Tequila is more than simply a shot. Tequila is the culmination of hard work, expertise, tradition, and science to create a masterpiece of a drink.
The tequila-making process is thousands of years old, and an exquisite technique that has stayed relatively consistent over the years. Tequila as we know it now was first produced in the 16th century (around 1538) close to the city of Tequila, Mexico. Historians however believe that the Aztecs were drinking similar brews made from fermented agave as long ago as 1000BC.
The article will lead you through the process of creating tequila at home, beginning with basic information about tequila and then moving on to frequently asked questions about this delicious Mexican drink.
What is Tequila?
Tequila is a unique distilled alcohol derived from the agave plant. It is popular all over the world, because of its distinct flavor, stringent manufacturing restrictions, and punchy aroma. The only agave allowed to be used in all tequila is blue Weber agave (Agave tequilana), which produces the purest form of tequila.
While most tequila is consumed neat (neat tequila), it is also used in cocktails such as the famed margarita, the tangy paloma, and the fiery sangrita.
To be termed tequila, the spirit must also be manufactured in one of five Mexican states: Michoacan, Tamaulipas, Guanajuato, Nayarit, and Jalisco, with Jalisco being the most popular and producing the bulk of the world’s tequila.
If you want to learn more, our article Can tequila be made outside of Mexico? (What are the rules?) takes a look at the trademark and legal restrictions when it comes to making Tequila and Mezcal.
What is tequila made from?
Tequila is manufactured from an agave plant, which, while resembling a cactus, is linked to the lily family and classed as a succulent.
The cultivation of agave certainly requires patience and dedication considering the number of years invested before the first drop of tequila is made. A minimum of six years is required for agave plants to achieve full maturity, but this can be significantly longer.
A team of expert “jimadors” harvests the fruit when it is fully mature, and they carefully remove the bitter, prickly leaves, leaving behind just the piñas, which may weigh anywhere from 20 to 90 kilograms. This method does not involve the use of any machinery.
These piñas, which resemble pineapples, are high in sugar and serve as the primary raw material for making pure tequila.
How long does it take to make tequila?
The time required to manufacture tequila is determined by various factors, including the maturity of the agave plant (which takes 7-10 years), fermentation time, and, most importantly, the period of aging desired.
Excluding the time necessary for agave plants to grow, the period required to produce tequila can range from as little as 1 month to as much as three years or more. So, it takes a lot of patience to create this renowned spirit. Here is a table showing the main steps and the estimated duration range.
|Growth and harvesting||7-10 years.|
|Extracting Agave nectar from pinas||24-48 hours.|
|Distilling||First Distillation: 4-6 hours
Second Distillation 8+ Hours
What are the different types of tequila?
Tequila can be classified in two different ways.
1. Based on their agave content
- 100% Agave: Tequila made entirely from Weber blue agave with no added ingredients. The vast majority of tequila on the market today fits into this category. To prevent misrepresentation, search for the words “100% Agave” on the label.
- Mixto: This tequila has 49% of other sugars and additives mixed into the Weber blue agave wash before fermentation. However, 51% of the sugars must be from Weber blue agave. The additives may impart a golden hue to the tequila, which frequently earns this category the label “gold” tequila.
2. Based on the aging duration (as reported in the Norma Oficial Mexicana)
- Blanco (“white”) or Plata (“silver”): a clear spirit that can be gotten from 100% agave or mixto.They can be unaged and bottled immediately upon distillation, or they can be aged in stainless steel tanks for no more than 60 days.
- Reposado (“rested”): Aged in oak barrels for less than a year, with the minimum duration being 2 months.
- Añejo (“aged” or “vintage”): aged less than three years in small oak barrels, with the minimum duration being one year.
- Extra Añejo (“extra aged” or “ultra aged”): aged for a minimum of three years in oak barrels.
If you’d like to learn more about the deiifernt types of tequila, check out the difference between Blanco, reposado, and Anejo? here.
A Step By Step Guide To Making Tequila
Believe it or not, it’s really not that hard to make Tequila at home. If you’re familiar with the distilling process, it’s not too different from making a brandy, whiskey or rum!
We’ve put together the following 6 step guide to making tequila-based on what we’ve found works best, combined with what works at home and is accessible to the weekend distiller. Of course, there are going to be some experts reading this who say “no, that’s not quite right… do it this way..” but let’s just preface this by saying that we think this is a great starting point, and it’s up to you to experiment once you get the hang of things.
Read on as we share our 6 steps to making great tequila at home, easy as!
Step 1. Extracting the agave nectar
As previously stated, to manufacture pure tequila, your wash must be made from the Blue Weber Agave plant. However, considering the difficulties you may face in harvesting agave plants, you may take the less stressful option of sourcing Blue Agave nectar elsewhere.
