Tequila 101: An Introduction
Learn to appreciate the distinctive qualities of tequila through this brief introduction to its production and various styles.
The popularity of tequila has risen dramatically since the 1990s, but the history of this unique distilled spirit dates back to the Aztecs who were making a fermented beverage from the agave plant long before the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors.
All About Tequila
Tequila is a distilled spirit made from the core (piña) of the blue agave plant. Blue agave is native to the central Mexican state of Jalisco where the town of Tequila is located, and its cultivation has become essential to the area’s economy.
According to Mexican regulations, only spirits produced within this region can be labeled as tequila and they must be made from a minimum of 51% blue agave. Tequilas marked as made from 100% blue agave are considered to be the best quality.
Like wine grapes, the flavor of blue agave reflects the characteristics of the soil and climate in which it’s grown. There’s a subtle, but noticeable difference in flavor between tequilas made from plants grown in Jalisco’s higher elevations, as opposed to those grown in the lowlands.
The highlands plants produce fruitier tequilas with a touch of sweetness, while the lowland grown agave yields somewhat earthy tequilas with a hint of spice.
Time-Honored Production Methods
Tending the blue agave plant is still a manual process performed by men called jimadores. The jimadores prune the central stems of the plants as they grow to prevent them from flowering before the piña is fully ripened.
Harvesting blue agave is a tedious job that involves carefully trimming the spiny leaves from around plant’s core with a special tool called a coa.
Once harvested, the piñas are cut into chunks, baked in steam ovens, then crushed to extract the sweet juices. The juice is then transferred to large wooden or stainless steel vats where it is allowed to ferment for several days before it is double-distilled to produce a clear, high-proof spirit.
This tequila is then combined with water to reduce the proof to 80%, thus making a finished silver (plato/blanco) tequila.
Finally, depending on the style being produced, the tequila may be aged in oak barrels or casks before bottling.
The Five Styles of Tequila
The styles of tequila are defined by whether or not they are aged and if so, the length of the aging process.
Blanco, or silver, tequila is clear and is bottled immediately following the distillation process. It is quite strong and retains much of the pure blue agave flavor. Common aromas and flavors include citrus, apple, pear, mint, pepper and pineapple. Tequila blanco is the variety most often used for mixing cocktails.
Joven, or gold (oro) tequila is tequila blanco that has been flavored and colored by the addition of caramel. It too retains many of the pure flavor qualities of the blue agave, but is somewhat mellowed by the sweet caramel notes.
Reposado, or rested, tequila rests in pipones (storage vats) anywhere from two months to a year. The process produces a pale, smooth spirit that can be sipped or used for mixing. Common aromas and flavors include vanilla, honey, caramel, butterscotch, almond, toffee and spice.
Añejo, or aged, tequila rests for one to three years, developing a rich amber color and oaky undertones from the aging barrels. Its complex, refined aromas and flavors include vanilla, caramel, butterscotch, brown sugar, almond, toffee, chocolate, oak and spice. Tequila Añejo is best enjoyed as a sipping spirit.
Tequila Extra Añejo
Extra Añejo tequila is a recently added style reserved for tequila that has been aged for longer than three years. These tequilas are generally expensive, hand-crafted, limited-release selections with complex aromas and flavors unique to their individual aging process.
How To Taste Tequila: Host A Tasting Party!
The best way to learn about and appreciate the various styles and brands of tequila is to taste them side-by-side. For more information, read our post on “How to Taste Tequila” and check out our “Host a Tequila Tasting Party” menu to enjoy the experience with friends.