29 tequila terms you should know
Get ready to be that jerk in the bar dropping “actually…” anytime someone orders a margarita. Why? Because you’re going to read this indispensable list of awesome tequila and tequila-related terminology. Yeah!
Let’s get this out of the way: The tequila worm is not a thing (at least not a thing real tequila does). But! In some mezcals, distillers add the Gusano, a caterpillar (not a worm!). The Gusano is used in some traditional Mexican dishes, so it’s really not that crazy to add it to a drink.
You know how American bourbon is still a whiskey? Or, if you’re a nerd, how squares are still rectangles? Same principle with Mezcals. Tequila is the specific spirit made from blue agave in a distinct Mexican region (more on that later); Mezcal is the family of booze tequila belongs to and can be made from about 30 other species of agave.
This mother spirit was first brewed up in the middle of the 16h century, after the Spanish had started conquistadoring through the continent, bringing with them the knowledge of brandy making. And, yes, that makes mezcal North America's first distilled spirit. What we know as "tequila" wouldn't start mass manufacture until the 19th century.
Pulque is the beer-like, simple rustic cousin of tequila and mezcal. A slightly foamy, milky beverage made from the fermented sap of the agave plant, it’s almost impossible to find outside of Mexico.
And this is what that sap is called. It’s sometimes used as a folk medicine in Mexico and probably never used on pancakes.
The Nahua People
The group of native American cultures indigenous to the area where tequila is made (and elsewhere). You may know some of them better as the Aztecs. They were the first to ferment a spirit from the agave plant (pulque).
The Central American goddess with 400 breasts who dispensed pulque from said breasts. Shockingly, she was representative of fertility and not horrifying nightmares.
Those varieties include Tepeztate, Arronqueño, Tobaziche, Tobalá, and Espandín, all of which make distinct Mezcals. These plants have been harvested for millennia to make clothes, food, writing materials, and (of course) booze.
To be tequila, a booze doesn’t have to be 100% blue agave. Mixtos are tequilas that are made from at least 51% blue agave and a mix (get it?!) of other sugar sources.
Stored for two months to a year, Reposado tequila is cask-aged to a deep brown/gold color. The extra aging imparts more wood flavoring and softens out some of the harsher notes in rawer tequilas.
Añejo tequilas have been aged a minimum of one year, typically in used bourbon barrels from right here in the States, just like how scotch does it.
As of 2006, this new designation is reserved for tequilas aged a minimum of three years in oak barrels.
What you’ve probably been drinking most of your life, Blancos are no more than 60 days old and have little to no coloring.
Sometimes called “gold”, Jovens are typically blanco mixtos that have had coloring and flavoring added.
Normas Oficial Mexicana (NOM)
Similar to France's appellation d'origine contrôlée, the NOM dudes stamp bottles, certifying that the hooch in question meets the geographic- and ingredient-based requirements of Tequila. The stamp doesn’t mean the booze is good, but it does mean it's authentic.
Interestingly, the NOM number identifies the distillery where the tequila comes from, and you may notice competing brands coming from the same place. That’s because there’s only a little over 100 tequila distilleries in the whole country, and they put out a lot of different booze for a lot of different companies.
Coa de Jima
A farming implement designed precisely to harvest agave. It’s basically a machete crossed with a shovel. A machovel, if you will.
These are the guys who traditionally wield the coa. Agave only ripens after 8-12 years of maturation, and these guys have to be skilled enough to know when the heck that is. A calendar probably helps too.
Forget sucking a lime and licking salt, a traditional glass of tequila should be accompanied by this refreshing back of lime, tomato, and orange juices with minced chilies.
Or “Los Altos”. The state of Jalisco has two distinct regions which produce distinct tequila terroirs. The highlands’ cool nights (thanks to the elevation) and increased rain produce a more floral and delicate tequila.
The other region is noted for its rich volcanic soil and a more consistently warm temperature. Tequila made with agave from here is considered more earthy-y and dry. Think less floral and more vegetal, which is actually a real word.
Agave’s alias. While the official scientific genus is “Agave”, maguey is a common variation in Mexico.
This is the heart of the agave. What’s eventually extracted, toasted, and pulped to create tequila. And these things are big. The agave plant itself has been known to reach, no joke, 30 feet high. But that takes decades, and while agave harvested for tequila or mezcal is never that big, the piñas used in tequila on average are about 15 lbs.
The agave leaf around the piñas. Residue from the penca and the rest of the plant can produce a “bitter honey”, a foul residue that builds when the piñas are first cooked. Distillers typically wash this gunk off before continuing.
The top of the piña, the corta is cut out before baking. If the corta isn’t removed, the end product can finish bitter and nobody wants that.
This is the flower stalk of the agave plant. If left to grow, this blooms out of the corta. It’s also edible, if you like eating giant flower stalks.
A massive, two-ton millstone used to grind the agave mash. This is how tequila was originally made and only a handful of distilleries still use this method. Many distillers swear by the taste difference produced with this ancient style.
Once the stone crushes the juice out of the agave, the remaining fibers (the bagaso) can be used for making clothes, compost, and more. It’s like what your hippie friends have been telling you is so great about hemp.
A mud or adobe oven where the agave was traditionally baked before milling. They only get up to a maximum of 200 degrees. The idea is to cook the piñas low and slow, which keeps the plants from browning and losing precious sugars. The bake lasts anywhere from 50 to 72 hours.
The Mexican state where 80% of all blue agave is grown. While laws have been relaxed so that tequila can be made in other Mexican states, only a handful of distilleries do it outside of Jalisco.
Tequila Regulatory Council (CRT)
These are the guys that set the standards enforced by NOMs. The council determines what is and isn’t tequila and defends that definition at home and abroad. They’re like Homeland Security. But in Mexico. And for tequila.
Tristeza y Muerte de Agave (TMA)
In the early 2000s, this disease ravaged agave plants in Mexico, drastically impacting tequila production. The industry has largely recovered, as most of its exports don’t rely on aging beyond a few years (a decade at most). But because tequila is made from essentially one single crop that doesn’t mature for eight years, its existence is highly vulnerable and should be protected by like the UN or something. Seriously, won’t somebody think of the tequila?