Margaritas, body shots, Pee-Wee Herman’s signature bar-top dance—tequila is responsible for all of these things. It’s also the national spirit of Mexico, which happens to be the only country allowed to produce it. In Mexico, tequila has always enjoyed a prominent place in history and at the table. The U.S., on the other hand, has had a more tumultuous relationship with the spirit. Over the years, tequila has gone from hangover-inducing shooter to craft cocktail ingredient to smooth sipper. Year after year, tequila sales in the U.S. have risen and the selection of high-end brands continues to grow. Tequila’s future is so bright, we have to wear sombreros.
The History of Tequila
Tequila, or rather the practice of making alcohol from the agave plant, dates back to 1000 years B.C., when the Aztecs used the sap of the agave plant (specifically the maguey) to ferment a drink known as pulque. So revered was this milky liquid in Aztec culture that they worshipped 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 the Aztec invasion by the Spanish 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.
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 arguably the same thing. It wasn’t until Don Cenobio Sauza 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. Sauza was also one of the first distilleries to export tequila to the U.S.
Even though Sauza and Jose Cuervo were exporting into the U.S., 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.
How Is Tequila Made?
According to Mexican law, tequila must be made from blue Weber agave and distilled with at least 51 percent agave and no more than 49 percent sugar. This results in two types of tequila: 100 percent 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 percent 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.
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, 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 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.
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 Casamigos Tequila Blanco, Familia Camarena Silver Tequila, Pueblo Viejo Blanco and 1800 Silver.
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 percent 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.
Reposado: Reposado refers to tequila aged a minimum of two months—but less than 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 "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.
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 richer amber color, and the flavors become richer, smoother and more complex. We love bottles like Tres Agaves Añejo, Codigo 1530 Añejo, Casamigos 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.
How Do 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).
Also popular in some regions is tequila served with a side of sangrita—a tomato-citrus spicy juice—both served in shot glasses of equal size. The bandera (Spanish for flag) method of drinking calls for three shot glasses: one with tequila, one with sangrita and one with key lime juice, inspired by the colors of the Mexican flag.
Notable 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.
Tequila in Culture
- Jack Kerouac, the poster child of the Beat Generation, often visited Mexico. There, he fueled his writing with tequila. His favorite way to drink his favorite spirit? In a Margarita.
- When Jimmy Buffett released "Margaritaville" in 1977, he didn’t just release a top 10 single. He started a movement. The song led to a multi-million-dollar lifestyle-brand empire—including a line of tequilas and restaurants.
- Buffett isn’t the only celebrity to dabble in tequila production. Other tequila magnates include Sammy Hagar (Cabo Wabo), Justin Timberlake (901) and George Clooney, who partnered with hotelier Rande Gerber (aka Mr. Cindy Crawford) to create Casamigos.
- The song “Tequila” by the Champs hit No. 1 on the charts in 1958, but it is probably most well-known for its appearance in the 1985 film Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. In the movie, the song plays while Pee-wee does the “Pee-wee dance” in the biker bar.
- "One tequila, two tequila, three tequila, floor." - George Carlin
- “It was too much Tequila, or not quite enough.” - Jimmy Buffett
- “I believe—to the best of my recollection, anyway—that I soon made the classic error of moving from Margaritas to actual shots of straight tequila. It does make it easier to meet new people.” - Anthony Bourdain
Think of mezcal as tequila’s older cousin; while tequila is made from one particular plant (the blue agave), mezcal can be made from several types of agave. It is primarily produced in Oaxaca, but can also be made in seven other regions in Mexico. Mezcal owes its signature smoky flavor to the production process in which the piñas are roasted in earthen ovens.
A cousin of mezcal and tequila, raicilla was once a cheap, local moonshine of sorts. Now, though, it is coming into its own as more and more producers are making high-end versions for market. Produced similarly to mezcal (but without any government sanctions), raicilla is distilled from wild agaves roasted in underground pits (coastal style) or above-ground ovens (sierra style). Raicilla's subtle smoky flavor makes it great for sipping or mixing in cocktails.