How Tequila is made & and other fun Tequila Facts
Is it just me or do you hear the “Tequila” song in your head when anyone mentions it? You know the one. Either that or you immediately recall a night or two you’d rather not recall. I think I prefer “ba da da da da da dum… tequila!” than the latter. Regardless of what pops into our minds, tequila has had a strong impact on our culture over the centuries and songs have been written about this liquor for a very valid reason— tequila is royalty in the world of alcohols. Next to whisky, rum, gin, and vodka, it’s a must-have at any bar or lounge. It’s known, loved/hated, and drunk all over the world.
In the nearly 3,000 years that tequila has been a thing, it has made a lot of friends and, okay, maybe some enemies. It has the power to make a fiesta out of any gathering and a spicy Latino out of pretty much anyone who drinks it. While it is arguably the most popular straight shot in any bar and mixed into some of our favorite cocktails, there are a lot of things about this loopy juice that not a lot of people know. So, let’s dive into the world of tequila and learn a little something about the spiciest and feistiest of boozes.
HOW IT’S MADE
Most of you already know that tequila is made from blue agave plants, but the process between soil to shot glass is incredibly complex and fascinating. The method has evolved throughout history but the modern version begins with the blue agave plant, much like in the ancient past. The plant, which takes about 7 years to grow, is harvested, cut, and cleaned—its leaves are sheared off until all that’s left is a very large pit that looks similar to a pineapple. This most likely explains why they call it “piña,” Spanish for pineapple. This piña is about the size of a beach ball. The piñas are then taken to a distillery where they are cut into smaller pieces and cooked until the heart of the plant is brown, soft, and sweet. This sweet brown center is then crushed and shredded to extract the nectar (there’s a very real and gloomy metaphor somewhere in here). From the nectar, an agave juice is formed. This juice is then fermented in yeast, distilled, and finally bottled.
While the tequila we all know today wasn’t called ‘tequila’ until the 1600’s, the indigenous people of Mexico have been making the stuff since 1,000 BC. For centuries, the spirit was called ‘pulque.’ The process to making pulque was slightly different than the tequila we make today, but the roots are the same—pun intended. Both the Aztecs and the Olmecs of Southern Mexico made a fermented liquor from blue agave plant nectar. The Aztecs even had a pulque god named Patecatl (and you thought you love tequila). However, the alcohol had a huge boost in popularity when the European settlers realized they were out of booze and decided they needed to get “crunk” in the new world with the local libations. They perfected the tequila-making process and by the 1600’s, distilleries were opening up left and right in the Jalisco area of Mexico. Bet you’ll never guess the name of the city where the first distillery opened. I’ll give you a hint: “Ba da da da da da dum…” Yup, TEQUILA.
WHAT’S YOUR TYPE
When we talk about tequila we hear all sorts of words and names thrown around. If you’re just a casual tequila drinker not associated with the tequila or alcohol business, you may not know what a lot of these words mean or the history behind some of the names. Well, get ready to be the annoying smarty pants at the next happy hour.
Let’s begin with the different types of tequilas: Blanco (or Silver), Reposado, and Añejo. This is referring to the length of time the tequila is distilled. Blanco is the clearest and the youngest of all the tequila varieties, aged less than two months. Reposado (meaning ‘rested’ in Spanish) is a little darker in color and aged for 2 months minimum, but up to 1 year. And Añejo (meaning ‘aged’ in Spanish) is the darkest and oldest of all the tequilas and it has a required distillation period of at least a year. The younger tequilas are purer and sweeter, while the older tequilas are smoother and more complex.
WHAT’S IN A NAME
The words ‘Cuervo’ and ‘tequila’ go together like lime and salt. Nevertheless, in 2018, if you know your tequila and you feel like splurging, Jose Cuervo is probably not the first brand that comes to mind—or even the second or third. But boy, do we owe this dude. Jose Cuervo is the foremost reason why tequila has become a household liquor worldwide. The Cuervo family was the first to commercialize tequila! They have been bottling it since 1758 and for more than a century they were the only players in the game. The Sauza family came in second but more than 115 years later, in 1873. Slowly, in the last 150 or so years, we’ve seen the likes of Don Julio, Patrón, and many others emerge, including George Clooney’s own Casamigos—but it wouldn’t be fair not to tip our caps to Papa Cuervo for bringing tequila into our lives and to a store near you.
OFTEN IMITATED, NEVER DUPLICATED
Something noteworthy about the mysterious Tequila is that it can only be called ‘tequila’ if it is distilled in the Mexican state of Jalisco. If you’re drinking tequila tonight, and it says ‘tequila’ on the bottle, you know it’s the real deal. Much like all champagnes must come from the Champagne province of France and Scotch whisky must come from Scotland. In the case of tequila, any other agave-based liquor made elsewhere would be called ‘mezcal.’ So, you guessed it—all tequilas are mezcals, but not all mezcals are tequilas. Call it ‘quality control.’
Speaking of quality control, now… SHOTS! SHOTS! SHOTS! SHOTS! SHOTS!