Tequila 101

by Michael Alderete on 11/25/2003

About a year ago, I was sitting in a bar waiting for a friend to arrive, eavesdropping on the conversation at a nearby table. Mostly I listened to one fellow trying to impress his table companions by making a sophisticated tequila order. He was having more than a little trouble, because he couldn’t remember the brand of any quality tequila except Patrón. The waiter was trying to help, but he was using tequila terms correctly, and the customer just had no clue. I thought about stepping in, flashing my Ph.D. card, and trying to help, but decided the guy was beyond saving. He eventually managed to order “Patron Gold” (there is no such thing; presumably the waiter brought him Patrón Reposado or Añejo), and as the server walked away, he said to his companions “that guy doesn’t know shit about tequila.”

Sadly, his level of knowledge is pretty common, even in states like California where a lot of tequila is imported and consumed. It’s not hard to learn enough to always get a quality drink, but it requires a bit more effort to impress your companions, or the waitstaff.

Before posting more about our trip to the tequila region of Mexico, I thought I would describe a few of the basics of tequila. This is by no means an exhaustive list of what you might want to know about tequila; if you want to learn more, you need to start visiting Tommy’s Mexican Restaurant on a regular basis. Sit in the bar, and talk with Julio Bermejo, one of the world’s “tequila ambassadors.” But this will get you started.

First of all, tequila is a denomination of origin spirit, one of two in North America (the other is mescal). This means that to be legally labeled as tequila, the spirit must be produced in a particular geographic region, primarily the state of Jalisco in Mexico, but also including a few smaller areas nearby. Other denomination of origin spirits you might be familiar with are Scotch (the denomination of origin version of whiskey) and Cognac (known as brandy if not made in the right part of France).

Agave plantTequila is made from a particular plant, agave tequilana weber, blue variety. While many people mistakenly think the agave is a form of cactus, it’s actually closely related to the lily. It looks something like a large aloe vera plant.

Quality tequila is made from 100% agave, and will say so on the label (it’s a mark of pride and quality), but the law allows products labeled tequila to be made from as little as 51% agave, with the rest coming from unspecified sugars (usually sugar cane).

Tequila production, like other well-known denomination of origin spirits, is heavily regulated, with government oversight to ensure adherence to the rules. This is A Good Thing. A few years ago there was a severe agave shortage, and many less reputable distilleries were not using 100% agave to make their tequila. The CRT inspectors, who make daily visits to the distillerias, actually measure the volume of agave delivered to the plant, and when production significantly exceeds the expected amount for that volume they know something’s fishy.

The process of making tequila goes something like this:

  1. Harvest agaveHarvest agave plants. Quality producers harvest individual plants at the height of their maturity, i.e., when they are 8-10 years old. Harvesting kills the plant. (Tequila is the only spirit where the raw materials do not renew easily and grow every year, year after year.)
  2. Cook in autoclaveCook the agave. Almost all of the highest quality tequila is cooked in traditional stone ovens called hornos; the more commerically-oriented technique is to use a giant steam pressure cooker called an autoclave. The cooking process converts the agave starches to sugars. This can be done in as little as 12 hours in autoclaves, but generally is a 36 hour or longer process in a traditional hornos.
  3. Extract juicesExtract the agave juice, called aguamiel. The traditional approach uses a giant stone milling wheel; it’s roughly 30% less efficient than more modern techniques that use motors, gears, steel rollers, etc. Quality tequila can be made using either technique, but the difference is a lot like “first press” olive oil or “first crush” wine. All other things being equal, the higher quality result will be achieved by being a little more gentle, and accepting some loss in efficiency.
  4. Ferment the sugars. Yeast is added to large vats or tanks of extracted agave juice, and it ferments, converting the sugars to alcohol. Eventually the increasing alcohol level kills the yeast, and fermentation ends. Fermentation produces an alcohol level of 5-7%, about the same as beer.
  5. DistillationDistillation. In the traditional batch-oriented process, pot stills are used to purify and raise the alcohol level of the product. The fermented juice is distilled once to become ordinario, which is around 20% alcohol (40 proof), and tastes pretty foul raw. It’s distilled a second time to become tequila, at 45% alcohol (90 proof) or greater. High-volume production is done with something called a column still, which isn’t a proper still at all. Tequila produced with a column still is always inferior to product coming from traditional stills; no quality tequila is made with column stills. Note that what comes out of the still is higher in alcohol content than what you’ll find in the bottle. Most products are dilluted with water to adjust the alcohol percentage as necessary, down to 40% (80 proof).
  6. Aging (optional). Some tequilas are aged in oak tanks or barrels, to add color and complexity to the flavor of the spirit. More on aging further down.

The next thing to know is that there are four major categories of tequila, which generally correspond to increasing levels of quality:

  • Joven abogado, which means “young and adulterated”. This is never good tequila. It’s not 100% agave (the “abogado” part), and it’s not aged (“joven”). This is stuff like Cuervo Gold/Especial/1800. This kind of tequila is often called mixto, meaning it’s a mixture of agave and other sugars (mixto says nothing about the aging, however). Just Say No.
  • Blanco, or unaged tequila. Blanco means white, and a true blanco is crystal clear, with no color at all. It is tequila straight out of the still (cut with water if necessary to bring the alcohol down to 80 proof). Many tequila connoisseurs drink only blanco tequilas, because they are closest to the “pure” flavors of the agave plant. A very few blancos, mostly Herradura Silver, actually see a little time in oak. This gives them a bit of color, adds some flavor and complexity, and can cut the harshness that is common with blancos. Blancos are sometimes called plata as well.
  • Large aging vatReposado, or “rested” tequila. Reposado tequilas have been aged in oak containers for a minimum of 60 days, up to nearly a year. There is no limit on the size of the oak container, and for some volume products like Sauza Hornitos, they are aged in giant oak vats. Better tequila is aged in smaller 55 gallon barrels, the same size used for aging wine, and for longer than the minimum, usually 6-9 months. The oak can be new, or more commonly, used bourbon barrels from the US or Canada. Aging mellows the tequila a bit, and adds color and complexity.
  • Añejo or aged tequila. Añejo tequilas must be aged for a minimum of 12 months (but 18 months or more for the better quality tequilas), and the oak containers may not be too giagantic (not over 600 gallons, but again, 55 gallon barrels are best). The extra time and contact with wood imparts a stronger oak flaver to the tequila, deepens its color, and smooths it out considerably. Añejo tequilas are almost always the most expensive, but this is a factor of the time and storage space it takes to make añejo as much as it is a factor of quality. Still, all of the super-premium tequilas, like Cuervo’s Reserva de Familia, Herradura’s Seleccion Suprema, or San Matias’ Rey Sol, are añejos. (I am extremely partial to Rey Sol in particular.) Even these products are aged only to 5-6 years (compared to many times longer for some other spirits).

The most important thing about this list is that, while these categories generally correlate with increasing quality as you move down the list, it’s not guaranteed. You must still look for the “100% Agave” on the label, even on añejo tequilas!

Another important thing about this list is that you don’t see any of the marketing terms that people confuse with descriptive terms. I.e., you don’t see “gold”, “silver”, or (these days) “platinum”. Those are marketing terms; they mean nothing about the quality of the tequila, and tell you only what the manufacturer wants you to think about their product. Non-100% agave tequilas can contain other sugars, so often caramel coloring is added to make the product look like it was aged for longer than it was; this is where the “Gold” almost always comes from.

I’ll stop here, and save some more information, recommendations, and margarita tips for another post. And then, maybe, I’ll write more about our trip to Mexico, and the psychopath tequila fiends we went with.

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