Tequila 101 – Everything You Need to Know

There’s a song that goes, “Tequila, it makes me happy!” But opinions are polarized into loving or hating this spirit from south of the border. Those that hate it usually attribute it to spending their younger years shooting the cheapest of the cheap versions of the stuff. Others have emerged from this phase and have learned to appreciate tequila for the quality spirit it can be. While many stories have originated from nights involving tequila, the liquor itself has its own, very interesting story.

What is Tequila?

Tequila is a distilled spirit that originates in Mexico and is made mainly from the blue agave plant Agave tequilana, alsocalled “Weber Azul”. These succulent plants are grown for up to 14 years before their swords (spiky leaves) are cut off and the “heart” of the plant, called a “piña”, is cooked in a pressure oven. The juices are then pressed out and fermented, before being diluted and bottled or, aged, diluted, and bottled.

History

The conquistadors arrived in Mexico in the 16th century and brought the knowledge of distilling with them. Before their arrival the indigenous people were already producing a fermented agave beverage called pulque. Once the conquistadors ran out of their supply of brandy, they began distilling agave -not pulque- resulting in the first rudimentary tequila. This was first done in the area that is now the state of Jalisco, the hometown of Tequila. It was in Jalisco that tequila was first mass produced some 80 years after it was first produced at all, and it was quickly taxed by the Spanish crown.

The main proponent behind the growth of tequila was Don Cenobio Sauza, founder of the Sauza Tequila distillery in 1873. He is known as the “father of tequila” for his efforts in popularizing the spirit and being the first to export it to the United States, by walking it over the border. He was the top tequila producer for his entire life, buying and selling distilleries and farmland so he could always be the main producer of the spirit. He is also the person credited with determining that blue agave was the best agave plant to use when producing tequila, a sentiment shared by many in the industry.

Laws Surrounding Tequila

There are many finicky laws regarding the production, distribution, and bottling of tequila. However, these don’t concern connoisseurs of the fine spirit like us, only those that work in the tequila business. The ones we are interested in are listed below:

  • Tequila must consist of a minimum of 51% blue agave sugars before fermentation and from here there are two categories:
    • Mixto Tequila: In these tequilas the other 49% of sugars cannot come from other agave plants and must come from mellowing agents.
    • 100% Agave Tequila: Must contain at least 51% blue agave and all other sugars must come from agave plants grown in the territory specified on the label.
  • All tequila must fall between 35% – 55% ABV once bottled.
  • To be legally called tequila the agave must be grown and produced in the Mexican state of Jalisco, or in select municipalities in the following four Mexican states: Nayarit, Michoacán, Guanajuato, Tamaulipas.

Naming and Aging Requirements

Tequila has a specific naming regime that must be followed by those producing tequila. Any blends of different ages of tequila must take the name relating to the spirit with the lowest age in the blend. They don’t have to and very rarely will state “blend” on the bottle.

  • Blanco or Plata Tequila: Aged, or rested, for a maximum of two months, in either barrels or stainless steel containers. In English this is translated as Silver Tequila.
  • Joven or Oro Tequila: A blanco or plata tequila product enhanced by one or more mellowing agents from the following list: caramel coloring, natural oak or Encino oak extract, glycerin, or sugar-based syrup. In English this is translated as Gold Tequila.
  • Reposado Tequila: Must be aged for a minimum of 2 months and no more than 12 months in oak or Encino oak containers. In English this is translated as Aged Tequila.
  • Añejo Tequila: Must be aged for a minimum of 12 months in containers no larger than 600 liters made of oak or Encino oak. In English this is translated as Extra Aged Tequila.
  • Extra Añejo Tequila: Must be aged a minimum of three years in containers no larger than 600 liters made of oak or Encino oak. In English this is translated as Ultra Aged Tequila.

Tequila Cocktails

Now the fun part! I discussed the margarita [LINK] in depth in a previous article, so for this reason the iconic tequila cocktail does not appear in the list below. These cocktails are each excellent in their own right!

Paloma

  • 2oz Tequila
  • 6oz Grapefruit soda (Grapefruit juice and soda water, can substitute. Sugar is an optional addition)
  • Glass: Highball
  • Garnish: Lime wedge
  • Method: Build Note: An optional salt rim can be added to the glass

Tequila Honey Bee

  • 2oz Reposado tequila
  • 0.5oz Mezcal (glass wash)
  • 1oz Honey syrup
  • 0.75oz Lemon juice
  • 2 Dashes Angostura bitters
  • Glass: Collins
  • Garnish: Lemon peel
  • Method: Wash glass with mezcal. Shake tequila, honey syrup and lemon juice until chilled. Strain over ice and add bitters.

Tequila Sunrise

  • 1.5oz Tequila
  • 3oz Orange juice
  • 2 Bar spoon grenadine
  • Glass: Collins
  • Garnish: Orange wedge
  • Method: Pour tequila and orange juice in a glass over ice. Pour grenadine over bar spoon directing it down the side of the glass.

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Benjamin Michael Beddow

Benjamin Michael Beddow

Food and Beverage Professional

As a food and beverage professional for over ten years, Ben has spent most of his time behind the bar, giving him a broad and in-depth knowledge of all things drinkable and drink related. Now, as a traveling freelance writer exploring the gastronomy, drinks, and food service industry of the world, Ben has taken his knowledge and experiences to the world wide web to share with others. The love for the trade never dies and Ben can still be found running around restaurants and slinging drinks in ski resorts in the USA during the winter season.

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