Tequila, a notorious Mexican spirit, has a more complex background than you might think. The entire tequila-making process can take a decade or more, though anyone who’s had a margarita or paloma can attest to the fact that it’s more than worth it. So how exactly is tequila made?
The agave plant
Tequila is made from a plant called agave, a desert-growing succulent plant that looks similar to aloe vera. The plant is harvested and juiced, after which the juice is fermented and mixed with water to produce tequila.
Agave takes a whopping 7 to 12 years to be ready for harvesting, and it’s not easy to grow. Patience is key in the world of tequila. After the agave plant is ready, the massive plants are cut down and the piña (bulb) is baked in large ovens. The baked piñas are crushed into juice, then fermented and distilled. After removing the piña, the agave is at the end of its life cycle.
The Jalisco region
Tequila is a legally protected name, similar to champagne. Not just anything can bear the name “tequila.” Though there are a myriad of different kinds of agave, tequila must be made from blue agave grown in the Jalisco region in order to bear the label.
There are a few exceptions to this rule — certain other areas are licensed to produce tequila, including parts of Nayarit, Guanajuato, Tamaulipas and Michoacan — but the majority of imported tequila comes from Jalisco.
Choosing a Tequila
All tequila is legally required to be at least 51% blue agave. “Mixto” tequilas are mixed with other liquors, while top-shelf tequilas are made with 100% agave.
Aside from agave percentage, tequila is usually categorized by whether or not it has been aged, as well as the resulting color. Aging is not particularly prized in tequila, the way that it is with scotch or rum, but short aging does change the flavor in pleasant ways.
Common labels include:
• Blanco: No age requirement.
• Reposado: Aged for 2 months or more in oak barrels.
• Añejo: Aged for one year or more in oak barrels.
• Muy Añejo: Aged for 3 years or more in oak barrels.
• Joven or Oro: Includes added caramel, sugar syrup, aged tequila or other flavoring agents to soften the taste.
Be careful not to confuse tequila with mezcal. Technically, tequila is a subset of mezcal, which refers to any agave-based liquor. Non-tequila mezcal has a rougher, smokier flavor.
The best way to figure out your favorite tequila is to try a few great brands. Use your newfound expertise to check out the selection at a West Coast Liquor location near you, and buy a bottle or two for sipping or making into cocktails.