Tequila has grown tremendously in popularity over the past few decades, becoming one of Mexico’s most iconic exports. However, for many consumers the specifics of tequila production remains something of a mystery. While we’ve all likely enjoyed sipping tequila on nights out with friends, not everyone realizes that tequila is more than just the blue agave plant it’s made from – the production process involves centuries-old techniques that yield complex flavors from the earth. In this post, I’ll take you through a comprehensive look at what is tequila made from – from the agave varietals used and harvesting methods, to distillation and aging processes.
What Is Tequila?
Tequila is an iconic spirit that originated in the region around the city of Tequila in the state of Jalisco, Mexico. It is produced by distilling the fermented juice of the blue agave plant, also known simply as agave. Tequila has attained global popularity and status as Mexico’s signature spirit drink.
There are two main categories of tequila:
- 100% Blue Agave tequilas, which are made purely from the blue agave plant.
- Mixtos, which contain a minimum of 51% blue agave sugar with the remainder typically coming from cane sugar.
The History Of Tequila
In the 16th century, Spanish conquistadors brought distillation techniques to Mexico and started experimenting with local agave plants. This led to the creation of a strong alcoholic drink known as mezcal wine, which was later evolved into what we now know as tequila. It wasn’t until the early 20th century that tequila became popular in the United States, and it wasn’t until 1974 that tequila was declared Mexico’s official national drink.
What Is Tequila Made From?
Want to know what is tequila made from? It’s a kick-ass drink made from the blue agave plant. This Mexican delight packs a punch, ranging from 40% to 60% alcohol content. It all starts with the piña, the heart of the agave plant. The piña gets roasted, shredded, and turned into pulp. Then, the pulp gets mixed with water and yeast and left to ferment for a couple of weeks. After that, it’s distilled two or three times to create the ultimate tequila experience.
The Heart of Tequila: The Agave Plant
The key ingredient that sets tequila apart is the blue agave (Agave tequilana), a large, spiky-leaved plant native to the highlands of Jalisco. Blue agave thrives in Mexico’s central highlands at altitudes of at least 1,500 meters where the climate is semi-arid with rocky, clay soils. To produce tequila, the piña or heart of the blue agave plant is harvested when the plant is 6-8 years old. Jims or skilled agave harvesters use a coa (a round blade tool) to remove the spiky leaves and extract the piña weighing anywhere from 20 to 150 kg. The blue agave holds special significance in Mexican history and culture, even being dubbed the “Mexican diamond” for its vital role. Images of agave plants appear on ancient artifacts of indigenous peoples like the Aztecs.
From Agave to Spirit: The Craft of Tequila
Making tequila from agave plants involves several meticulous steps to transform the piñas into alcohol:
- Cooking: The piñas are steam-cooked in traditional masonry ovens or modern steel autoclaves to convert their starch into fermentable sugars.
- Fermenting: The cooked agave is shredded and mixed with water and yeast in large tanks to trigger alcoholic fermentation where sugars convert to alcohol.
- Distilling: The fermented agave juice is distilled either once or twice in copper pot stills. Many premium 100% agave tequilas are double distilled for increased complexity and purity.
|Higher alcohol content, bold flavors
|Smoother, more refined qualities
Unveiling the Flavor: Exploring Tequila Varieties
Tequila comes in distinct varieties depending on aging and production methods:
- Not aged, bottled immediately after distillation
- Clear, transparent color
- Exhibits fresh, bold, and grassy agave flavors
- Widely used in cocktails like margaritas
- Aged 2-12 months in oak barrels
- Golden hue from barrel contact
- Smoother and mellower with notes of vanilla and caramel
- Aged 1-3 years in small oak barrels
- Rich amber color and full body
- Complex flavors like spice, chocolate, and dried fruit
- Aged over 3 years in oak barrels
- Deepest mahogany color
- Luxurious and sippable with intense concentration of flavors
The aging process imparts complexity while smoothing out the inherent spiciness of agave, so reposado and añejo tequilas pair well with food. Blanco works best in tangy cocktails.
Beyond the Margarita: A Taste of Tequila Culture
While the margarita cocktail helped introduce tequila to the world, other popular tequila libations include:
- Paloma – Tequila with grapefruit soda and lime
- Tequila Sunrise – Tequila, orange juice, grenadine syrup
In Mexico, tequila carries cultural significance and pride as the country’s historic drink. It is often ritualistically sipped neat with sangrita as a chaser. Globally, tequila sales and appreciation continue to grow as people discover its authentic roots and diverse flavors. Many new brands also aim to support more sustainable agave and tequila production.
Conclusion: What is Tequila Made From
Tequila has come a long way from its birthplace in Jalisco to earn recognition as a complex spirit rich in tradition. Made exclusively from the blue agave, tequila offers a wide spectrum of aromas, flavors, and textures depending on aging. Beyond margaritas, tequila deserves to be savored responsibly and spread the vibrant spirit of Mexico worldwide. This quick yet comprehensive guide aimed to capture tequila’s essence from agave fields to cocktail bars – ¡Salud.
Callie Stevenson is an inspiring chef and restaurant owner on a mission to create delicious cuisine that delights her customers with every bite. With a passion for crafting unique flavor combinations, Callie is wildly inventive when it comes to designing menus that balance classic favorites with creative new dishes. Her expansive knowledge of cooking techniques and ingredients gives her the ability to put together unforgettable plates full of tantalizing textures. In addition to creating memorable meals, Callie also takes great pride in offering excellent hospitality at her establishment. From the welcoming atmosphere to the attentive service, Eugene’s Diner stands out as an inviting destination for foodies and families alike.