Tequila, the unique spirit from Mexico, has gotten somewhat of a bad rap in the past few years. It is surrounded by a stigma that it's a spirit that goes hand-in-hand with bad decisions, body shots and turbo-charged margaritas - fueled in part by real experiences, sure, but that's not all there is to tequila.
Even if you imbibed a little too much tequila in binge-drinking sessions in college, now is a perfect time to give it another (slightly more responsible) try. Tequila is a much more interesting spirit than you may have assumed from your tequila-shotting early years and is more versatile than you may have initially thought; proving to be a tasty addition to a whole raft of cocktails.
To help you better explore the Mexican spirit, we have collated everything you need to know about it in one handy place. Here's everything you ever wanted to know about tequila but were too afraid to ask.
What Is Tequila?
Tequila is a spirit distilled from the juice of blue agave plants grown in five specific regions in Mexico: in the highland Jalisco state and in limited areas in four states around the city of Tequila. There are three main types: blanco (white), reposado (rested) and añejo (aged).
“There is a lot of variety, since each region’s agave has different characteristics and each producer uses a different blend of ages and sources of tequila, " says Zoe Hayes, bartender at Spoke & Steele in Indianapolis, Indiana.
"Generally, though, blanco is the lightest and brightest, with a clean, crisp sweetness and stronger agave character; reposado is darker and more flavorful and añejo is the darkest, most robust and most complex, often with earthy vanilla, oak and whisky tasting notes from the aging process.”
How Tequila Is Made
Tequila is made of mature blue weber agave (also called Pina) which takes 8-12 years to become mature. “Once they reach that point, they are then harvested by a jimador, who cuts all the sharp outer leaves off and creates large piles of the plants,” says Andrew Larson, bartender at The Nolen in San Diego, California.
It’s then time to roast or steam the plants in order to turn the starches and complex proteins into fermentable sugars. “The plants are milled with a large stone to remove the pulp from the sweet juice, called mosto,” he explains.
Next the mosto is placed into a fermentation tank and yeast is added. “During this stage, the yeast starts to eat the sugar and what you are left with is called a low wine, which is then placed in a still and heated up, where it turns into a vapor," Larson says. "It is then rapidly cooled and turned back into a liquid, which is the end result.”
The Different Varieties of Tequila
Technically, there are only two varieties of tequila: 100 percent agave and mixtos. As with bourbon, mixtos can contain no less than 51 percent agave, and the rest is made up of various sugars.
The different varieties you know and love are actually based on the aging process. The five bottled categories are Blanco (un-aged or slightly aged, white tequila), Oro (un-aged tequila that is flavored with other adjuncts or mixed with aged tequila), Reposado (aged at least two months, but not more than a year), Añejo (aged at least a year, but no more than three) and Extra Añejo (aged at least three years).
Is There Really a Worm in the Tequila?
We're not sure where this legend began. It’s likely that American tourists south of the border confused Oaxacan mescals with tequila, as some mescals from that region actually do contain a worm in the bottom of the bottle.
Worms in tequila actually aren’t historically accurate and are just added for tourists as a novelty. Technically, it’s not legal to add anything to tequilas, and high-end tequila makers have been trying to steer consumers away from this gimmick for years.
Will Drinking Tequila Make You Crazy?
Tequila itself doesn't make anyone crazy or ill. "A lot of people refuse to try tequila cocktails, citing a bad experience with tequila in college, but those episodes were probably due more to tequila’s inherent drinkability, which can lead to over-consumption," Hays says, "and the fact that some brands are cut with other spirits or additives and just aren’t good quality.”
Too much poor-quality alcohol will make anyone sick. “It is not hallucinogenic and is totally unrelated to mescaline,” he adds.
Regulations for Making Tequila
Tequila production is heavily regulated by the Mexican government, which has standardized production and aging techniques across the industry.
“The cores of blue agave plants are harvested by hand and slow-baked, then juiced into large vats to ferment for several days,” says Hayes.
