The Ultimate Guide to Tequila
Guy Hodcroft, Spirits Team
15 February 2023
The Ultimate Tequila Guide as written by one of our expert spirit buyers, Guy Hodcroft
The Rise of Tequila
Tequila is one of the oldest and most traditional of spirit categories, having been made in Mexico for hundreds of years. The fermentation and consumption of agave is thought to well pre-date the European colonisation which took place in the 16th century. Produced using the Blue Weber Agave, it can be a wonderfully complex and elegant spirit, and one that is perhaps unmatched in its versatility.
From sipping neat to use in some of the world’s most famous and popular cocktails, the category has seen an enormous growth in popularity, consumption and awareness in the last five years, with the spirit seemingly transformed in the eyes of many from a party “shot” to something to be sipped and enjoyed in the same way as one would whisky, rum or Cognac. Indeed, so staggering has been the growth that according to recent reports Diageo, the world’s largest spirits company, are now selling more tequila in the United States than they are whisky. Such popularity is not surprising when one takes a closer look at Mexico’s most famous export.
Agaves growing in a greenhouse in Mexico and a field of harvested agave.
The Origins of Tequila
Though the origins of tequila are a little unclear, it is thought that fermented agave juice (“pulque”) had an important role in Aztec culture, and was consumed both in ceremonial and domestic contexts. The 16th century Spanish conquistadores however had little time for pulque, preferring instead the wines imported from their native land. However, with supply of such wines often taking several months to arrive in the “New World” and having often deteriorated during the journey across the Atlantic Ocean, the Spanish set about trying to make “wine” with plants native to Mexico. Whilst they did not meet with any great success (at least, none which was documented or has endured until the modern day), they did discover that by distilling fermented agave juice in pot stills (imported from Spain for the production of brandy) they were able to produce a full bodied and yet complex “Vino de Mezcal” – literally “Wine of Mezcal”, taking an ancient word for the agave which is still used to this day.
As the centuries wore on, it was the “Vinos de Mezcal de Tequila” (Mezcal Wines from Tequila) that seemed to garner the best reputation, and thus the beginnings of an industry were formed around Tequila, a town in the state of Jalisco approximately an hour’s drive from the state capital Guadalajara. Whereas mezcal (the name given to all categories of agave spirits, rather in the same way that “Brandy” can encompass Armagnac and Cognac) can be made from dozens of different of different agave varieties (akin to how all fine wine is made from different varieties of the same species of grape), the ones produced around Tequila were made exclusively from the Blue Weber agave, and made for a fruity, elegant spirit. Over time, the reputation of these expressions grew so much so that they became known simply as “Tequila”, and in 1902 it was given an official definition separate from other agave spirits which continued under the category of mezcal.
Enjoying booming sales in the domestic market, tequila was also popular north of the Rio Grande, tinged with the exoticism of imported liquor, widely traded and consumed in the towns which line the almost 2,000 mile long border, and from there further north still. Though as unclear (indeed, perhaps even more so) as its origins, undoubtedly one of the key aspects in the growth of tequila was the invention of the Margarita cocktail, thought to have become documented as a cocktail for the first time in the late 1930s. Thought by some to an evolution of the 19th century Daisy cocktail (perhaps a little too handily, as margarita is the Spanish for daisy) or essentially a tequila based sour, we’ll never really know the true story behind its creation, but what is beyond doubt however is that it took the tequila category to new heights. Indeed, it is still the most popular cocktail in the United States, and shows no sign of relinquishing that position. Though use in cocktails is by far and away the most popular manner in which tequila is consumed, many of the best tequilas are “designed” to be sipped neat as one would a fine whisky or brandy, with the complex production process certainly meriting a closer inspection of the naked spirit.
Tequila Pot Stills
From Plant to Spirit
Tequila is made from the Blue Weber Agave, a plant related to the lily and not the cactus as is sometimes mistakenly thought! Firm, spiky leaves protrude above ground, whilst the heart or piña (so called because it resembles a pineapple) remains buried beneath the soil, taking approximately eight years before it is ripe enough to be made into tequila. The plant is removed from the ground, and skilled workers known as “jimadores” swiftly and expertly remove the leaves, leaving just the piña. Traditionally, the piña is then cooked in some manner in order to convert its starches into sugar. This is usually done in either a brick oven or a more modern steam pressure cooker, though some tequilas are made using a process which doesn’t involve cooking the agave at all. After cooking, the roasted agave is crushed and shredded into thin fibres, either using a traditional “tahona” (a stone wheel dragged by a horse/donkey around a sunken pit filled with the roasted agaves) or a more efficient mechanical mill. The juice extracted by this process is then fermented to create a mildly alcoholic “mosto”, and then distilled twice to be transformed into tequila.
