Intro to Tequila: Everything You Need To Know

Brush Up on the Basics of Tequila

Tequila San Diego

Tequila is one liquor that has a harsh reputation. Plenty of people remember bad nights involving tequila (or maybe don’t?), and even worse mornings. Many vow to never drink the stuff again. But here’s the deal: a good quality tequila won’t ruin you. It shouldn’t taste bad. Keep in mind that in Mexico, tequila is served neat, not as a shot or even with salt and lime. That means it’s something to enjoy slowly, not toss back “to get it over with.” If you’re ready to put the past behind you and give tequila a second chance, or if you’re a true fan the alcohol, here’s everything you need to know to order a drink, buy a bottle, or just impress your friends.

The first thing any tequila aficionado should know is that there are two types of tequila: 100% blue agave, and Tequila Mixto (mixed). Mixto is usually a lower grade tequila, comprised of minimum 51% blue agave tequila and sugar cane. Mixto is generally a cheaper option, and is often used in mixed drinks at bars. Mixto can also be bottled outside the Tequila region, which true tequila cannot.

Like Champagne, tequila is a regionally named alcohol. It is made from the native blue agave plant and is only produced in the surrounding area of the city Tequila in the Jalisco region of western Mexico. The blue agave is a kind of succulent that takes 7-15 years to mature before its heart is harvested for tequila production. The heart, which can weigh up to 200 pounds, is then cooked to transform its starches into sugars and made into mash. That mash is fermented to produce alcohol, and distilled twice for higher alcohol content. Then the product is aged for a certain amount of time, depending on the type of tequila.

Within the category of 100% blue agave tequila are four or five types you’ll find on the shelf. The major difference between each is simply the amount of time it’s been aged, which will account for changes in color and flavor.

Silver/Blanco: Silver tequila, or blanco, is the purest form of the liquor. It’s completely clear, having not been aged at all. Silver tequila will feature the natural flavor and sweetness of the agave plant.

Gold/Oro/Joven: Gold tequila, also called oro or joven (“young”), is usually a mixto tequila. Its gold color typically comes from added coloring and flavoring. This is a cheaper type of tequila and is primarily used for mixed drinks. However, there is one exception: you may find a gold tequila that is actually a mix of silver and añejo, which would allow it to keep the 100% blue agave label. (Pro tip: always look for 100% blue agave!)

Reposado: Meaning “rested,” tequila reposado embodies the first stage of aging. In either wooden barrels or tanks, the tequila is aged for a minimum of two months, but can be aged for nearly a year as desired. The aging process gives the tequila a slightly golden hue, which is completely natural and not the result of added coloring. Wooden barrel aging will sometimes give the tequila additional flavor, like oak, or occasionally whiskey or bourbon notes, depending on if the barrel previously held another kind of liquor.

Añejo: This type of tequila is “aged” or extra-aged. Tequila must be aged for a minimum of one year to be classified as añejo. Because of the longer aging process, añejo tequila takes on a darker amber hue, as well as smooth and rich flavor. This tequila is typically more expensive.

Extra Añejo: Extra añejo tequila is considered ultra aged. It’s aged for a minimum of three years, although some brands have aged their tequilas for 5, 10, even 18 years (Lote Fuenteseca’s 18-year old extra añejo is the oldest tequila in the world). These are easily the darkest and most expensive types of tequila, but also feature the most rich and complex flavor.

There’s another very important side of tequila that any drinker of the spirit should know, and you’ve probably heard of it. Mezcal is very similar to tequila. In fact tequila is a kind of mezcal, but mezcal is not tequila (in the same way a square is a kind of rectangle, but a rectangle isn’t a square). Mezcal can be made anywhere in Mexico and from almost any of 30 kinds of agave plant. There are more than 200 species of agave, including blue agave. However, blue agave is only used for authentic tequila, and therefore never used in mezcal. But otherwise, mezcal is made in mostly the same way as tequila. The difference in agaves and growing environments can impart different flavors on the alcohol.

One huge misconception is that a good tequila or mezcal has the little worm in the bottom of the bottle. In truth, the worm is a marketing gimmick established decades ago to encourage tourists to drink low quality liquor. The worm is actually a certain moth larvae, which, if found on the agave during harvest indicates an infestation. A high quality tequila will never have a worm in the bottom, so don’t look for it.

You’re practically a tequila expert now! Okay, maybe not an expert, but hopefully a more informed drinker of tequila. Next time you venture to the liquor store or the bar, you’ll know a little more about the kind of alcohol you’re imbibing. And hey, it doesn’t hurt that you can drop some knowledge on your friends, too. Cheers!

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