Tequila has long surpassed its reputation as a party drink. Today’s producers craft sophisticated spirits worthy of savoring neat, or on the rocks. It takes years to master the art of creating tequila. The finest producers spare no expense to make the smoothest and most refined expressions using traditional methods that haven’t changed for decades. Here, we explain what can be called tequila (and how it relates to Champagne), how tequila is made using traditional methods, and what the different kinds of tequilas are.
What is Tequila?
North America’s oldest distilled spirit, tequila dates back to the reign of the Aztecs (1000 B.C. to 200 A.D.) who first made simple fermented drinks from the agave plant. The name Tequila comes from small town named Tequila, in a valley of Jalisco, Mexico. The process involves using the piña (core) of the region’s native blue agave plant. Tequila is a recognized Appellation of Origin, like Champagne. Only spirits produced in Jalisco that are made from at least 51% blue agave can be called tequila. There are a few municipalities closely outside of Jalisco — Tamaulipas, Nayarit, Michoaćan, and Guanajuato — that are allowed to call their spirits tequila, but the vast majority come from Jalisco.) Any agave-based distilled spirit produced outside of the permitted regions is called mezcal. While 51% is the minimum permitted amount, the finest brands typically produce their tequilas from 100% blue agave.
The Process of Making Tequila
The traditional way of producing tequila has yet to die out, in fact many are still using these practices today. The process starts with planting, tending, and harvesting of blue agave typically done by hand. The job of harvesting and caring for the plants is that of the Jimador. It can take a minimum of six years before the agave plant is mature enough for use. Typically, high-quality tequila companies use traditional stone ovens to cook the piña once harvested. Afterward, they take the piñas for extraction of the sugar within the shredded agave fibers. This is because the sugar is the main ingredient in producing tequila. Next, the blue agave goes through the process of fermentation, distillation, filteration, and aging. The aging process varies depending on type of tequila.
The Six Types of Tequila (and Mezcal)
The five major types of tequila are blanco, cristalino, reposado, añejo, extra añejo, and joven. Each are are classified by how long they age for.
Also called white, silver, or platinum, Blanco is the youngest type of tequila and ages for a mere 60 days, typically in stainless-steel tanks so it showcases the natural flavors of blue agave, without any flavors from aging in wood. Blanco tequila has the boldest flavor of all tequilas, and is perfect for cocktails (or a round of shots).
Cristalino tequilas are the newest tequila. These are clear spirits, sometimes called diamante, but a world apart from blanco tequila. These unique tequilas are actually filtered reposado or añejo tequilas. Filtering them removes the colors and creates a smoother taste. Cristalinos typically have lots of bright floral notes and lots of vanilla, making it the perfect tequila for people who don’t usually like tequila.
Reposados age a bit longer, from 60 days to a year, and age in oak barrels. This gives it some wood influences, but it still maintains the freshness of the agave.
Añejo and Extra-Añejo
Añejo, which means vintage, ages for one to three years in oak, and extra añejo ages for around three years. Aging in wood mellows the spirit and adds rich flavors of vanilla and caramel
Joven is a unique blend of blanco and extra añejo tequilas, which is then filtered to smooth the flavor and remove the color.
Many people consider mezcal to be tequila, but that’s actually not true: All tequila is considered mezcal, but not all mezcal is tequila. Mezcal can be produced from over 30 different types of agave, and typically have a smoky profile, whereas tequila is mostly made with blue agave and tends to have a sweeter palate.