Who hasn’t taken a shot of tequila at least once in their life?
Even if you’ve never taken a tequila shot, chances are you’ve probably ordered a margerita, paloma, a dirty tequila maritini, or some other type of tequila-based cocktail before.
Ever notice how the shot sometimes appears translucent and other times it has a slight straw-like color? Or, that some tequilas taste different to others? That’s because there are different types of tequila that are produced using different techniques in different parts of Mexico. Now, that’s a mouthfull.
Let’s break it down.
What is tequila
Tequila is a Mexican distilled spirit that is made from the fermented sugars of the agave plant. It is made from a very specific type of agave plant known as the Weber blue agave plant.
The Weber blue agave plant is a succulent native to Mexico. The plant looks very similar to the aloe vera plant. This plant has very large spikes that originate from a core that is known as the pina.
The first record of tequila production dates back to 1000 B.C. However, the technique used to produce tequila back then differ from the production method used today. Tequila was originally known as pulque. Originally, tequila was made from the fermented juices of the Weber agave plant by the civilization that populated nothern Mexico at the time, the Aztec’s.
Today, this distilled spirit may only be produced in Mexico and production is confined to certain regions in Mexico. There are different types of tequila. Distillers must follow strict rules for the production of tequila.
Appelation of origin standards were set by the tequila industry in the 1970s, and the rules for these standards are defined by NOM-006-SCFI-2012, while the Consejo Regulador del Tequila (CRT, or Tequila Regulatory Council) oversees production and implementation of rules. The standards are very specific in terms of where and how tequila is produced, as well as the style and labelling of bottles. In addition, the standards stipulate, quite clearly, what may legally be labelled as ‘tequila’.
The standards stipulate that tequila may only be produced, bottled, and labelled within five Mexica states and only in specific municipalities within those states. The five states include:
Jalisco is the state that produces the most tequila and is known as the home of tequila. Furthermore, it is stipulated that all tequila must retain a certain percentage (51%) of its fermented sugars obtained from the Weber blue agave plant. This means that tequila falls into two distinct categories:
Top shelf, high quality tequila does not and may not contain any additives. These tequila bottles are distinctively marked with “100% de agave” on the lable of the bottle. Certain tequila distillers add additional identifying markers on the tequila bottle such as the words, azul, puro, or Weber blue agave plant. This category of tequila is widely known and the most popular type of tequila found in most liquor stores or dinning/drinking establishments.
The second category of tequila is known as Mixto tequila. This category of tequila is made with 49% of fermented sugars from non-agave plants. As the name suggests, this is not pure tequila but rather a mixed version of tequila. In addition, this type of tequila is limited to a maximum of 1% of mellowing additives which includes additives such as oak extract, sugar syrup, caramel color, and glycerin.
How is tequila made
As previously mentioned, pure tequila is made from the Weber blue agave plant. This plant is native to Mexico. The plant grows for a period of seven to ten years before it is havested to make tequila. Once the plant reaches maturity, it is removed from the ground.
The leaves of the plant are of no importance, it is the bulb that the plant produces underground that is the key ingredient in the production of tequila. This bulb is known as the piña. The piña resembles a large white pineapple.
The production process of tequila can be broken down into six distinct steps: harvesting, baking, juicing, fermenting, distilling, and aging.
There is a special technique used during the harvesting phase of the Weber blue agave plant. As mentioned, the plant grows for a period of seven to ten years before it is harvested. After removing the plant from the ground the outer layer/leaves are removed from the core of the plant, known as the piña. There is a very specific knife that is used to remove the outer leaves from the piña. The knife is called a coa. Thepiña bulb is the part of the plant that the worlds tequila is made from.
The piñas are cut up into smaller pieces and then slowly cooked in brick ovens. This process transforms the starch in the piñas into fermented sugars. The core of the bulb was traditionally baked in pits that were lined with rocks. Today, however, piñas are slowly baked in brick or clay ovens that are known as hornos. Very large stainless steel ovens are sometimes also used.
