One of the most popular – yet often misunderstood – spirits is tequila. More than a shooter, this distilled spirit from the heart of Mexico comes in a wide range of types, each with its own complex flavor profile.
Tequila can be sipped neat or used as the primary spirit for a huge selection of cocktails ranging from the classic tequila sunrise (which we recommend with both orange juice and orange bitters) to the Mexican mule, margaritas (with fresh lime juice), and the mojito blanco.
In this guide, we will explore the different types of tequila, providing you with the details you need to make informed decisions for your next gathering or event.
What is Tequila?
Tequila is a spirit distilled from the blue agave plant, specifically the “pina” or central core of the plant. The spirit gets its name from the growing region of the blue agave plants around the city of Tequila in the northwest section of Guadalajara in western Mexico.
The alcohol content of tequila ranges from 38% to 55%; variations come from the yeast used in fermentation, the age of the agave plants, fermentation temperature, and more.
A Brief History of Tequila
The history of tequila began in the mid-1700s, when the technology to extract juice from the agave (agave nectar) was developed. A similar spirit known as mezcal, also produced from blue agave, preceded the development of tequila and its own history stretches back to pre-Spanish Mexico (up to four thousand years ago).
The first commercial license to make tequila was granted by King Carlos IV of Spain in the late 1700s. About 100 years later, tequila began to be exported to the United States and beyond.
How is Tequila Made?
Tequila begins with the blue agave plant. Harvesters known as jimadores trim away the fleshy outer leaves of the plant and extract the core. The cores (known as pinas) are then slow-roasted in ovens to break down the carbohydrates into simple sugars. From there, the cooked agave pinas are mashed to extract the agave syrup.
Fermentation takes place over several weeks, and the resultant liquid is distilled at least twice to produce the most basic type of tequila called tequila blanco (sometimes called “silver” tequila). After these initial distillations, the tequila may be stored and aged to produce the other recognized types.
Regulations: the Norma Oficial Mexicana
As one of the most beloved Mexican exports, tequila is tightly controlled by a rigorous set of standards called the Norma Oficial Mexicana (Official Mexican Standard). It is commonly abbreviated as NOM.
The NOM standards govern all processes associated with tequila production, including:
- Supply, cultivation, and harvest of agave
- Production of spirits
- Business practices
NOM also established the technical specifications and legal standards for the Appellation of Origin, similar to the standards applied to France’s champagne production. The NOM requires that in order for tequila to be granted its name, it must be produced from a specific variety of agave grown in a distinct geographical region, called the “agave tequilana Blue Weber”.
Only spirits distilled with 100% agave qualify under NOM. Any other sugar, such as brown sugar, the addition of tropical fruits sugars, or artificial flavoring results in another category of spirits altogether (referred to as mixto tequila).
Different Types of Tequila for Different Tastes
Selecting the right type of tequila to drink by itself or to mix into familiar and exotic cocktails (like flavorful margaritas) can be challenging.
Depending on the distillation process and time of aging, tequila can take on a range of flavor profiles. The natural sweetness levels of the agave nectar also plays a significant role in the flavor of tequilas and similar agave spirits like mezcal.
Tequila blanco, sometimes referred to as “white” (blanc0) or “silver” (plata) tequila, is a white (clear) spirit that is distilled twice and bottled immediately after distillation. In some cases, the blanco tequila may be aged for a brief period of up to two months in stainless steel vats or oak barrels. Interestingly, the short-term aged tequila is not as common as unaged tequila (straight from distillation to bottling)… A result that may come from supplier’s desire to lower production costs (not consumer’s demand preference).
Tequila reposado is a spirit that is aged a minimum of two months but no more than a year in an oak barrel. This category is sometimes referred to as “gold” tequila, but “reposado tequila” is proper. Depending on the barrel used for aging tequilas, distinct flavors may be imparted. French oak barrels are preferred by some distillation companies, while bourbon barrels reused from bourbon production are the choice for more complex reposados.
Tequila añejos are referred to as “aged tequila” or “vintage”. This is a tequila aged for a minimum of one year but less than three years, typically in a smaller oak barrel. Just like aged whiskey or similar brown spirits, the agave spirit picks up distinctive flavor notes from the barrel and develops a caramel coloring from the barrel charring. In some cases, flavor notes may be like baking spices; in others, hints of maple syrup or other sweet notes may be present. Floral aromas may also be present in Añejo tequila.
Extra Añejo Tequilas
As the newest category of tequilas recognized under NOM, extra añejo tequila (“extra aged” tequila or “ultra-aged”) is aged a minimum of three years, again in oaken barrels. This category was established in 2006. Different tequilas may have an aging process that spans 5, 10, or even 20 years. As the spirits age, they gain more complex flavors and coloration.
“White” or “blanco” spirits tend to have a harsher flavor with an agave-forward style, while for a smooth tequila expñrience, seasoned drinkers choose reposado or añejo (and now extra anejo) varieties. For mixed drinks, unaged spirits are often preferred, as they impart more flavor upon the cocktail. Aged tequilas are more complex in flavor, lending them to sipping neat or mixing with simple ingredients so as not to hide their character. Currently, desirable characteristics are often floral aroma and darker color (such as amber color), which leads to choosing and aged tequila type. Regardless of preference, tequila remains a core part of any mixologist’s arsenal, which isn’t surprising given it is arguably America’s oldest distilled spirit.