Even if you’re fluent in Spanish, reading a bottle of mezcal or tequila can be confusing. Here are 25 terms you need to know to drink your agave spirits smarter—and, ultimately, better.
Blanco, Plata, Platinum or Silver
Unaged tequilas that are typically bottled shortly after production. This is the type of tequila most commonly used in cocktails like the Margarita or Paloma.
Gold or Oro
These are mixto tequilas (see below) that have had artificial coloring added to simulate cask aging.
Reposado tequilas are aged in oak casks (typically used) for anywhere from two months to a year. More mellow than blanco tequilas, reposados are known for their richness and vanilla flavors.
Añejo tequilas are aged for a minimum of one year in oak casks, most commonly ex-bourbon casks. On the palate, these spirits are bolder and richer than reposados, and best served straight or on the rocks rather than in cocktails.
A new category of tequilas established in 2006, extra añejo spirits are aged for a minimum of three years in oak barrels. Decadent, vanilla-heavy and oaky, extra añejos are some of the most expensive tequilas on the market.
If you don’t see the phrase “100 percent agave” on the label of a tequila bottle, you have yourself a mixto. Made with a mixture of fermented agave juice and cane sugar spirits, and typically no more than 51 percent blue weber agave, these tequilas are not the highest quality.
Meaning mixed or blended, ensemble refers to a style of mezcal made with a variety of different species of agaves. Each agave species is harvested, roasted, mashed, fermented, distilled and bottled together. Every batch of ensemble mezcal is wholly unique and representative of that year’s harvest and the blend used to make the bottling.
Meaning “breast” in Spanish, pechuga is a type of mezcal, usually made from espadín agave (see below), drunk during religious holidays and times of celebration or mourning. The name for the spirit stems from the fact that during the distillation process, a turkey or chicken breast (or occasionally rabbit meat), is hung—often with fruits and nuts—inside the still to infuse into the spirit. Pechugas vary wildly in flavor. These mezcals are essentially the gins of Mexico.
The most commonly grown species of agave used for mezcal—due to its relatively short eight-year growth period and clone-ability—espadín accounts for over 90 percent of all mezcal production. The espadín agave plant is the genetic grandfather to the blue weber agave (see below) used for tequila production.
This agave, also known as Agave Tequilana Weber Azul, is the only agave that can legally be used to make tequila. It was named after German botanist Frédéric Albert Constantin Weber, who identified the species of agave as the most ideal specimen for tequila production. Grown mostly in Tequila, within the state of Jalisco, Blue Weber is one of 136 identified species of agave in Mexico.
The piña refers to the heart of the agave plant, which looks like an extra-large pineapple (some are the size of a small car). Agave farmers cut the leaves, or pencas, off the agave, and extract the subterranean piña for processing. When it comes to tequila, the agave piñas are steamed, usually in an autoclave, to be softened for pulverizing and to caramelize the starches into fermentable sugars. For mezcal, the agave piñas are fire-roasted in the ground.
No, this has nothing to do with the cartoon cat; this term applies to wild agave used in mezcal. While espadín agave is the most commonly used, there are dozens of wild species that can be found growing throughout Mexico. Each species of agave plant produces a different flavor and aroma when fermented and distilled. Commonly seen agave varietals currently on the market are tobalá, tobaziche, tepeztate, and arroqueño—most of which take over 14 years to reach harvesting maturity. With more and more mezcal companies harvesting wild agave and the demand growing exponentially abroad, there is a danger of causing varietals to go extinct.
To be labeled tequila, an agave spirit can only come from Tequila in the state of Jalisco. The region has two distinct regions, each with their own defining characteristics. The Highlands, or Los Altos, is a high desert with mountainous terrain, hard red clay soil, cold nights and more rainfall than other areas of Tequila. Highland tequilas are known for their gentle floral sweetness.
This region is, as the name would imply, at a lower elevation. Known for its rich volcanic soil and warm temperatures, Lowland tequilas are earthier and more vegetal. They also have that signature white pepper heat blanco tequilas are known for.
The simplest way to define bagasso is as the residual pulp from the agave piñas after they are ground. Most tequilas remove the bagasso prior to fermentation, which gives the spirit its cleaner, softer notes. In mezcal production, distillers keep the bagasso in the mix, resulting in more rustic flavors. Hardy and fibrous, the bagasso is an extremely useful byproduct, and is often used as a sealant or as an insulator in the earthen, wood-fired pits used to roast the agave piñas.
The quiote is a giant flowering stalk that grows from the center of the agave at the end of the plant’s lifespan. It produces seeds, which create new agave plants.
Aguamiel, which translates to “honey-water,” is the syrupy sap released from the maguey plant after the quiote is removed. The aguamiel can be extracted for about two or three months before it dries up. In this time period, a single maguey can produce about 1,000 liters of aguamiel.
Made by fermenting the sap of an agave plant (aguamiel), pulque is a milky, viscous alcoholic beverage somewhere between beer and wine. It is an ancient spirit used both medicinally and spiritually by the indigenous peoples of Mexico.
The title given to the farmer who grows and harvests agave plants used for making mezcal and tequila (or any of the other type of agave spirit). A jimador can identify the precise moment when an agave is ripe for extraction.
A mezcalero is a person who distills mezcal. As with the title of distiller, there is a hierarchy to mezcaleros, with maestro mezcalero being the highest level.
A palenque is a mezcal distillery. Within a palenque, the agave is roasted, crushed, fermented, distilled and bottled.
Used primarily for the production of mezcal, a tahona is a giant stone wheel that is typically pulled by a donkey or a horse, which crushes the roasted agave piñas.
If you’re a regular mezcal drinker, you’ve seen these glasses before. Originally used to hold prayer candles at church, vaso veladoras are short, squat and traditionally embossed with a crucifix.
Another vessel used to serve mezcal—albeit more traditional than a vaso veladora—these cups were originally crafted by the country’s indigenous peoples. Made from red clay, copitas are shallow and delicate.
Sal de Gusano
This term literally translates to “worm salt” and that’s exactly what it is—sort of. Made from moth larvae that live within the leaves of the agave plant, this salty-smoky condiment is traditionally served as an accompaniment to mezcal alongside a slice of orange or fresh guava. Fattened on agave nectar, the grubs are toasted and ground with rock salt and roasted chili peppers. Try it before you knock it.