If using the conventional method, you need to bake the harvested and cut up piñas for about 24 to 48 hours to turn complex carbohydrates into simple fermentable sugars. Following that, you should use mechanical crushers to extract the juices from the pinas. Next, rinse the mashed product with water to assist in extracting the juices.
At home, you can chop the pina into little pieces or mince it in a food processor. The next step is to mash the little pina pieces while collecting the extracted juice in a nectar container. Mash them till no liquid comes out of them. Squeeze the remaining nectar into the nectar bowl by pressing the mashed agave against a fine wire mesh strainer with the back of a wooden spoon.
To eliminate filterable solid particles, place a paper filter in a funnel and pour the nectar through this funnel into another bowl. You’ve got it now. Your own Blue Agave nectar.
Fortunately, Blue Agave nectar is readily available in most grocery stores and online, so you will not need to harvest the agave plant to prepare the mash for your fermentation. This has the advantage of reducing your processing time.
Step 2. Making the Tequila Wash
This is where the fun starts! You must gather the components and materials necessary for tequila manufacturing.
- Water (5.5 gallons): to act as a solvent for mixing the wash
- Blue Agave Nectar (A dozen cups). (Read more on our best agave’s for making tequila)
- Raw Cane Sugar (2 pounds): if you want to produce tequila-mixto
- Dry Yeast: to assist with fermenting. Check out our article on the Best Yeast For Distilling Tequila and Mezcal.
- Brew Pot: pot used for mixing the agave wash
- Heat Source: to provide heat to the brew pot
- Thermometer: to monitor and maintain the required temperature during heating.
- Long Spoon: for mixing the boiling wash without burning yourself.
- Fermentation bucket: for fermenting wash
- Pour 4.5 liters of water into your brew pot and place it on the heat source.
- Heat the water to 125 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Using a large spoon, stir in Agave Nectar (and raw sugar cane, if necessary) until thoroughly dissolved.
- Once the Agave Nectar and Cane Sugar are all dissolved, add 1 gallon of cold water to cool the wash.
- Every 5 minutes, you should check the temperature and stir the wash for 30 seconds. The objective is to bring the temperature down to 80 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Add dry yeast to the wash once it has cooled to 80 °F.
- For 5 minutes, aerate the wash by string vigorously, pouring between buckets, or using an aeration pump and stone.
- Pour the wash into your fermentation bucket.
- Ensure that your fermentation bucket is completely sealed with an airlock and stored in a dark area with a temperature range of 75 °F – 80 °F.
Step 3. Fermentation
- Cheesecloth and/or Easy Siphon
- pH Meter
- Citric Acid
- Calcium carbonate
- Leave your wash to ferment for 5-7 days.
- At the end of this period, ensure that the wash no longer tastes sweet or emits gas from the air-lock (at this point, all the sugars would have been converted to alcohol by the yeast).
- Use a hydrometer to test the ABV (alcohol by volume) of your fermentation.
- After fermentation, use the cheesecloth or easy siphon to strain out the solid materials in the wash.
- Using the pH meter, check the pH of the fermented wash to ensure it is within the target pH range of 4.5 to 5.
- Use citric acid to bring the pH down (make the wash more acidic) or calcium carbonate to raise the pH (make it less acidic).
Step 4. Distilling
Congratulations on making it this far! Your tequila wash or fermented agave spirit is now complete, thanks to the time and effort you’ve put in thus far.
Distillation enables distillers to extract distinct compounds based on their varying boiling points. The distillation of the fermented agave/cane sugar wash will result in a more concentrated and purer spirit” (tequila).
You’ll want to distill the tequila wash twice. During the first stage, you will collect the distillate in its entirety without making any cuts. In the next section, I will outline the procedure of creating cuts. This will occur during the second distillation round.
- Pot Still
- Still Burner
- Cleaning Products
- Easy Siphon
- Fermented and Strained Tequila/Agave Spirit Wash
- Use a siphon to transfer your agave/tequila wash into the still after you’ve thoroughly cleaned and prepared it. Cleaning should be done diligently to prevent producing a subpar product.
- Activate the heat source and begin gradually increasing the temperature of your tequila wash.
- Gradually increase the temperature to heat the wash. The still will start producing distillate at a temperature of about 168 °F.
- Start collecting the distillate in containers and keep measuring the ABV with your hydrometer.
- Stop collecting distillate when you get values below 20% ABV on the hydrometer. At this point, you will have finished collecting the first round of distillate.
- Dilute this first round distillate by 20% with water and stir the mix thoroughly before adding it back to the still, which still contains some wash that was not distilled.
- Begin your second round of distillation. This is where you have to start making cuts so you can separate the pure tequila from the wash.
