Can Tequila Be Made Outside Of Mexico? (What Are The Rules?)

Can tequila be made outside of Mexico? Yes, but it is illegal to call it Tequila, and it will probably not taste the same. 

Tequila may only be named tequila if it is manufactured from 100% Blue Weber agave and produced in the Mexican states of Jalisco and Guanajuato, Michoacán, Nayarit, and Tamaulipas. Anything manufactured with Blue Weber Agave outside of these states, or from agave that isn’t Blue Agave isn’t legally tequila but can be classified as mezcal.

A brief history of tequila

Tequila as we know it now didn’t start out that way. It was originally known as pulque and was prepared by the Aztec culture in what is now northern Mexico from the fermented sap of the agave plant. The Olmecs, a prehistoric Meso-American civilization, used a similar technique that goes back to 1000 B.C. 

Many people believe that the Spanish invasion of the Aztec civilization in the 1500s marked the beginning of the agave plant’s distillation process. When brandy supplies ran out, Spaniards made a drink akin to modern-day mezcal out of mud and agave. Mezcal is the name given to a group of Mexican alcoholic spirits made from several Agave species, often known as Maguey. Tequila is frequently referred to as a mezcal sub-category.

The Cuervo family began distilling tequila in 1758, and the Sauza family followed suit in 1873. If these names don’t ring a bell, it’s because Cuervo and Sauza are still two of the most well-known brands on the market. Don Cenobio Sauza is also credited for identifying blue agave as the finest choice for tequila production. It was during this time in history that tequila production began to resemble the tequila accessible today.

Why is it called tequila?

Tequila is a mysterious term in and of itself. It’s thought to be a Nahuatl phrase from the past. The Nahuatl were the first inhabitants of the area. The word can mean “the place of wild herbs,” “the place of collecting plants,” “the place where they cut,” “the place of employment,” or even “the place of tricks,” depending on the source.

Tequila is derived from the Nahuatl terms tequitl (labor, responsibility, job, or chore) and tlan, according to Jose Maria Muria. According to some sources, it means “cutting rock.” The word may also be a corruption of “tetilla,” according to Cascahuin because the volcano resembled a little woman’s breast. Other versions claim it is a misspelling of the Indians’ names, Ticuilas or Tiquilos. 

How much Tequila is produced each year?

According to Statista.com, the production of tequila in Mexico looks as follows:

Year Total in Millions of Liters
2021 527 
2020 374 
2019 351.7
2018 309.1
2017 271.4
2016 273.3
2015 228.5
2014 242.4
2013 226.5
2012 253.2

What are the 5 states that are allowed to produce tequila? 

Tequila can only be made with genuine Mexican blue agave, and it must come from one of five states in Mexico to be named tequila. This is strictly regulated by trademark law, just like other well-known drinks like champagne, which must be produced in the Champagne region of France and Port, which must be made in Porto, Portugal.

Let’s take a closer look at the five areas where Tequila is produced legally, and what types of Tequila they make.

Guanajuato

Guanajuato is one of Mexico’s 32 Federal Entities and is formally known as the Free and Sovereign State of Guanajuato. Pénjamo Municipality is one of the few sites outside of Jalisco where tequila is made. It is the birthplace of the Tequila Corralejo brand, which is still produced on the former Corralejo hacienda. The plant that produces this brand’s unique blue bottles is located nearby.

Tequila Corralejo is made entirely of agave and is made by double-distilling fermented musts from Weber’s blue agave. Corralejo Tequila is a mellow tequila with a strong personality. The American oak wood in which it rests gives it a wide range of tones.

Jalisco

The Marquis of Altamira created the first large-scale distillery for what is now Tequila in Jalisco, in the early 1600s. Jalisco, officially the Free and Sovereign State of Jalisco, is the single largest producer of Tequila in the world. Tequila is the most popular and only mezcal manufactured industrially in Mexico and mostly in Jalisco. Blanco (unaged), reposado (aged in wood barrels for two months to one year), and aejo (aged in oak barrels for a minimum of one year and a maximum of three years) are the three types of tequila produced here.

Michoacan

Officially the Free and Sovereign State of Michoacán de Ocampo, Michoacan is in the west, on the Pacific coast, and roughly in the middle of the country in terms of north-south distance. Morelia is the capital. The Tequila zone encompasses 30 municipalities across Michoácan. All but one are located in a cluster near the state of Jalisco. However, Maravato, in Michoácan’s northeast, is a true outlier, located hundreds of kilometers from the main zone.

Nayarit

Nayarit is bordered on the northwest by Sinaloa, on the north by Durango, on the east by Zacatecas, and on the south by Jalisco. The first Tequila distillery to be established in Nayarit will be Aman Tequila. Only 5% of the agaves used to make Tequila come from this region of Mexico. The agaves used by Aman Tequila are all grown on the estates in Ahuacatlan and Ixtlan Del Rio, Nayarit.

Tamaulipas

Chinaco is the sole tequila produced in the northern state of Tamaulipas, and the distillery’s owner had to fight to have it included in the approved tequila-producing area. These tequilas are made from agave farmed in Tamaulipas, both in the highlands and near the coast, with a tiny quantity from Jalisco. In 1983, Chinaco was the first super-premium tequila to be sold in the United States.

Can tequila be made in the USA?

Many American distillers are curious about the process of creating their own agave spirits, similar to tequila, bacanora, and mezcal. A few distilleries have started distributing agave spirits created in the United States in the last few years. For legal reasons, the resulting juice cannot be termed Tequila. The fact is that Tequila still cannot be produced in the USA and called Tequila.

It is also not just as easy as that. There are other issues to consider before imitating Tequila:

  • Time. Agave plants cost a lot of money and effort to grow.
  • Equipment. To make an agave-based alcohol, a standard still is insufficient. To steam or roast the pias, you’ll also need a large oven or pit, among others.
  • Knowledge. Even if you manage to acquire funding, you’ll need to assemble a team of experts who are familiar with agave harvesting and preparation.

In the absence of stringent regulations, like in Mexico, American distillers can get away with substandard tequila imitations created with imported ingredients while still claiming that the beverage is made from American agave spirits. They just need patience, knowledge, and decent capital.

So, what is tequila when it’s not from Mexico?

Since Tequila is illegal to produce outside of Mexico, most brands that attempt to imitate the brand do so by calling the drink by other names such as Agave or something to do with Mezcal. 

In the late 1990s, a Southern California entrepreneur planted his first crop of agave spirits in Temecula, California. By 2005, JB Wagoner claimed he could manufacture up to 500 bottles of “Temequila” per week from blue agave plants cultivated on his land and processed nectar imported from Mexico. His short-lived venture spurred other American distillers to consider the possibility of manufacturing agave spirits in America.

The challenge of making agave spirits in the United States has been taken up by many distilleries after Wagoner. They’ve learnt from past mistakes and now import fermented agave syrup, juice, or nectar directly from Mexico, saving time, labor, and money. Then each distiller shapes the final flavor. Companies like Venus Spirits in California utilize marketing to stand out among the new wave of craft agave spirits. Others don’t always clearly express that their nectar comes from Mexico, therefore their agave spirit is named “El Ladron,” which means “the thief.”

Conclusion 

Tequila is one of those drinks we are going to enjoy for hundreds of years. Exactly how it will develop is anyone’s guess, but the market will always include substitutes and copies. The question is, will copies ever taste like the real thing? If the answer is ‘no’, then Tequila will probably be safe forever. 

To the question, “can tequila be made outside of Mexico?” the answer is still, maybe…

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