Everything You Need to Know About Tequila

From its Aztec history to the best tequila cocktails.

Once the preferred form of fuel for college ragers, tequila has worked hard to transform its wild child image. In recent years, it’s proven itself as a prized ingredient in the growing craft cocktail movement, and intrigued a new generation of imbibers with agave-distilled spirits like mezcal, sotol, and bacanora.

Don’t get us wrong, tequila remains a favorite party companion, but upon deeper exploration, you might be surprised to find that its flavors can be just as complex and wide-ranging as wine.

Tequila is the national spirit of Mexico, which happens to be the only country allowed to produce it. Since the country won their independence from Spain in 1821, it’s served as a symbol of celebration, often acting as the spirit of choice at weddings and quinceañeras.

Jose Cuervo
Photo courtesy of Jose Cuervo

The history of tequila

Tequila, or rather the practice of making alcohol from the blue agave plant, dates back thousands of years, when the Aztecs used the agave sap (specifically the maguey, a cousin of blue agave) to ferment a drink known as pulque. So revered was this milky liquid in Aztec culture that they worshiped not one but two pulque-centric gods: Mayahuel, the goddess of the maguey, and her husband Patecatl, the god of pulque itself.

While pulque has been around for millennia, it wasn’t until after the Spanish invaded Mexico in the early 1500s that anyone thought to distill an agave-based spirit. After establishing colonies, the Spanish government opened a trade route between Manila and Mexico. They exported Mexican silver to Manila and, in return, brought back things like silk, spices and, most importantly for our purposes, coconut brandy and the stills used to make it. The brandy quickly grew in popularity, and soon the thirsty colonists were distilling their own version of the spirit made with agave instead of coconuts, creating one of North America’s first Indigenous-distilled spirits.

In the early 1600s, Don Pedro Sánchez de Tagle, "the Father of Tequila," built the first large-scale distillery in what is now Tequila, Jalisco, producing “mezcal de Tequila” or what we now know as tequila. It should be noted that for the first couple hundred years, mezcal and tequila were regarded as the same thing. It wasn’t until Don Cenobio Sauza (of Sauza Tequila) came into the picture in the 1870s that distinctions started to appear. He is credited with determining that blue agave was the best agave for tequila production. Though that decision wasn't ratified into law until much later, other distillers in Sauza’s region followed his lead, preferring the blue agave plant to any other.

The Jose Cuervo family was granted the first license to produce tequila commercially from Spain’s King Carlos IV, and Sauza was the first to export it to the United States, shortening its name from “Tequila Extract” to “Tequila.” Sauza’s grandson Don Francisco Javier helped to establish the region of Jalisco as a prime area for tequila-producing and is infamous for his decree that, “There cannot be tequila where there are no agaves!”

Still, tequila didn’t find a real American audience until Prohibition, when European spirits were unavailable and the domestic offerings were little better than bathtub gin and moonshine. Thanks to bootleggers bringing bottles over the border and Tijuana’s close proximity and plentiful bars, tequila found a place in American glasses.

In 1978, the Mexican government declared the term “tequila” their intellectual property, requiring it be made and aged only in certain parts of the country. The laws also made it illegal for other countries to produce and sell “tequila” as their own. To produce something that could be labeled as tequila, distillers were also compelled to follow the official standards of tequila production, which included using only blue agave hearts.

Jose Cuervo
Tahona | Photo courtesy of Jose Cuervo

How is tequila made?

According to Mexican law, tequila must be made from blue Weber agave and distilled with at least 51% agave and no more than 49% sugar. This results in two types of tequila: 100% agave tequila and mixto tequila, which is made with agave and added sugar. Mixto tequila is made with both glucose and fructose sugars—often cane sugar—and sometimes caramel coloring, glycerin and other flavorings. Suffice it to say, if you have the choice, go for the 100% agave every time.