Step 5. Making cuts
As the still temperature rises further, the wash heats up, gets condensed, and flows out into containers.
Making cuts is the act of changing the container in which the distillate is collected, splitting it into four distinct stages: foreshots, heads, hearts, and tails.
There is no universally accepted approach for determining when cuts should be made.
You will need to use a combination of several factors to make good cuts.
These include the senses of smell and taste, the ability to observe changes in color, clarity, and texture, as well as other variables such as time and ABV. You will undoubtedly improve your ability to make cuts over time.
The first 5% of your distillate consists of foreshots. However, foreshots contain methanol, a very volatile and poisonous alcohol that should be discarded. In practice, you should throw the first 250 ml (5%) of each 5-gallon batch, as this portion of your run will consist entirely of foreshots.
WARNING* Avoid consuming alcohol during this portion of your run! Methanol has been linked to a variety of health concerns, including vision damage.
The next 30% of your tequila run is referred to as the ‘heads.’ As with the foreshots, the heads of your run contain volatile alcohols that you should avoid. One of the heads’ contents is acetone, a highly volatile alcohol. To remove the foreshots and alcohol, maintain a temperature of 168 degrees Fahrenheit for ten minutes. Once the condenser ceases to produce distillate, you have most likely removed all foreshots and heads.
The next 30% is aptly named ‘hearts’; this is the sweet spot where the tequila lives. To begin extracting this distillate, raise the temperature to between 175 and 180 degrees Fahrenheit.
You may notice a decrease in the acetone smell. The sweet aroma of tequila tingles your nostrils at this point! You can carefully taste the extract with your fingertip.
The “tails” make up the final 35% of your tequila run. Tails can be identified by their appearance, scent, and taste. You should look out for an oily layer that forms on top when the distillate cools. Also, you get a whiff of burnt flavor.
You don’t want the wash’s protein and carbohydrates in your final product, as this will impact negatively on the taste. Keep your tails since you can reuse them in a future wash to get even more tequila out of them.
Step 6. Aging and bottling
You may decide to bottle your tequila without aging. However, you should know that as tequila ages, its flavors deepen and take on new nuances, which can be enhanced by aging it in various types of wood.
Having looked at the length of time tequilas are aged in an earlier section, we will talk about the barrels used in aging and their importance.
Diverse oaks used to mature tequila lend different nuances to it, according to Stephen Halpin, Patrón Spirits’ manager of trade, education, and mixology. Here are some popular aging barrels and the flavors they add to tequila stored within them.
- Allier barrels: baked or dried fruit aromas
- Hungarian oaks: enhances the citrusy notes of the tequila, adding just tinges of butter and caramel.
- Limousin oak: mellows the tequila out
- American oaks: smoothes out the tequila and gives hints of light fruit and vanilla aromas
After aging your tequila, you want to finish with a flourish by putting it in a deserving bottle.
Tequila bottles can be any shape or size and might be elaborately embellished or have a clean, modern appearance. You can purchase or custom-create any bottle.
Frequently asked questions:
Let’s answer a few questions we get all the time when it comes to making tequila.
How many Agave does it take to make a bottle of tequila?
A liter of tequila requires approximately 15 pounds (6.8 kilograms) of agave piñas. 1 agave piña weighs between 20 and 90 kilograms.
Is it hard to make tequila?
No. With the right ingredients and equipment, you can set about distilling your tequila.
Can I make my own tequila at home? Is it legal?
While you can make your own liquor at home, you cannot technically call it tequila because it is not produced in recognized Mexican cities.
Home distillation is not lawful in many states. You may need to find out what applies in the region where you reside and apply for a licence depending on the rules. If you’re concerned about the legality of home distilling, then check out our article Is Home Distilling Legal In My Country to find out more.
Can I use store-bought agave nectar to make tequila?
Yes, you can. You may find commercial agave nectar in grocery shops and online stores.
The best agave nectar to make tequila
The best agave nectar to make tequila is the blue agave nectar, derived from the blue agave plant.
We’ve been asked this question A LOT, so have put together an article on The best agave for making Tequila and Mezcal which might help you!
Why can tequila only be made in Mexico?
According to Mexican law, tequila production is permitted only in Jalisco and a few municipalities in Guanajuato, Michoacán, Nayarit, and Tamaulipas.
The blue agave plant, which is the principal raw material for tequila production, only grows in these areas.
Our post Can tequila be made outside of Mexico? (What are the rules?) answers this in more detail.
There you have it! You’ve just distilled your own tequila. I hope this comprehensive article was beneficial to you and that you had an exceptional spirit.
You may now gather with family or friends on the porch, turn on some latin music, and uncork your delicious homemade tequila for an evening soiree.