After the piñas have been baked in the ovens the next step is to extract the juices from the piñas. These juices, also known as mosto, will later be distilled in order to create the alcohol. The juices are extracted in one of two ways:
- The most common and current way of extracting the mosto from the piñas is by using an industrial mechanical shredder.
- The second method is more traditional and some distiller still use this method. It is crushing and juicing the piñas using a large stone wheel also known as a tahona.
The next step in the process is fermentation. This transforms the mosto into ethyl alcohol which in turn transforms it into a spirit during the process.
This procedure is achieved by mixing the mosto with yeast and water and placing it in large stainless steel fermentation tanks or large wooden barrels. The fermentation process will depend on the type of tequila being produced.
After the mosto has been fermented the distillation process may commence. The distillation process is responsible for the concentration of the alcohol as well as purifying the liquid. Tequila is twice distilled. During the first distillation process a cloudy liquid, known as ordinario, is produced. During the second distillation process a clear liquid is produced which we know as tequila. The tequila is now ready for botteling or againg, depending on the type of tequila.
Tequila, irrespective of type, is aged for a minimum of 14 to 21 days. Silver tequila, also known as blanco, is aged for the shortest amount of time. This type of tequila has a straightforward taste. There are three different types of aged tequila:
- Extra Añejo
What does tequila taste like
Different tequilas will have a different taste profile. Blanco tequilas for example will have a very crisp, clean, and sharp taste. That is because blanco tequila is stored in stainless steel containers. There is very little, if any, residual taste left in the mouth, as is the case with tequila that has been aged in wood barrels.
Most tequilas will have basic flavors that are considered to be the focal point of the tequila. These include, amongst others, peppers, sweet agave, herbs, and citrus.
Keep in mind that different tequilas are aged differently and this will have a very big impact on the flavor, taste, and smell of each of the varietals. The profiles are categorized in three basic categories:
When it comes to tasting tequila there are two terms to keep in mind: vertical flight and horizontal flight. This means you are going to compare the taste of three different types of tequila from the same distillery: vertical flight. These tequilas will usually have different aging processes. You will for example compare a Blanco to a Resposado to an Añejo from the same distillery.
In the case of horizontal flight, you may taste different types of tequila from different brands. For example, you may try three Blanco tequila’s from three different brands, or compare a Blanco, Resposado, and Añejo, each from a different distillery.
How you perceive the taste of the tequila will be categorized as follows:
- Visual – 15%
- Aroma – 60%
- Taste – 25%
With aged tequila such as Resposado, you may experience tastes of wood, vanilla, or even oak.
When it comes to Añejo tequila, you may notice that the wood taste is more expressed, along with more common flavors such as caramel, cinnamon, vanilla, coffee, and chocolate.
Overall, most tequilas will have an earthy taste with some floral notes to it.
What’s the difference between tequila and mezcal
Mexcal is a term used to define spirits made from the agave plant. All tequilas fall under the category mezcal but not all mezcal’s are considered to be tequila. Tequila can only be made from the Weber blue agave plant but Mezcal’s can be made with any agave plant. You could view it like this, both scotch and bourbon fall under the category of whiskey but the two spirits are not the same. The same applies for tequila and mezcal. Tequila is a subcategory of mezcal.
The Consejo Regulador del Mezcal (CRM) defines three legal categories of mezcal:
- Mezcal Artesanal
- Mezcal Ancestral
Each one of the categories have specific methods that need to be used in order to produce the spirit that falls under that category. Espadín agave makes up 90% of all mexcals and is viewed as the most popular as well as versatile type of mezcal. Furthermore, distillation and labelling of tequila and mezcal differ.
What is Tequila Blanco?
Tequila Blanco is also known as tequila silver. This category of tequila is usually bottled immediately after distillation while other types of blanco tequila may be stored for the minimum amount of time. This is usually 14 to 21 days only. This type of tequila is only stored in sterling silver containers.
Blanco tequilas are agave forward meaning that the agave flavor is strong in blanco tequilas. In addition, this type of tequila usually exhibits flavors of citrus and pepper and has a spicy finish.
Keep in mind that because the tequila is either bottled immediately or stored in a stainless steel container it usually has a steel finish. This means that the taste ends aburptly and sharply after swallowing. Blanco tequila is great in cocktails but hold up very well on it’s own.
