There are all kinds of reasons as to why people enjoy tequila so much. Whether it’s because of the way it tastes, the way it makes us feel, or its ability to bring all different kinds of people together, Americans really seem to love their tequila. In fact, we drink more tequila in America than any other country on Earth.
Tequila is fascinating not just because of its rich and storied history but also thanks to the way in which it’s concocted. So how is tequila made? And where does it come from anyway?
Whether you’ve been drinking tequila for years or you’re just trying the stuff out, you can gain a new appreciation for the beverage by learning more about it.
So what are you waiting for? Continue reading and we’ll walk you through everything you need to know!
A Brief History of Tequila
Tequila first came about in the 1500s near the modern-day Mexican city of Tequila. In pre-Columbian central Mexico, there was a fermented beverage from the agave plant known as pulque. When Spanish conquistadors ran out of their own alcohol, they started to distill the agave plant.
A few decades later, the Marquis of Altamira started to mass-produce tequila at his factory in Jalisco. A few centuries later, in the late 1800s, tequila would be first exported to the United States.
The drink soon became a smash hit and now there are hundreds of companies that produce their own tequila.
In order for the drink to be officially recognized as legitimate tequila, it needs to be produced in one of the five regions in Mexico from which it’s allowed. Those areas are:
Most tequila comes from the Jalisco area. There, agave fields are abundant. When harvest time comes around, you’ll see jimadores (field workers) removing what looks like big, spiky pineapples from the earth.
This is the heart of the agave plant from which tequila is produced and it shows itself after its spiky leaves are taken off.
The geographical origin of the drink is what distinguishes it from all other liqueurs that use agave in the world. It also means that the Tequila Regulatory Council (CRT) can hold strict regulations over its production.
You can make agave-based spirits anywhere in the world. But if it doesn’t originate from one of those five areas, then it’s not considered to be tequila.
The lowlands that are near the town of Tequila (just outside of the city of Guadalajara) is where you’ll find some of the biggest names in the tequila industry.
Up in the highlands of Jalisco around the town of Jesús María and Arandas, as well as in Los Altos, you’ll find a variety of boutique brands of tequila that are not as well known by the general public. The red clay soil in these regions helps produce agave that gives these tequilas a totally unique profile.
The Agave Plant
Perhaps the most fascinating part of the tequila production process is the agave plant itself. Different varieties of the plant can make different kinds of tequila.
The agave plant is a succulent in the lily family and it’s not a cactus. Above ground, you’ll find big spikes growing in rosettes. Below the ground is where the heart is.
After the heart is harvested, it will go to the distillery and be baked and juiced.
It’s not uncommon for an agave plant to grow up to seven feet high. They usually take between seven and ten years to mature. If you leave an agave plant untouched, it can grow to fifteen feet and will start to produce flowers.
Baking the Agave
After the agave hearts have been harvested and moved to the distillery, the tequila-making process can begin. The aim is to convert the starches and carbohydrates from the heart of the raw agave heart into fermentable sugars. This is similar to how grains are turned into a mash, which is then fermented in order to become whiskey.
The agave hearts can easily weigh over one hundred pounds and are loaded fresh into the oven. Traditionally, these hearts used to be baked in rock-lined pits, which is still done in mezcal production.
Today, tequila is mainly baked above ground and is made with either a stainless steel or brick/clay oven.
No matter which oven is used, it usually takes between two to three days of steam cooking to properly bake the agave hearts. After this step in the process, the hearts shrink dramatically. They also turn dark brown and take on a caramelized appearance.
Extracting the Agave Juices
After the hearts have been baked, it’s now time to extract the sweet juices that are stewing inside them. There are different ways of doing this.
Most of the time, mechanical shredders are used to separate and pulverize the plant fibers. The sweet juice is then collected for fermentation. The shredders are not that different from the ones used to mill sugar cane for rum production.
There are some tequila distillers that use a more traditional method. This involves a big wheel that’s made from volcanic rock. The wheel rolls around a stone pit and crushes the agave, extracting the juices as it rolls.
The wheels are referred to as tahonas. Today, these tahonas are operated either by a central engine or by tractors that slowly move the arm attached to the wheel around the pit. Still, one or two workers need to work the pit as the 2-ton wheel crushes the agave.
Because this wheel can be both time-consuming and laborious, there are only a few tequila distilleries that still use the tahona.
