10 Questions About Tequila, Answered

Sarah Robbins
Sarah Robbins

No spirit has undergone a greater image transformation in the US during the past couple of decades than tequila. Once considered a shots-only, party-down liquid, tequila is now rightly appreciated as the kind of beverage you want to take your time with—a sippable, mixable drink infused with quality and craftsmanship. Yet, even as the taste for Mexico’s national spirit has spread, there’s still a lot of underappreciated information about this amazing agave distillate. Here, we answer 10 questions about tequila’s rich history and various expressions.

How long has tequila been around?

Tequila’s roots stretch back to around 1000 BC, when Mesoamerica’s earliest civilizations began fermenting vats of pulque, a drink made of agave sap. Centuries later, Spanish conquistadors introduced the copper pot still, and developed a process of distilling the fermented agave juice—which led to the invention of mezcal, the overarching spirit of which tequila is a subset. (More on that shortly, we promise.) The Spaniards eventually built distilleries in Tequila (yes, there’s a city called Tequila), in the current Mexican state of Jalisco.

How is it made?

Tequila is distilled from the juice of Blue Weber agave plants, which take about eight to 12 years to mature. The plants are harvested by skilled farmers known as jimadors, who cut away the sharp outer leaves to obtain the massive heart, or piña, of the agave, which can weigh between 80 and 200 pounds. The piñas are then baked or steamed—turning their starch into fermentable sugar—before being milled to remove pulp from the sweet juice, and placed into a fermentation tank. Next comes the addition of yeast, which eats the sugar, resulting in a substance that’s left to condense and liquify. The fermented juice is then distilled two to three times, resulting in blanco tequila. Other forms of tequila are created by aging in oak barrels for various lengths of time.

Sarah Robbins

Does tequila really have its own goddess?

For the Aztecs, the maguey (agave) plant was a sacred object, used to make everything from clothing to rooftops. The agave was so much a part of their culture that the Aztecs dedicated a goddess named Mayahuel to the plant. According to Aztec mythology, she bore 400 rabbit children known as the Canton Tonochtin. One of these was Techalotl, who symbolized a maniac on the dance floor who would step on everyone’s toes. You’ve probably seen him in action at weddings.

How many types of tequila are there?

Two! There’s 100% blue agave tequila and mixto tequila. The former is made entirely from the blue agave plant, with no added coloring or sweetening elements. (It’s right there in the name, “100% Blue Agave.”) If sugar or molasses or any other ingredients have been added to the tequila, then it’s a “mixto.” Mixto tequila contains a minimum of 51% blue agave, the remainder can be composed of other sugars. That amber-colored stuff you drank in your early 20s? That’s mixto tequila, with additives.

What’s all this blanco, reposado, and añejo business?

The two categories of tequila above are divided into a variety of styles:  

1) Blanco (white): Blanco tequila is either un-aged or slightly aged (less than two months) in stainless steel or neutral oak barrels. It’s clear, and according to aficionados, represents “the purest taste of agave.”

2) Reposado (rested): Darker and possessing more depth of flavor, this tequila has been aged at least two months but no more than a year.

3) Añejo (aged): The darkest of the three, añejo has been aged at least a year, but no more than three. It has great complexity of flavor, with whiskey-like notes from the aging process, including vanilla and oak.

4) Extra Añejo (very aged): The growing category of extra añejo features tequilas that have been aged at least 3 years in oak barrels.

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What’s a Cristalino?

The tequila category has been blessed with lots of innovation in recent years, and Tequila Don Julio made a landmark contribution in 2012 with the launch of Don Julio 70, the world’s No. 1 cristalino. The tequila is aged 12+ months, placing it in the añejo category, and then it’s charcoal filtered to produce a clear (cristalino) spirit that ingeniously combines the complexity of an añejo with the agave brightness of a blanco tequila.

Are there any other styles?

Yes, there’s one more style that has two very different subsets of its own, and that’s gold tequila. Some gold tequilas are mixtos that contain coloring agents, glycerin and/or non-agave sugars. The other gold tequilas are blends of unaged 100% blue agave tequila with aged 100% blue agave tequila.

What’s the difference between tequila and mezcal?

Because mezcal is defined as any agave-based spirit, all tequilas are essentially mezcal, but not all mezcal is tequila. Tequila is only made from blue agave, whereas mezcal can be made from more than 30 varieties of agave (including blue). Both spirits are made from the heart of the agave plant (or piña), but in tequila production the hearts are steamed before distillation, whereas mezcal piñas are roasted underground. This gives mezcal its smoky flavor.

Is there a legal definition of tequila?

You bet there is. In 1974, tequila received a denomination of origin (AOC), meaning it can only be produced in Mexico—in five regions: Jalisco, Michoacán, Guanajuato, Nayarit, and Tamaulipas (the last four all surround the town of Tequila). Mezcal is similarly protected.

Sarah Robbins

When did Americans start drinking it?

Tequila was introduced to America at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, and smugglers funneled the stuff into the US from Mexico during Prohibition. By the 1950s it was popular enough to inspire the No. 1 hit song “Tequila” by California quintet The Champs (and famously revived by Pee Wee Herman in 1985). By the ’70s (when Jimmy Buffett’s “Margaritaville” appeared), it was widely consumed in the States. In the past 10 years, tequila consumption has jumped again, with an emphasis on higher quality, sippable versions of Mexico’s fabled spirit.

What’s the best way to drink tequila?

The best way to drink tequila is exactly the way you prefer to drink tequila. There’s no wrong way, and it depends on the type of tequila you’re drinking. Some of the best tequilas are as enjoyable neat, and slowly sipped, as the finest whiskies and rums. Some people like taking tequila shots with lime and salt—though it can be argued that’s an amateur move. Citrus and hot sauce go especially well with the fruity, spicy notes of tequila—which is why tequila cocktails like the Margarita, Bloody Maria, and Paloma are so delicious.