A Beginner's Guide to Tequila

A shot of basic information on the popular Mexican spirit, plus recipes

Tequila can be traced back to almost AD 1000 and the Aztecs, when it was a milky drink known as pulque. Since the 17th century and now by Mexican law, all tequila must come from a certain area in Mexico known as Tequila, within the state of Jalisco. In this dry, volcanic soil of the Sierra Madre foothills, you can find the home of Tequila's largest producers.


How it's Made

Tequila is produced from the heart of one species of agave plant, the agave tequilana weber, more commonly known as blue agave. The heart is called the piña, and it usually weighs between 80 and 150 pounds. To make the spirit, the piña is steamed and shredded until the augamiel (juice) runs off. This juice is then mixed with cane sugar and yeast and fermented for two to three days. The fermented juice is double-distilled in traditional copper pot stills, reaching 90-proof or higher. In order for the spirit to officially be considered tequila it must contain a minimum of 51-percent distillate from the blue agave plant.


Types of Tequila

Tequila Blanco (white, silver, platinum tequila): This tequila comes fresh from the sill and may be brought to commercial proof (salable proof or for sale commercially) with the addition of demineralized water.

Tequila Reposado ("reposed" or "rested" tequila): This tequila is aged for two months to a year in oak tanks or barrels. Flavorings and coloring agents may be agents may be added, as well as demineralized water, to bring the tequila to commercial proof.

Añejo (aged tequila): This tequila is aged for at least one year in government-sealed oak barrels. Flavorings and coloring agent may be added, as well as demineralized water, to bring the tequila to commercial proof. When tequilas of different ages are blended, the youngest age is designated.

Several tequila brands now offer flavored tequilas and whether this trend catches on remains to be seen. Lemon, orange, and other citrus flavors are common, but you can also find such diverse flavors as chili pepper and chocolate if you're feeling adventurous.


Reading a Tequila Label

On March 31, 1978, the Mexican government established NORMA (Norma Oficial Mexciana de Calidad) to set standards of quality for tequila production. On every bottle, the letters NOM must appear, followed by four numbers designating the distillery where the tequila was produced. Besides the brand name and NOM, the label must state the category of tequila, the proof, as when the tequila was made with 100-percent agave.


Popular Brands

901 Tequila: Justin Timberlake's line of ultra-premium tequila. Made from 100-percent blue weber agave and triple distilled.

1800 Tequila: 100-percent agave, double distilled, and aged in French and American oak for six months.

Cabo Wabo: Sammy Hagar's tequila, introduced in the United States around 1996... without Van Halen.

Corralejo: 225 years of tradition, with the smooth finish of double-distilled, handcrafted premium tequila.

Corzo Tequila: Available in Silver, Reposado, and Añejo, it uses more than twice the agave of other super-premium tequilas.

Don Julio: This 100-percent blue agave tequila is available in Blanco, Reposado, Añejo, 1942, and Real.

Herradura: The name is Spanish for "horseshoe," it's available in Silver, Reposado Gold, and Añejo.

Jose Cuervo: The world's oldest and largest tequila maker, and the oldest spirit company in North America.

Partida: An authentic estate-grown tequila, available in Blanco, Reposado, and Añejo.

Patrón: Available in Silver, Reposado, Añejo, Burdeos, and Grand Platinum versions, all containing 100-percent blue agave. 

Sauza: The first tequila exported to the United States. It's available in these versions: Blanco, Gold, Hacienda, Conmemorativo, Hornitos, and Tres Generaciones.