Guide to Tequila

Tequila is one of the most underappreciated spirits available today and has an unfortunate reputation as being only suitable for our college partying days.

Before relegating the drink to your younger years and forgetting about it, we encourage you to rediscover your passion for this sweet, spicy, and often very complex spirit that belongs in the top shelves of many bars by reviewing our complete guide to the world of tequila.

What is Tequila?

Tequila, as distinct from Mezcal, which is also from Mexico but made from all strains of the agave plant, is a distilled spirit made from juices extracted solely from the blue agave plant.

In addition to this, tequila can only be produced in one of five Mexican states including Jalisco, Michoacán, Guanajuato, Nayarit and Tamaulipas, and it must be approved by Mexico’s Consejo Regulador del Tequila (CRT), or Tequila Regulatory Council.

Finally, it is important to note that whilst the best bottles of tequila on the market use 100% blue agave in order to distill their product, distillers are only required to source at least 51% of their sugars in this way to legally be called tequila.

Because of this, many producers produce mixtos tequila, which is made from at least 51% blue agave sugar and a blend of other sugars, dramatically affecting the taste.

Tequila Production Process

In any case, the process of creating tequila begins with the harvesting by hand of the blue agave plant. Depending upon where the plant has been grown, it will have a different effect on the taste of the tequila.

Those plants sourced from the Highland region in Jalisco, for example, are known to impart a sharper and more spicy flavour to the tequila whilst those from the Lowland region tend to produce a more herbal and citric flavour profile.

Another key factor during production is how the agave plant is cooked, with a distiller being able to choose from four different traditional and modern methods.

The two traditional methods are to either cook the agave plants in underground pits, producing quite smoky tequilas, or via “horno” or brick oven cooking, which produces similar results but is far cleaner.

In addition to these, modern techniques include cooking the plants inside of a stainless steel oven, a technique that is much more efficient but imparts less flavour, or finally, through a diffuser method, which is very quick and cheap but can result in compromising flavours entering the final product.

Once the plants have been picked, cooked, and the juices have been extracted and distilled in copper pot or column stills, the resulting spirit can be bottled straight away or aged in oak barrels for anywhere up to three years or beyond, creating very different styles of tequila.

For additional information on the production processes employed in the creation of tequila, read this article.

How to Classify Tequila

Similar to Cognac, tequila is categorised off of how long it has been aged for, with this affecting all facets of the spirit, including name, colour, taste, and smell.

The different classifications attached to tequila products are named below, with their characteristics explained although further explanation can be found here.

Depending upon how you prefer your tequila, sweet, citric, and full of peppery spice or mellowed sweetness and spice with further notes of oak and vanilla, this will change which type works for you.

Generally speaking, blanco tequilas are best used in classic cocktails, such as the Margarita, due to the strong citric and peppery taste present in unaged tequila, whilst aged tequilas are generally better drank neat or in a shot, with the rim of the glass crusted in salt and the shot followed by the person sucking on a lime wedge.

Flavours of Tequila

Tequila Flavour Wheel

As explored here, tequila can have varying types and degrees of flavour, ranging from sweet, citric, and peppery to oaky and reminiscent of vanilla and caramel.

Irrespective of the particular tasting method followed, tequila is generally understood to contain flavours that fall within the following six flavour types, being wood, spice, fruit, floral, sweets, or nutty.

For an explanation of how each of the previously mentioned flavour types present themselves in many bottles of tequila, consider below.

Wood A woody taste in tequila manifests itself through both oak ageing as well as from the cooking of the agave plant. Woody flavours typically present as wood smoke, charcoal, or strains of wood
Sweets A sweet taste in tequila can manifest itself through a vegetal, plant-like sweetness to types of sweeteners or flavourings, including honey, sugar, or caramel, or toffee
Spice In tequila, spice can refer to many different types, including hot spices such as pepper or chilli, sweet spices such as vanilla or cinnamon, or herbal spices such as mint or thyme
Fruit Fruit taste in tequila can refer to citrus fruits such as lemons, limes or grapefruits, common fruits such as apples or pears, baked fruits, dried fruits, or tropical fruits such as passion fruit or pineapple
Nutty Nutty tastes in tequila can easily be recognised as nuts such as hazelnuts, walnuts, almonds, or coconut, which are often compared to flavours found in some Sherrys, Ports, or whiskies
Floral Floral tastes in tequila are often exemplified through natural floral types such as cut grass, fragrant and wild flowers, ferns, moss, and vegetables such as asparagus or even dried tea

How to Drink Tequila

As discussed above, how a tequila is best consumed depends upon how it has been produced.

Generally speaking, blanco or reposado tequilas are usually best served in popular cocktails, such as the Pina Colada, Margarita, or Paloma, whilst añejo tequilas are often best consumed neat or in a shot, due to the added complexity of flavour.

Whilst blanco tequilas are commonly used as cocktail bases, it is possible to find very premium bottles of blanco tequila that are made to be drank neat.

It's also important to note that some tequilas gain their golden or aged look from artificial means, through the distiller adding colourings prior to bottling, meaning it's not always a guarantee of quality to look for gold coloured tequilas.

Ultimately, one of the best methods of finding out whether the bottle of blanco, reposado, or añejo tequila in front of you is worth consuming neat or mixed, look to see whether it is 100% agave or a mixtos tequila, as those made exclusively using blue agave overwhelmingly tend to be of a higher quality.

It is also important to look for well aged bottles of añejo or extra añejo when trying to find those tequilas that are more complex in their taste and character.

Blanco Tequila

Blanco Tequila

Although often relegated to use only within popular tequila cocktails, there are many examples today of exquisitely flavoured blanco tequilas that are made to be enjoyed neat. To discover more, be sure to review our complete guide to blanco tequila.

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Reposado Tequila

Reposado Tequila

Having seen some time inside of a barrel, these tequilas are generally more complex than their blanco counterparts and can be consumed in a variety of ways. To find out more about this category of tequila, visit our comprehensive guide to reposado tequila.

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Añejo & Extra Añejo Tequila

Añejo & Extra Añejo Tequila

Often the best example of the most complex and characterful of tequilas available, añejo tequilas benefit from even more time spent ageing in barrels than reposado tequilas. Explore further by examining our thorough guide to añejo tequila.

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