For many of us, our first encounter with Tequila ended in one shot too many and day-after regret, and yet tequila has a long and cherished tradition in Mexico, and has rightfully earned its place on the top shelf.
Read on to learn more about where tequila comes from, how it is made, different styles of tequila, and how to taste and talk about it.
What is Tequila?
Tequila is a Mexican distilled spirit made from the crushed and fermented core (piña) of the blue agave plant.
Where is Tequila Made?
Mexican law established an appellation of origin for tequila to protect the quality and heritage of production, which is delineated into two main areas: the Los Altos de Jalisco, the highlands of the Jaliscan state in central western Mexico, and in the area surrounding the city of Tequila, northwest of Guadalajara. There are only five other authorized tequila-producing regions where the blue agave plant thrives.
How is Tequila Made?
Blue agave, or more specifically, the Weber Azul, is a species of agave, a succulent that can grow up to two meters (seven feet) in height. If left TO flower naturally the plant subsequently dies. Agave growers, or jimadores have developed A method of trimming back the central stalk to keep the plant alive for up to 15 years.
During this time the piña can grow up to 200 pounds and accumulates a starch that when heated, converts to sugar. Once harvested, almost always by hand, the piñas are slow-roasted and crushed into pulpy shreds called bagozo, and sweet agave juice, or aguamiel (honey water).
The juice is then fermented with brewer’s yeast or naturally derived yeast in steal or wooden casks. Occasionally producers will add some of the bagozo to the juice during fermentation to enhance the agave flavor.
The fermented piña juice is then pot or column distilled twice, until it reaches around 110 proof. From here it is bottled immediately or shortly hereafter for blanco, or aged in barrels for reposado or añejo.
A Brief History of Tequila
Earliest references to an agave-based spirit in the area of Tequila date back to the conquistadores in the 1500s, though there is strong evidence that indigenous people of central Mexico had created a similar liquor long before Spanish colonization.
Around 1600, a Spanish nobleman named Don Pedro Sánchez de Tagle launched a large-scale production of Tequila, and is historically known as the father of tequila, alongside another familiar name, Don Cenobio Sauza, who founded Sauza Tequila in 1873.
Since then, a number of tequila producers have risen to fame. While hundreds of smaller tequila producers exist, most of the tequilas on our shelves are bottled by a larger conglomerate. That being said, there is a great and diverse selection of tequila on the market, all worthy of a try.
We tried Michael Jordan’s Tequila Cincoro, a brand he formed with a 4 other NBA team-owners and launched in 2020.
Just like wine, Tequila is a reflection of both the life cycle of the plant and the climate and terrain where it grew, as well as the producer’s personal touch during the fermentation and aging process.
Agave requires a minimum of seven years to produce a useable piña. In the same way that harsh conditions and soil types can affect the acidity, sugar, and minerality of wine, tequila tastes differently depending on where it is grown, and how it is made.
Experienced tequila drinkers can distinguish between tequilas from different areas and altitudes. The Weber Azul truly thrives at high altitudes on well-drained mineral-rich soil.
The oldest and largest produce the most succulent piña, and are harvested in the Jaliscan Highlands on red, iron-rich soils. These are known to produce more delicate green notes of citrus, piquant and sweeter notes.
Even the “lowlands” of the Tequila Valley can reach up to 4,000 feet in altitude. The plants grow on mineral-rich soils on what used to be an active volcano. Tequila made from agave growing in lowland areas tends to have fruitier, grassier, and earthier notes.
Many producers blend tequilas grown from both areas for a unique and balanced flavor and body.
Tequila Flavor Profiles
Also know as Silver and Joven, tequila blanco is considered the purest expression of the agave plant as it is rarely aged in oak. Regulation dictates a maximum of two months of aging in neutral (old, re-used) barrels or stainless steal. Most blanco is bottled immediately following distillation.
It is clear in color, and ranges from lighter to richer feeling on the palate. Aromas, flavor, and finish are often peppery, bright, green, and delicately floral.
From the Spanish word for ‘rested,’ tequila reposado has been aged in oak barrels for a minimum of 2 months and maximum one year. The size, type, and age of the barrels is up to the producer.
During the barrel-aging process, just like wine, micro-oxidation causes a darker color and allows the tequila to mellow-out or soften around the edges, which you perceive on the palate with glossier feel. Both micro-oxidation and exposure to toasted wood contribute to a spectrum of aromas ranging from smoky sweet wood and spices to fruit and flowers. With time, aromas evolve and become more complex.
Añejo and Extra Añejo
Añejo tequilas are barrel-aged for a minimum of one year and up to three. Extra añejo for a minimum of three years with no maximum. They are darker in color and more closely resemble the amber-bronze color of whiskey or aged rum. Look for deep and long-lasting aromas of caramel, toffee, baking spices, smoke, and honey.
The best way to learn about Tequila is to taste it. Compare different styles and different brands. In the same way you set up a wine flight by style, grape, vintage, wine region or winery, you can experience the nuances of tequila by tasting them side by side.
How to Taste Tequila
Serve tequila on its own for a proper tasting. Blanco is often served in a shot glass or a tequila glass but even here it is meant to be sipped. Try it with a dash of lime or alternate sips between tequila and sangrita to balance the sharpness of the young tequila and draw out more flavors.
Download our Sangrita Recipe.
Reposado and añejo should be served in a snifter glass with a round base and slightly tapered at the top. This allows the tequila to open up and release aromas, and funnel them upwards, just like wine.
The Tequila Tasting Process is Identical to Wine Tasting.
Watch our Tequila Tasting Video.
Observe the color the and consistency of the tequila. Does it form legs and cling to the edges of the glass? Is your tequila aged or not? How do you anticipate it will feel on the palate?
Bring the glass close to your nose and get in close. Take short-intense sniffs to grab the aromatic molecules. What do you notice? Is it light, green and spicy, or rich and floral? What can you tell about the aging process? Do you detect any sweet wood or spices? Any smoky notes?
Let the tequila swish across your palate before swallowing. What does it feel? How long do the flavors last after you swallow?
Can you tell the difference between different styles or brands? If you know where your agave was grown can you distinguish between lowlands or highlands aromas? This takes time. Most importantly, did you enjoy it? Did it surprise you?
Much like whiskey, rum, or cognac, the right tequila, especially reposado and añejo, can be enjoyed neat or on the rocks, for their distinctive aromatic qualities and rich texture.
Try it alongside a splash of fresh lime juice or sangrita, to bring out subtle flavors, and of course in your favorite margarita recipe.
If you love tequila, there’s a world to discover, and it’s much simpler than wine to grasp.