Words by: Simon Difford
Named after the town of the same name about forty miles west of Guadalajara in the Mexican state of Jalisco, Tequila is a distilled spirit made from the cooked and fermented juice of the agave (pronounced ‘Uh-Gah-Vee’), a spiky Mexican plant which resembles a cactus.
How is tequila made and what from?
Tequila origins & history
Tequila classifications, categories & classes
Where does tequila come from?
Tequila's appellation & regulatory bodies
Tequila - Traditional serves
1. Tequila can only be produced in five Mexican states: Jalisco (the main production area), Nayarit, Michoacán, Guanajuato and Tamaulipas.
2. A jimador is a skilled trained harvester of the ripe agave plants. They use savagely sharp 'coas' for rapidly stripping the leaves (pencas) to expose the centre of the plant, the piña. It's impossibly exhausting work, made to look effortless in what is usually sweltering heat.
3. The spirit was there before Tequila Town. Sort of. In total, there are around 20 distilleries in Tequila, so it's often asked which came first: the town or the spirit? In a roundabout way, it was the spirit, although nameless at that point, that existed first. The small town of Tequila was settled in the 1530s and, as production of the still unnamed spirit started to centre around the valley, it eventually picked up the name of the town.
4. The valley of Tequila is UNESCO heritage listed.
5. Mexicans enjoy fermented agave before it's been distilled into tequila - known as pulque. Consumed in traditional pulquerias, the locals enjoy this beverage in a range of flavours including pineapple, lime, vanilla and guava. It's fleshy, rather milky and slightly fizzy, and something of an acquired taste. But some seem to enjoy its vinegar-esque flavour.
6. Just like in Scotland, Mexico has its highlands and lowlands. But Mexico's lowlands are already high, at 1,200 to 1,600 metres, and the highlands are even higher, at 2,000 metres. Agave grown in Tequila Valley (lowland) is typically smaller with slightly less sugar content than that which is grown in the red soil of the highlands.
7. There are three different sets of processes used to make tequila:
- Traditional - using a masonry oven called a 'horno' to cook the piñas, then shredding with a Tahona stone wheel, fermentation in an open tank with fibres and distillation in copper pots stills.
- Modern - cooking the piñas in an autoclave (basically a huge steam pressure cooker) then shedding with a roller mill, fermentation in stainless steel vats and distillation in stainless steel stills.
- Industrial - using a diffusor to extract starch from the raw agave and distillation in a column stills.
8. To be labelled 'tequila' a bottle only needs to be 51% agave with the balance being fermented from sugar.
9. According to International Wine & Spirit Research (IWSR) there's a dramatic surge in America for premium spirits and 100% agave tequila (distilled from 100% agave) has become the fasting growing category within tequila in both the UK and the US.
10. The world's top three largest markets for tequila are Mexico, the US as a whole and California individually.
Sadly tequila suffers from many misconceptions, some of which originate from previous decades when much of the tequila exported was of dubious quality. This was compounded by its being consumed as a shot, often after licking salt from some part of your body, or preferably, someone else's. Tequila was often marketed and consumed as a party spirit so it's not surprising it was not taken very seriously or given much respect.
Thankfully things have changed and the technical quality of tequila has improved considerably since official standards were laid down and the Tequila Regulatory Council was established in 1993. Consumers increasingly appreciate quality tequila and 2008 marked something of a turning point as this was the first year when sales of '100% agave' tequila outstripped that of 'mixto' tequila (distilled from 51% agave). Suffice to say these statistics illustrate a desire by consumers to pay a premium price for better quality tequila. Tequila is now a respected spirit held in the same reverence as the likes of cognac and scotch whisky, and amongst many bartenders, more so.
A common misconception is that tequila sometimes has a worm in the bottle. This is not true. It is tequila's relation, mezcal, which sometimes comes with a worm. And in any case, this is not a worm but a moth larva. Although mezcal also comes from Mexico, it is a very different spirit, from a different region (mainly Oaxaca), made from several different species of agave by different production methods and has an entirely different flavour.
With some 150 tequila distilleries producing almost ten times as many different brands of tequila there is an incredibly diverse range of tequilas now available.
D'Antano means 'old-fashioned' or 'old style' and this fabulous tequila is still made using very traditional techniques, complete with mules still used to pull the Tahoma wheel that crushes the piñas. This Extra añejo tequila is typically blended from five barrels, each aged for around five years. Earthy, floral nose with cherry, vanilla, chocolate and butterscotch aromas.