The fermented juice is then distilled two to three times, at which point it is blanco tequila; the blanco may be aged in charred white oak barrels for up to two months to produce reposado tequila or for more than a year for añejo tequila.
Should You Be Worried About Imitators?
“I recommend only drinking tequila that is marked 100 percent Agave and Hecho in Mexico, to start with,” says Yeager. Tequilas made from families who have generations of history are preferred to the new commercial brands that buy their tequila and bottle it under a third-party brand name.
“There is plenty of information online which you can find with a simple search," Yeager explains. "One of the best sites is tequila.net.” Most importantly, ask a bartender or bar owner who exhibits a well-curated selection of tequilas for their suggestions and recommendations.
The History of Tequila
Tequila was likely first distilled in the 1500s during Spanish rule of the New World.
“While local natives consumed a fermented agave beverage for many years prior, it is thought to have first been transformed into a distilled spirit when the Spanish ran out of their stores of brandy, and turned to local raw materials,” says April Wachtel, bartender and founder of batched cocktails service at Swig + Swallow.
How Long Has Tequila Been Made?
The story of tequila's beginnings is full of folklore. “You can find beautifully written stories of the Goddess Mayahuel and the fabled 400 Rabbits,” says Jimmy Yeager, proprietor of Jimmy’s and Jimmy’s Bodega in Aspen, Colorado. “However, the verified history of tequila starts with Pulque.”
Pulque is the naturally fermented beverage drawn from the Giant Agave. “Whereas there is evidence of distillation in Mexico prior to the Spanish arrival in the late 16th century, it was the introduction of the Moors Alembic pot stills by the Spanish where there is documentation of the first agave-based spirits.”
Originally Tequila was relegated to a very small geographical area within the state of Jalisco and has subsequently expanded to include the states of Tamaulipas, Nayarit, Guanajuato and Michoacán.
Why Tequila Is a Great Spirit for Summer Vibes
One hundred percent agave tequila is very smooth and ranges in strength from 80 to around 110 proof, but is usually around 80 or 90 proof.
“The aging process also leads to wide variety of flavor, which makes it very versatile,” says Hayes. “As such, it lends itself well both to refreshing all-day session cocktails and to boozy sippers, like old-fashioneds.”
Tequila is without a doubt one of the true spirits of summer - or to remind you of summer, as the weather cools. “Flavors can range from salty and vegetal to zesty to floral to rich and honeyed, but there is always a bright, refreshing element, regardless of the mixers it's paired with,” says Wachtel.
How Versatile Is Tequila?
Tequila is extraordinarily versatile and just about any known cocktail can be converted into a tequila drink.
“Fresh citrus fruits such as lime and grapefruit are common ingredients found in the very popular Margarita and Paloma drinks, which you will find on almost any Mexican restaurant's menu as well just about any well-crafted cocktail menu,” says Yeager.
“Tequila cocktails made with fresh strawberry, watermelon and other summer fruits also find their way into summer drink menus," he adds.
Popular Tequila Cocktails
Margaritas – blended, classic or on the rocks – are still probably the number one choice. “Palomas – a grapefruit, lime and tequila cocktail sometimes topped with grapefruit soda – are another wonderful, refreshing option, and are actually more popular south of the border,” says Hayes.
Oaxaca Old Fashioneds, which blend tequila with a little mezcal, agave syrup, Angostura bitters and orange peel for a lighter take on a classic whisky old fashioned, are starting to show up more often on menus and are a great boozy option that you don't need to reserve for the summer months.
Why There's More to Tequila Than Shots and Margaritas
While most people only think of tequila in Margaritas, it is actually a super versatile spirit.
“Great tequilas, especially Reposado or Anejo are excellent in stirred classic cocktails that we typically associate with whiskies,” says Wachtel.
“If you love Manhattans or Old Fashioneds for example, but are looking for a way to lighten things up for the summer, try substituting a high quality 100 percent Agave tequila, like Tres Agaves Anejo or Reposado for the whiskey," he advises.
In case you missed it, check out our comprehensive guide to gin.