What is Tequila Joven?
The word Joven means ‘young’. Joven tequilas are usually a blend of aged and unaged tequilas. In addition, these tequilas may also include a mellowing ingredient. The blend usually includes a blanco tequila with one of the aged tequilas such as Reposado, Añejo, or Extra Añejo.
The yellow hue of Joven tequila comes from the additives such as caramel or some similar additive. Joven tequilas may have a citrus aroma with flavors such as vanilla, pear, spice, chocolate, and cinnamon.
What is Tequila Reposado?
Resposado means ‘rested’ in Spanish. Resposado tequilas are aged in oak barrels or white oak barrels for a minimum of two months up to a maximum of twelve months. Most resposado tequilas are aged between three and nine months. Resposados that are aged in oak barrels may be infused with a straw-like or golden hue and an oaky flavor.
Though this flavor is relativey mild in comparison to tequilas that have been aged for longer periods of time. It is not uncommen for distilleries to age resposado tequilas in used bourbon barrels. This method infuses the tequila with an additional depth of flavor.
What is Tequila Añejo?
The name of this tequila translates to mean aged or mature tequila. In order for a tequila to be considered an Añejo tequila, it must be aged in white french oak barrels or in bourbon barrels for a period of 12 to 36 months. Most Añejo tequilas are aged for 18 to 36 months at most.
Aging an Añejo tequila for this duration of time will give it a smokey flavor that is comparible to a bourbon or Cognac. The flavor profile of this tequila can further be described as full, robust, and dark. Añejo tequilas are very smooth and produce oak flavors with strong hints of caramel and butterscotch.
What is Extra Añejo Tequila?
Extra Añejo tequila, alternatively known as muy añejo, or extra-old tequila, is a relatively new classification that refers to any tequila that has been aged for more than 36 months. This classification of tequila has only been present on the market since 2006 and is often referred to as the crown jewel of all tequilas.
It is known as a sippers tequila with complex flavors similar to Cognac and Whiskey. This is because the complex flavors of this type of tequila must be enjoyed slowly through sipping.
What is better between tequila Blanco, Reposado, and Anejo?
The difference in quality will be measured in how long the tequila has been rested. That means that if aging is the determining factor of quality then Añejo Tequila will be both the highest quality tequila as well as the most expensive.
Blanco will be the most inexpensive and considered to be at the bottom of the list in terms of quality as it has not been aged at all. But aging is not the only factor used to determine quality. Regardless of the category, the best and highest quality tequilas will state 100% agave or 100% blue agave on the bottle. But, if againg was the only determining factor apart from the bottle stating 100% agave or 100% blue agave, then Extra Añejo Tequila would be considered the best and the rarest of the rare.
In addition, color is not an indication of the quality of the tequila. Coloring additives may make a tequila appear aged. Furthermore, price is also not an indicator of quality.
If you measure tequila based on taste and smoothness then aging and distillation are the key factors when determining the best quality tequila. Keep in mind that there are blanco tequilas that can easily rival reposado’s or even añejo tequila.
But, all factors considered, Extra Añejo Tequila will be the rarest, the smoothest, and the most expensive of all the tequilas.
Frequently asked questions
What is the smoothest type of tequila?
Without a doubt, due to the aging process, Extra Añejo Tequila is the smoothest tequila.
What type of tequila is best for shots?
This is a toss up between blanco tequila and resposado.
What’s the best type of tequila for margaritas?
Both blanco and resposado tequilas are great in mixed drinks.
What type of tequila is best for sipping?
Extra Añejo tequila as well as Añejo tequila are considered to be sipping tequilas.
What’s the difference between silver, white, and blanco tequilas?
All three refer to the same tequila which is easily identified by its clear, translucent appearance.
What’s the number one tequila in Mexico?
The number one tequila in Mexico is also the best selling tequila in Mexico. It is produced by Casa Herradura and is called Jimador Blanco. However, Gran Centenario Tequila and Don Julio, are also viewed as Mexico’s best tequila. It all depends on who you ask.