Fermenting the Juices
After the juices enter the fermentation room, the process for making tequila is the same as it is for making every other distilled spirit. The sugary juice is added to fermentation tanks along with yeast and water. During the fermentation process, the yeast will change the sugar of the diluted juice into alcohol.
This is a crucial step and is used to make other alcoholic spirits, including liquors.
A distillery will use fermentation tanks made from either stainless steel or wood. They’re also going to have to adhere to a strict ratio of juice to water and usually proprietary strains of yeast. Some of these yeast strains have been passed down for generations.
The fermentation process usually takes between two and five days. However, some distilleries will ferment for longer in order to achieve a more robust tequila.
It’s important that the yeast is kept “happy.” Some distilleries will even serenade the yeast will classical musical.
Tequila is usually aged in used barrels. These barrels tend to come from the bourbon industry where the barrels can only be used once. Other barrels that are used include used and new French or white oak and sherry casks.
Each of these barrels is going to impart different notes to the finished product. Because of that, the distillery will choose their aging barrels carefully.
It’s also important to note that, just like with rum and whiskey, the barrel is going to give tequila an oaky flavor as well as its final color. This is why Blanco tequilas are clear (they don’t touch wood), añejo tequilas get an amber hue, and reposado tequilas have a golden color.
Classifications of Tequila
After the still room, a batch of tequila is transported to a location based on the final product that it’s going to be turned into. There are two main tequila classifications:
100% Agave is tequila that’s produced only from Weber blue agave and without any additives. Most of the tequila sold on the market today falls under this classification. The label will also include the words “100% Agave” on the bottle.
The other classification is simply Tequila. With this kind of tequila, the Weber blue agave juice is mixed with other enhancements and sugars before the fermentation process. However, at least 51 percent of the sugars have to come from the Weber blue agave plant.
These tequilas can have a variety of additives in them and might even be given a golden hue color. This can help to create a “gold” type of tequila.
The regulations that are enforced by the Tequila Regulatory Council are fairly complex and detailed. That’s because having that tight control over these products will ensure that the tequila that comes out of Mexico will meet certain standards.
These regulations also protect the industry as a whole and are partly responsible for all of the delicious and beloved tequilas that we have today.
Types of Tequila
There are all different kinds of tequila out there. Let’s look at some of the most popular ones that you’re likely to come across.
First, there is Blanco, White, or Silver Tequila. Blanco tequila is a clear drink that can either be mixed or 100% agave. These tequilas are aged for no more than two months in stainless steel tanks, if they’re aged at all.
Golden or Joven Tequila are tequilas that are unaged. They’re usually mixed tequilas and have been flavored or colored with oak extract, glycerin, caramel, syrup, or other additives.
Reposado Tequilas are aged in wood barrels for at least sixty days. They’re usually aged between three and nine months. In fact, reposado means rested.
Añejo Tequila is known as “old” tequila. This kind of tequila is aged for no less than one year in order to produce a robust and dark spirit. Some of the best añejo tequilas are aged between two and three years in their barrels.
Extra Añejo Tequila spends at least four years in barrels. These ones are fairly expensive and rare, for obvious reasons.
100% agave tequila is usually going to have a sharper taste and will include the bold flavors of the agave. Añejo and reposado tequila, on the other hand, will be subtler, smoother, and less complex.
Just like with other spirits that are aged in barrels, the harshness of the alcohol will mellow as it takes on the flavors of the casks.
Difference Between Mezcal and Tequila
While both beverages can get the job done, it’s important to point out that tequila and mezcal are not the same thing. In fact, they’re two completely different liquors.
As we already noted, tequila must be made only from the blue agave in five Mexican states. Mezcal, on the other hand, can be made from any kind of agave and in eight Mexican states. Most of the Mezcal produced today comes from the Oaxaca region.
The Importance of Knowing How Is Tequila Made
Hopefully, after reading the above article, you feel that you now have an answer to the question, “how is tequila made?”
The agave plant has been of great value and significance to the people of Mexico for hundreds if not thousands of years. And the next time you sip on a margarita or shoot back a tequila shot, you’ll hopefully be able to do so with a new appreciation and understanding of what this drink actually consists of and all of the work that went into making it.
By now, you’re probably even starting to get a little thirsty. Why not treat yourself to some high-quality Blanco and Añejo Cristalino Tequila?
Whether you’re throwing a party or just want to try some for yourself, we’ve got you covered. So contact us today and see what we can do for you!