The blue Weber agave plant takes 8 to 12 years to grow, ripen and mature in order to produce the best nectar. After the plants are harvested by jimadores (agave farmers), the sharp outer leaves are cut off. The agave hearts (or piñas) are slow-cooked for somewhere between 12 to 48 hours, depending on the kind of oven, then crushed with either machines or a giant stone wheel called a tahona in order to extract the juice.

At this point, if the producer is making a mixto tequila, he or she mixes the juice with sugar. Next, the distiller mixes the pure agave juice or sugared juice with yeast and water, and leaves it to ferment in a vat. Then, the fermented liquid is distilled (usually twice) in a wide-bellied pot still and diluted. After that, it is either bottled or aged in oak barrels, depending on the desired style of tequila.

Jose Cuervo
Campos de agave | Photo courtesy of Jose Cuervo

Where is tequila made?

Under Mexican law, tequila must be made in a location certified by a Consejo Regulador del Tequila (CRT) in one of five Mexican states: Jalisco, Guanajuato, Michoacan, Nayarit and Tamaulipas. Most of the 150-plus distilleries that meet these requirements are located in Jalisco in the Tequila Valley, which can be divided into two main production regions: the highlands and the lowlands. Tequilas from the highlands are known for their natural sweetness while lowlands tequilas are much spicier.

The highlands are rich with red clay soil and experience more rainfall than the lowlands. The higher altitude also means cooler nights, which produces blue agave that is larger and sweeter. Tequilas from the highlands are typically more delicate with floral and mineral notes on both the nose and palate. If you’re looking to get a taste of tequila from the lowlands, there are a ton of great bottlings from which to choose. Some of our favorites include Jose Cuervo, Espolon, Milagro, El Tesoro, and Cazadores.

Jalisco’s lowlands boast volcanic soils, which results in blue Weber agave that has spicier and more herbaceous flavors and aromas. Brands like Casa Noble, 1800, and Herradura produce great expressions. If you’re looking to get a feel for lowlands tequila, we suggest trying it in cocktails first before moving on to neat or chilled pours.

For something outside of the norm, go for Corralejo, a 100% agave brand that hand picks their blue Webers and produces their tequilas in the state of Guanajuato. There’s also El Sativo, a woman- and family-owned kosher brand based in Amatitan, Jalisco, that utilizes a “bourbon-like” distillation process that maintains the terpenes (chemical compounds in plants responsible for flavors and aromas) for a silky-smooth and sweet tequila that boasts 100% agave. Since launching in 2020, El Sativo has taken home numerous gold medals in San Francisco’s World Spirits Competition.

“While tastes may vary slightly region to region, what’s consistent across the entire country is the admiration many have for tequila: it’s a staple in Mexico, after all!” says Jose Cuervo’s Master Distiller Alex Coronado.

Three types of tequila

What are the different tequila styles?

Silver/White/Blanco: The purest way to get the sweet, vegetal flavor of blue agave, silver (or white or blanco) tequila is bottled or stored immediately after distillation. It is either ready to go right then and there, or aged for less than two months in stainless steel or neutral oak barrels. We suggest Familia Camarena Silver Tequila, El Sativo Blanco, Pueblo Viejo Blanco, Jose Cuervo Tradicional Plata, and 1800 Silver.

Reposado: Reposado refers to tequila aged a minimum of two months and up to a year in wooden barrels (usually American or French oak) or storage tanks. During this aging process, the tequila takes on a golden color and toasty flavors. Reposado tequilas can also be referred to as "rested" and "aged." If you’re looking for a great bottle to try, pick up Lunazul Reposado, Corralejo Tequila Reposado, Ayate Reposado, or Calle 23 Reposado.

Coronado recommends blancos or reposados for pre-party settings or as an aperitif. He says that, “For me, a blanco or reposado is great served cold, as a refreshing, crisp shot or mixed into a favorite tequila cocktail.”

Raffaele Berardi, Global CEO for Fraternity Spirits (Corralejo’s distributor), recommends pairing reposados with seafood, which he says are complemented by the lemon-lime, peppercorn, and honey notes.

