10 Questions About Tequila, Answered
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.
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.