Tequila sometimes gets an undeserved bad rap, thanks to some media portrayals and a history of poor quality products dominating the market. Thankfully that’s all changing, though, and this delicious and interesting spirit is starting to gain popularity here in the States and abroad. But, what exactly is in the bottle?
Technically speaking, tequila is a subset of mezcal, which is a traditional Mexican spirit. We will talk about mezcal at some point in the future, but for now you can just think of mezcal like an uptight, strict parent and tequila is kind of the young rebellious teenage child.
Tequila is a spirit that is made from a specific handful of agave plant species. The most common source for tequila is the Blue Agave plant, which grows wild in some areas of Mexico and takes between seven and ten years to fully mature to the point where it can be used. For tequila, these plants need to be grown in a specific swath of Mexico just north of Mexico City, the most common location being Jalisco.
As they grow, these plants start storing excess energy in the form of “fructans”, which are complex carbohydrates similar to a starch in grain-based whiskey production. The difference here is that, while distillers need to use enzymes to release the sugar from a starchy material, all you need to do to release the sugar from these fructans is to add heat. It’s a much simpler process and explains why agave-based spirits have been around in the Americas since before the Spanish arrived on the continent.
Once the agave plants have reached maturity, they are harvested by a worker called a “jimador” who attacks the plant with a very sharp shovel on a long pole, shaving off the spiky leaves until all that is left behind is the hard fibrous core.
Traditionally, these cores would be cooked for multiple days either in a large pit or in a brick oven, converting the fructans into a fermentable sugary liquid and softening the cores. Once finished cooking, the cores would then be crushed to extract the sugary juice, either with large mallets or with a roller mill (sometimes donkey powered).
That all takes time, though, so modern distillers often take a shortcut or two.
The fastest method to get a sugary liquid is through using a diffuser, which is a large machine that does the whole extraction process in one step and pretty darn fast. Whole agave cores are fed into the machine where they are crushed and then flushed with hot water and often some acid to extract the fructans. That product is then cooked to convert it into fermentable sugars. While this is quicker, it also produces a less characterful spirit as the agave fibers and agave core are not present while the cooking process is happening.
Another method commonly used is an autoclave, which uses high pressure and steam to quickly heat and cook the agave cores instead of roasting them.
That’s all well and good for extracting the agave based sugars, but there’s a long history in tequila production of using non-agave sugars (typically from sugar cane or corn) as well. The default assumption is that a tequila producer can use up to 49% of non-agave sugars in their fermentation, producing something generally referred to as a Mixto and considered to be a lower quality spirit. On the other hand, a Tequila 100% de Agave will only use sugars extracted from agave plants and is considered to be a higher quality product.
Now that we have some fermentable sugars, it’s time to actually convert that into alcohol.
The traditional method here is to just let the natural ambient yeast do it’s job, converting all that sugar into alcohol. Modern distillers will instead use lab grown yeast, which has a much more predictable yield and flavor profile.
One option here that some distillers will use is the addition of some agave fibers to the fermentation tanks. There’s no chemical benefit to this process from an alcohol production perspective, but it does add some additional herbal or earthy characteristics to the end product and alters the flavor profile.
There’s so much variety in the distillation process that it’s hard to actually nail it down. In fact, there isn’t even a minimum distillation strength requirement (unlike pretty much every other spirit in the world) — just that it needs to be distilled.
The traditional method of mezcal or tequila production is through the use of clay pot stills. These kinds of stills are actually pretty ingenious when it comes to the sulfur reduction properties — just like with copper in whiskey stills, the clay surface reacts with the spirit during distillation and helps reduce the sulfur content to make a cleaner tasting spirit.
Nowadays, distilleries will more commonly use copper stills, and either a pot still for batch distillation or a column still for a larger continuous operation.
The end result of these processes is a clear, light-in-character spirit that has some herbal and peppery notes. And there are some choices that distilleries can make about how they mature that spirit that can give you a wildly different experience, but the label should give you a good understanding of what’s going on.
For a Blanco or Plata tequila, the newly made spirit can be rested for up to two months in an oak vessel, although most are shipped out the door immediately. Nothing can be added to the spirit other than water to proof it down to the right level of alcohol content.
With a Joven or Oro tequila, we start to see the use of abocado — the process of adding flavors or colors to the spirit. Traditionally, only certain things are allowed with abocado, including caramel coloring, oak extracts, glycerol, and sugar. Starting in 2005, though, the law changed to allow pretty much any flavoring that is safe for human consumption. This can also include blending an older tequila with a younger one as the flavoring or additive.
We start to really see the effect of barrel aging starting with a Reposado, which is a tequila that has been aged a minimum of two months. These spirits also are allowed to use abocado to flavor them after distillation.
For the older spirits, an Anejo is a tequila that is aged a minimum of two years, and an Extra Anejo is a minimum of three years. In these cases, the use of abocado for flavoring is also permitted.
As I mentioned, in all cases except a blanco tequila, adding coloring, flavoring, or other substances is permitted. And many tequila distilleries do exactly that, altering their end result to better suit a specific flavor profile. These components are typically added just before bottling and are then shipped off for sale. Interestingly, there are no minimum requirements for alcohol content for a Mexican tequila, but typically spirits are 40% ABV or higher.
Hopefully you’re walking away from this with a slightly improved understanding of tequila. If so, it’s time to start trying out the different varieties and find a favorite! Check out our full list of reviews here — and happy exploring!