The process above pertains to the production of “100% Agave” tequilas, whereby all of the alcohol produced is the result of the fermentation and distillation of sugars derived solely from agave. It is permissible to produce tequila by using other sources of sugar, as long as at least 51% has been obtained from the agave. These are known as “mixto” tequilas, and whilst there are many fine examples, they perhaps don’t offer the intensity and character of 100% agave tequilas, though they are generally sold at a more accessible price point.
Pot stills and barrels of fermenting agave juice
Understanding the different names given to Tequila
After production, the distiller has several choices. They can rest for a short period before bottling as an unaged spirit; these are known as “Blanco”, “Plata” or sometimes “Silver” tequilas. “Reposado” (Rested) tequilas are those which have been matured in oak barrels for between two and twelve months before bottling, with “Joven” tequilas comprising a blend of both Blanco and Reposado styles. “Anejo” tequilas are those which have been aged for between one and three years, with “Extra Anejo” the name given to any tequilas which are matured for longer than three years. Though ex-bourbon barrels are by far and away the most common type of vessel used for the maturation of tequila, there are now an increasing number of “cask finished” tequilas, encompassing both wine casks and those that have been previously used to mature other types of spirit. Many purists will gravitate towards Blanco styles, offering as they do the purest expression of agave, with this character fading more and more with ageing, the cask becoming more dominant and partially transforming the spirit into something more resembling a whisky or brandy.
The level of ageing that suits one’s palate is one of the most important points to consider when tasting or purchasing tequila, along with how the agave has been cooked and milled, along with, to a degree, the source of the agaves themselves. The area of production for tequila is often split into “Highlands” and “Lowlands/Valley”, with agaves grown in the former exhibiting more fruit and floral tones in the resulting spirit, whilst those from the latter offer a bolder, spicier character. Most tequilas will be a blend of agaves grown in both areas, though there are several who bottle spirit produced from agaves grown only in one of the regions. Much the same as tasting Burgundies produced in different villages, a comparison of tequilas can be absolutely fascinating.
Young agaves at a nursery and a freshly harvested agave piña
Indeed, the wonderful diversity found within tequila and the enjoyment to be had in exploring this has been one of the reasons for the category’s colossal growth in recent years. With transparency and localism within food and drink perhaps never more popular, tequila has been perfectly placed to tap into these growing trends. It has also benefited from celebrity endorsements, with characters as diverse as Dwayne Johnson, Elon Musk, Rita Ora and Carlos Santana all having their own brands of tequila. By far and away the most famous though has been Casamigos, the brand started by George Clooney and his friends in 2013. A little over four years later, the brand was purchased by global drinks giant Diageo for $1 billion, who have since invested heavily in marketing the brand around the world. With brands such as Casamigos grabbing attention, the category as a whole has undergone massive growth, and recently Diageo reported that sales across its two tequila brands increased by 28% in 2022, with other brand owners reporting similar rises.
We believe Tequila is about much more than celebrity endorsements. Many of the most exciting brands in tequila today are much more low key, but produce simply extraordinary liquids. Tequila Ocho bottle single vintage, single filed tequilas with minimal intervention and ageing, and produce some of the most agave forward expressions of tequila it is possible to find. Fortaleza is the family distillery of the renowned Sauzas, and was for many years something of a secret in tequila circles and not much seen outside of Mexico, but now the superb liquid housed in wonderfully designed hand blown bottles is gaining a worldwide following.
Tapatio is the name given to a native of Guadalajara, but is also the name of a brand emanating from Carlos Camarena’s La Alteña Distillery in Arandas, where he also produces the El Tesoro brand. Both show remarkable elegance, complexity, balance and forward agave character, and are much sought-after. Calle 23 offers a range of well priced, extremely distinctive tequilas, and whilst occasionally hard to find, Siete Leguas has been making outstanding traditional tequila since 1952, and is rumoured to have been the liquid for the original bottlings of Patrón which did so much to propel that brand towards global stardom. Not to overlook mixto, El Tequileño is one of the best loved brands in Mexico and can be found in some of the world’s best bars, and is perhaps the finest example of the style. These brands represent some of the very best in tequila today, more than worthy additions to any drinks cabinet, and the perfect place from which to embark upon a journey into the world of tequila.