Many credit Herradura for kick starting the ‘añejo’ category when this product was launched in 1962. This 100% agave tequila is aged 24-25 months in ex-American whiskey casks, double the mandatory one-year period set for añejo tequilas. A nose of stewed vegetables, sweet banana, oiled leather, vanilla, caramel with oaky, nutty notes, olives in brine and subtle fruit maraschino cherry.
Launched in 1989, this 100 per cent agave reposado is aged for eight months in recharged American white oak casks previously used to age bourbon whiskey. Don Julio Reposado is presented in a squat bottle sealed with a stopper made from native Mexican Chechen wood. Almondy coconut and white chocolate with subtle spice and vegetal aromas.
First released in 1996, this extra añejo was launched 10 years before the category was created and so seemingly takes pride in not actually proclaiming to be an extra añejo on the bottle. Real is blended from tequila aged between 3-5 years. Vanilla rich, stewed/dried fruit, salty nose with faint rum & raison ice-cream, fresh dill and cigar tobacco.
An unaged, 100 per cent agave tequila from the highlands of Jalisco. Blended from the output of two distilleries, one using a mule-powered tahona wheel and fermentation with fibres, the other a modern roller mill. Both distilleries use tradition brick ovens. Sweet tropical fruit candy nose with fresh dill, zesty of lemon, lime and grapefruit and faint yeasty, pastry, cement-like aromas.
100% agave Highland tequila aged 8-10 months in ex-bourbon casks which are refilled as many as 20 times. It is blended from the output of two distilleries, one using a mule-pulled tahona wheel and fermentation with fibres, the other a modern roller mill. Both distilleries use tradition brick ovens. Subtle, fruity (peach and pear) nose with pine, fresh dill and agave aromas.
A 100% agave Highland tequila blended from the output of two distilleries, one using a mule-powered tahona wheel and fermentation with fibres, the other a modern roller mill. Both distilleries use tradition brick ovens. Aged 24 months in ex-bourbon barrels which are refilled as many as 20 times. Restrained nose with good earthy vegetable notes, mashed bananas and cream, salted almonds and a hint of malt vinegar.
This 100% agave luxury añejo tequila is matured in a combination of American oak ex-bourbon barrels, French Limousin oak and Bordeaux wine casks for a minimum of 12 months. The name ‘Burdeos’ is Spanish for Bordeaux. Packaged in a hand-blown individually numbered crystal bottles. Honeyed vinous notes, old oak wardrobe, roasted agave and passion fruit.
100% agave super-premium double copper pot still tequila (first distillation with the agave fibres) aged 18-20 months in refill Bourbon casks. Made using traditional Mampostería’ masonry ovens and tahona millstone. Minty wet cement, breakfast tea, spicy bran, bay leaf and subtle overripe banana.
Launched in global travel retail in April 2013, Gran Patrón Piedra is an extra añejo tequila produced using a traditional Tahona wheel to crush the piña with the resulting juice fermented and distilled with the agave fibre. Being an extra añejo the distillate has been aged for at least 3 years. Baked apple pie, dried fruit, old wardrobe, cigar leaf, roasted agave and white pepper.
Released in 2014 to celebrate Don Julio's 70th anniversary, unusually this 100% agave añejo (highland grown agave from the Los Altos region of Jalisco) is crystal clear having been filtered to remove the colour that would normally be present after 18 months maturation in American white oak barrels. Wet cement, green olive, chocolaty roasted agave and white pepper with faint vanilla and pineapple.
Fortaleza Añejo is a 100% agave tequila made using traditional techniques including brick ovens, a Tahona wheel, fermentation in open air wooden tanks and double distillation copper pot stills. The tequila is aged 23 months in American oak before bottling in bottles hand-blown in Mexico. Caramel, vanilla, buttery butterscotch and roasted agave with light cinnamon and nutmeg spice, plump raisins and not quite ripe pineapple. Floral notes emerge with time.
Patrón Silver is a blend of two very differently produced triple distilled tequilas - one made using a traditional tahona and fermented with agave fibres, the other made using a modern roller shredder. The blend is packaged in hand-blown individually numbered bottles. Pine sap, wet cement, faint citrus, pineapple, lavender, white pepper and cinnamon.
Launched 1996, this blanco 100 per cent agave tequila is un-aged - merely rested for a short period in inert containers before bottling. Peppery, mineral nose with zesty lemon and pink grapefruit, subtle yeasty, pastry aromas.