Gold/Oro: Silver tequila that has not been aged may be blended with aged or extra-aged tequila to create gold tequila (which would maintain its 100% agave certification), or it may be flavored with caramel coloring, oak extract, glycerin, or sugar syrup (making it a mixto). These younger tequilas are often less expensive and used in cocktails.

Añejo: Añejo tequila is aged a minimum of one year—but less than three years—in oak barrels. Distillers must age tequila in barrels that do not exceed 600 liters for at least one year in order to earn the añejo classification. During this aging process, the color of the tequila darkens to a rich amber color, and the flavors become smoother and more complex. We love bottles like Tres Agaves Añejo, Codigo 1530 Añejo, Corralejo Añejo, and Tequila Tapatio Añejo.

Extra Añejo/Ultra Añejo: This category was established in 2006 and refers to tequila aged a minimum of three years in oak barrels. This style almost resembles scotch in the peatyness and caramel flavor it acquires. We recommend treating yourself with Jose Cuervo’s Reserva de la Family Extra Añejo.

As Coronado clarifies, “The barrel aging doesn’t only produce tequilas in different hues—it also impacts the flavor profile of the liquid, depending on the type of wood it’s aged in and for how long. Blanco tequilas, for example, will have stronger notes of cooked agave, whereas an añejo will give flavors that are impacted by the wood such as oak, vanilla, dry fruits, tobacco and caramel.” He prefers to enjoy it at the end of a meal, alongside a decadent dessert or chocolate.

Should I drink tequila straight?

In Mexico, the most traditional way to drink tequila is neat—without lime and salt. Aged (añejo) tequila is ideal for sipping and should be served at room temperature (chilling tequila kills the flavor). To experience the full breadth of flavors and aromas, sip from a tulip-shaped tequila flute.

Jose Cuervo
Classic Cuervo Margarita | Photo courtesy of Jose Cuervo

What are the most popular tequila cocktails?

Margarita: The gold standard when it comes to tequila cocktails—and one of the reasons the spirit has become so popular in the U.S. Citrusy, salty and boozy, it’s infinitely customizable and can be served up, on the rocks or frozen.

Paloma: This spritzy, grapefruit soda-and-tequila cocktail is far more popular in Mexico than the Margarita.

Tequila Sunrise: A staple in the 1970s, the Tequila Sunrise gets its name from its sunrise-esque layering, achieved by pouring grenadine over a mix of tequila and orange juice.

Bloody Maria: The perfect drink for those who want to actually taste the alcohol in their Bloody Marys.

Siesta: This take on the Hemingway Daiquiri swaps the rum for tequila and uses bittersweet Campari in place of the usual maraschino liqueur. A mix of grapefruit and lime juices give it a bright, tangy flavor that’s perfect for sipping on a hot afternoon.

Baja Gold: This tasty cousin of the Margarita ditches the lime juice for freshly pressed pineapple juice. Reposado tequila gives the drink deep earthy notes and a caramelly sweetness.

Also rising in popularity is the Tequila Old Fashioned, which replaces whiskey with an añejo.

What’s the difference between tequila and mezcal?

You’ll find mezcal has just as much variety in flavor, depending on the species of agave used, where it’s harvested, production methods, and other factors.

Ivan Vasquez, whose Oaxacan restaurant Madre in LA brags one of the largest collections of mezcal in the US, all sourced from small-batch producers, defines the spirit, saying, “For me, mezcal is anything that is cooked underground, in a pit fire, regardless of denomination of origin. The real denomination of origin is where there is a tradition of making mezcal for at least three or five generations.”

While tequila is made from one particular plant (blue Weber agave), mezcal can be made from several types of agave. It is primarily produced in Oaxaca, but according to the Mexican government, can be made in seven other regions in Mexico.

Other agave-distilled spirits specific to Mexico include sotol, bacanora, and raicilla, and all of them are becoming more popular, both domestically and abroad. America’s position as Mexico’s Northern neighbor means we get early access to these ancestral spirits before they become global trends—take advantage.

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Danielle Dorsey is the West Coast Editor at Thrillist.