Facts Every Self-Respecting Tequila Buff Should Know
Tequila has been on a journey in this country during the past several decades, transforming from a spirit not typically blended into specialty cocktails to a sippable (and mixable) craft liquid. Time was, most Americans’ tequila knowledge revolved around a wedge of lime, a pinch of salt, and a song by that dude who’s always on a boat. Now, to truly get the most out of this varied and amazing gift of nature, you need to know your blanco from your añejo, your mixto from your 100% blue agave.
But fear not; we’ve got you covered: together with Don Julio, we put together a tequila facts cheat sheet covering the basics as well as some next-level knowledge on the magical things that happen when you age the stuff in American white oak.
The two general categories of tequila
Your tequila is either a 100% blue agave tequila, or it’s a mixto. A mixto contains at least 51% blue agave tequila, with the remainder being composed of non-agave sugars (most often cane sugar). If you order a margarita at a bar and don’t specify which tequila you want, you’re probably getting a mixto, a blend. The more rarefied classification is much more straightforward: 100% blue agave tequila is made from fermented blue agave (along with water and yeast). That’s it. No other sugars are added. These are normally higher-end tequilas, ie: great for a rocks margarita, but maybe don’t pour it into a frozen machine.
The five tequila subcategories
Silver tequilas are clear, and they’re also known as blanco or white tequilas. These are bottled and stored right after the distillation process. (A few varieties are aged, but never for more than a few weeks.) Silver tequilas can be either mixtos or 100% agave, and the bold agave flavor is most prominent in this category. The Don Julio Blanco, for example, is a 100% agave silver tequila, with smooth agave notes alongside citrus and herbal elements. It’s a terrific base for a Margarita.
There are two types of gold tequilas, one of which is far more common than the other, so let’s start there: when a producer introduces additives such as caramel coloring, oak extract, glycerin, or a non-agave sugar to a blanco tequila, the result is a mixto of a golden-caramel color. If you went to college in the past two decades, you’re probably familiar with this product.
The othergold tequila is a very different animal: it’s the result of an unaged 100% blue agave silver tequila being blended with a 100% agave aged variety. This liquid has a caramel color, yet maintains its 100% blue agave designation. It’s rarely seen, like a mermaid.
Reposado means “rested”—and that’s exactly what a reposado tequila is. It’s been aged in oak barrels for anywhere between two and 12 months, allowing it to take on flavors and light amber coloring from the wood. Don Julio’s Reposado is aged for eight months in American white oak—it’s a singular spirit with soft notes of dark chocolate and some citrus on the nose, the latter of which makes it ideal in a Paloma. Bonus knowledge: the Paloma—tequila, fresh lime juice, and grapefruit soda—is more popular than the Margarita in Mexico.
Añejo is the next stage of aged tequila, stuff that’s been in repose from one to three years. It also has to be aged in small batches (in barrels of 600 liters or less) to receive the añejo designation. Añejo tequila picks up even more flavor notes from the barrel, and a darker amber coloring. These are the kind of tequilas that get talked about like bourbon, with notes of honey, oak, and vanilla, alongside roasted agave.
It’s also a category that lends itself to experimentation, and Don Julio has taken full advantage of that, producing three variants in the añejo class. There’s Añejo, which is aged for 18 months in American white oak; Don Julio 1942, aged two and a half years, and named for the year founder Don Julio González began his tequila making journey; and Don Julio 70, the world’s first añejo claro variety—created in 2012 to commemorate the brand’s 70th anniversary. Developed over a seven-year period by Master Distiller Enrique De Colsa, Don Julio 70 is aged for 18 months, then charcoal filtered—a process that strips away some of the typical añejo notes of toasted wood while restoring the fresh, vegetal flavors found in Don Julio Blanco. The result is a clear añejo—though the color change was not the primary objective—that combines the best of the blanco and añejo flavor profiles.
The Extra Añejo designation is relatively new, introduced in 2006, and it’s applied to any small-batch tequila that’s aged for longer than three years. These varieties are rich, with an impressive complexity of flavor. Don Julio’s REAL Tequila, aged three to five years, was one of the first Extra Añejos on the market. Its smooth, deep flavor profile contains notes of chocolate and almond, and, needless to say, it’s best served neat. The extra añejo category is expanding as producers experiment with aging processes and test the versatility of this ancient spirit. But much like with bourbon, there’s a limit to tequila aging. If you go past that limit, you run the risk of aging out the agave flavor.
Denomination of Origin, or, what makes tequila tequila
Thanks to intellectual property laws, tequila can only be made in one place: Mexico. The Mexican government issued a Denomination of Origin Tequila (DOT) in 1978, and the declaration, which was ratified by various international entities over the ensuing decades, dictates that only blue weber agave spirits produced in Jalisco and five neighboring areas can be legally sold under the name tequila. An American in Temecula, CA, discovered the power of Mexico’s DOT when he began distilling blue agave spirit on his property in the late 1990s, only to find he couldn’t legally market the liquid as tequila.
Despite the strict legal standards, tequila allows plenty of room for innovation
Don Julio González, the founder of Don Julio tequila, is a prime example. He revolutionized the tequila making process, and eventually established the luxury tequila category. His innovations included planting his agave farther apart than other distillers did, so they had more room to grow larger and sweeter, and letting them ripen for longer than the industry standard before harvesting them. González also made a clever adjustment in the social realm, discarding the traditional long, tall tequila bottle in favor of a rounded, shorter container that didn’t obstruct conversation across a gathering table.
The heart of the matter
When agave plants are ready for harvest (after growing for six to 10 years), jimadors wielding sharp-bladed tools called coas cut the leaves, or pencas, from the plant, exposing the heart of the agave, a massive sphere called a piña. And we do mean massive—piñas weigh between 80 and 200 pounds. The key to piña ripeness, though, is not size but sugar content. Much like winemakers test the sugar levels of their grapes, tequila distillers will look for a Brix level (or sugar content) of at least 24% in their agave. That’s the standard, but some will wait for the plant to hit 30% (or higher) before they harvest.
The slow steam cook
After harvesting, the piñas need to be cooked just enough for the starches to break down into sugars—but not cooked so thoroughly that the sugars caramelize. Don Julio piñas, for example, are slow steam cooked for 72 hours in brick ovens. They’re also cut into uniform thirds or quarters, to make sure the pieces cook evenly. The cooked piñas are crushed to release their agave nectar, which is then combined with water and yeast to ferment in large vats before it’s distilled.
Those who know drink responsibly.
DON JULIO Tequila. 40% Alc/Vol. Imported by Diageo Americas, Norwalk, CT.