

Whether 100% agave or mixto, all Tequila falls into one of the following five classes.

Blanco

Also called "Silver" or "Plata", Blanco Tequila is bottled soon after distillation, and is the purest and most traditional expression of the Tequila-making craft. Traditionally and predominantly unaged, Blanco Tequila can be in contact with oak for up to 60 days.

Gold

"Oro" or "Joven" (young) in Spanish, this class of Tequila is often a mixto. In such cases, it is simply a blanco with flavor and color additives. When it is 100% agave, it is a blend of Blanco and another class of Tequila.

Reposado

Meaning "rested", Reposado Tequila is aged a minimum of two months in an oak vessel of any size, which are often large tanks. At their best Reposados balance the boldness of a Blanco with the smooth vanilla and caramel notes of toasted oak.

Añejo

"Year-old" Tequilas take their name from the Spanish word for year ("año"), and all Añejos must spend at least that long in oak barrels no larger than 600 liters. Often the barrels will have been used previously for whiskey, and the extra time in the barrel makes a big impact. The result is typically an oaky Tequila with a long, complex finish. Añejos are often favorites of Scotch or other whiskey drinkers for this reason.

Extra Añejo

"Extra aged" Tequilas spend a minimum of three years in oak barrels, and everything that applies to Añejos applies more so to Extra Añejos. Oak notes tend to dominate, and due to the "angels" share" lost to the barrels, these Tequilas are very expensive.


Rules and Regulations

Tequila is arguably the most heavily regulated distilled spirit on the planet. The categories and classes above, along with many other rules, are defined in a "NOM" (Norma Oficial Mexicana), or set of regulations established by the Mexican government. This "Norm" is interpreted and enforced by the CRT (Consejo Regulador de Tequila), which literally tests and keeps samples from every batch of Tequila made. Sounds like a great job to us!

Denomination of Origin

Like Scotch, Cognac and Champagne, Tequila is a "Denomination of Origin" beverage, meaning that it can only legally be produced in a certain region of the world. Specifically, there are 5 states in Mexico that can produce Tequila:

  • Jalisco
  • Tamaulipas
  • Guanajuato
  • Nayarit
  • Michoacán
Although there are great Tequilas that are produced in most of these places, the vast majority comes from the state of Jalisco, where Tequila was born.

Tequila Terroir

Tequila that comes from different places tastes differently. It may sound obvious, but this is something that is not true of most other spirits. As a result, there is a real sense of place around Tequila, as the taste of any individual brand is inextricably tied to the land that grew the agaves and provided the water needeed for fermentation & distillation.

On our tours, we will be focusing on the unique terroirs of the Valley of Tequila and the Highlands of Jalisco. Click here to learn more about both.


Tequila Production

There are 6 stages to Tequila production, and each one can have a huge influence on the final product, so it is crucial to have quality control throughout.

Agave Cultivation and Harvesting

A little known fact is that Tequila is by far the most expensive spirit to produce, and the reason is that it is so difficult and time consuming to properly grow an agave plant. Agaves can take anywhere from 7 to 9 years to reach maturity, at which point they will weigh between 40 and 100 lbs. They are then harvested by a skilled agave farmer called a "jimador", who wields a long staff attached to a razor sharp circular blade called a "coa". Using the coa, the jimador shucks off the spiky leaves, or "pencas", before loading the piña onto a truck. See our logo for a sillhouette image of what this looks like.

Cooking

Once they reach the distillery, the agaves are loaded into an oven to be cooked in order to caramelize the sugars. These days, this means that they are either cooked in old fashioned stone "hornos" or more modern autoclaves (basically pressure cookers). Each method has its appeal, and a unique influence on the taste of the final product.

Crushing

After being cooked, the agaves are crushed and combined with water to access the sugars inside. Once again, there are typically two ways this is done: either using a tahona (stone wheel) or a modern roller mill. And, once again, there are good arguments to be made for the use of either one.

Fermentation

Once the roller mill or tahona has succeeded in extracting the agave sugars, the resulting "aguamiel" (or honey) is loaded into large vats where it can be fermented. This is done by adding yeast and simply letting nature do its work, turning the agave "syrup" into something like agave beer (called "must"). The particular strain of yeast, length of fermentation, and even the vat itself can all affect the ultimate flavor profile.

Distillation

After fermentation, the must is transferred to the stills where distillation will finally take place. Because alcohol has a lower boiling point than water, heating up the must results in its alcoholic content traveling up the still and into a separate container. This is done twice before water is added, bringing the final ABV down to between 35% and 55%. Once finished, we finally have Blanco Tequila!

Aging

An optional final step is to age the Tequila by placing it in an oak vessel - typically repurposed French or American barrels. The time in the oak makes the Tequila darker in color, and more mellow, as the wood flavors compete with the agave. This is typically done for between 2 and 36 months, but some brands do make older Tequilas, which are called "Extra Añejo."