Get to Know Tequila, Mexico's Famous and Famously Misunderstood Spirit

Jacob Dean - The Takeout
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September 26, 2020


Wall of different tequila bottles at Mister Tequila tasting gallery near Puerto Vallarta, Jalisco, Mexico. Photo: Holger Leue/Corbis (Getty Images)

Welcome to Gateways To Drinkery, where The Takeout offers an entry-level course on our favorite libations, and some suggestions on where to start drinking them.

The lowdown: Ah, tequila. Few distilled spirits have the kind of mystique, or marketing, of Mexico’s most famous alcoholic export. For many people (and particularly former college students) tequila is the stuff of legend, an elixir seemingly designed for hard partying nights and the kind of hangovers that lead people to say that they’ve sworn off the juice entirely. But, for those who have set aside binge drinking (or, far more wisely, never picked up the habit to begin with), tequila is a remarkably nuanced spirit worthy of both slow sipping and incorporating into cocktails.

While Mexico is home to over two hundred types of agave plant, by law tequila can only be made from a single variety, the blue (azul) Agave Tequilana Weber, which you’ll see referred to as the Blue Weber Agave, Blue Agave, Agave Azul, or some other similar combination of those words. If you see advertising proudly proclaiming that a company’s tequila is exclusively made from Blue Weber agave, just know that there literally isn’t any other legal option.

Agave, which is known in the indigenous Central Mexican language of Nahuatl as metl and in Spanish as maguey, can become tequila through a few different processes. The most traditional method is to harvest the agave once it’s matured (which generally takes around 5-10 years) and then trim off the sharp outer leaves to reveal the large heart (or “piña”), which is then quartered and steamed in brick ovens for 24-48 hours. Once the piña is cooked it is then cooled, shredded, and pressed to extract its juices, and those juices (referred to as mosto or tepache) are fermented with yeast in copper pots. When the fermentation is completed the mosto is distilled twice to create the blanco variety (also sometimes called plata, or silver, tequila) and barrel aged to create reposado (which is aged for at least 60 days and up to one year), añejo (which is aged for at least 12 months), and extra añejo (which is aged for at least 3 years).

Advances in technology have changed how tequila is made, though. Instead of traditional ovens many distilleries now use an autoclave, a sort of enormous pressure cooker that dramatically reduces the amount of time necessary to cook the piñas. The cooked, shredded piñas then have their liquid extracted using a series of conveyor belts and presses called a roller mill. More recently, the largest distilleries have begun using a conveyor belt device called a diffuser, which, according to The Tequila Dictionary, doesn’t even require the agave to be cooked; instead it sprays the raw chopped agave with a solution that dissolves tough fibers and breaks them down into fermentable sugars.

According to spirits expert Eric Zandona, The Tequila Dictionary’s author, the use of diffusers is considered a bit of a dirty secret. While they’re much more efficient at extracting the fermentable sugars from agave (which makes it faster, cheaper, and easier to make tequila), they’re also believed to change the taste profile in undesirable ways, and to produce a less complex final product. “There’s no labeling requirement for any of this,” Zandona says. “Other than people taking tours and taking pictures of [the diffusers], or brands openly admitting they’re using them, there’s no way of identifying when a brand is using them.” If you’re curious to see what one looks like, the distillery Casa Sauza has pictures and descriptions on its website.

The taste: Tequila, in its most simple incarnation, is a clear, aromatic distilled spirit with a semi-sweet flavor that can be earthy and spicy, and tastes decidedly of agave. There are many factors that influence the taste of tequila, including the age at which the agave is harvested, how it’s cooked, whether additional sugars have been added, what kind of yeast is used, how it’s distilled, how much water is used to bring the spirit down to bottling proof, and so on.

While some blanco tequilas are rested before they’re sold, only reposado, añejo, and extra añejo tequilas are barrel aged, granting them flavors of oak, warm spices, and vanilla. For those tequilas both the type of barrel (which is typically ex-bourbon) and the length of time it spends aging in the barrel will strongly influence its flavor.

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