What Is Tequila Made From?
Authentic tequila is exclusively made from Weber Azul, a cultivar of agave tequilana, which is commonly known as blue agave. Agave is a type of succulent monocot, which is a relative of yucca and aloe.
Blue agave favours higher altitudes of more than 1,500 metres (5,000 ft) and is native to Mexico. As a perennial, it grows a long stalk and develops yellow flowers after five years known as “quiotes”, which are pollinated by bats, insects, and hummingbirds. After dispersing its seeds, the plant will die.
Compared to other agave varieties, Weber Azul is much larger with a bluish-grey colour as opposed to bright green.
Although a resilient and rapid grower, blue agave is susceptible to a number of diseases known as tristeza y muerte de agave (TMA), which translates to “wilting and death of agave”. Since blue agave is reproduced by replanting shoots, the resulting low genetic diversity has lead to outbreaks of fungi and bacteria.
Traditionally, tequila will consist of 100% blue agave. Nevertheless, you may also find mixto tequilas on the market where a minimum of 51% agave is mixed with other sugars. In either case, it is mandatory that the contents are labelled on the bottle.
Where Is Tequila Made?
Tequila is named after a Mexican town in the state of Jalisco on the Pacific coast near Guadalajara. It is predominantly produced across the Sierra Nevada Trans-Mexican Volcanic Belt thanks to its unique soil composition that’s naturally rich in silica and potassium.
Typically, the agave is grown within the municipality of Tequila as well as other areas within the region such as Los Altos de Jalisco, Arandas, and Atotonilco El Alto. Usually, the terroirs are separated between the Jalisco region’s Highlands (Los Altos) and Lowlands (El Valle).
The different areas are often regarded as unique terroirs with their own characteristics.
For instance, blue agave from Tequila has red volcanic soil with generally lower temperatures, which can create floral flavour profiles. Meanwhile, blue agave from the Los Altos de Jalisco Highlands tends to be sweeter. As for the lowlands, the agave is often associated with herbaceous and earthy flavours.
In order to properly regulate production, the Mexican government has created a designation of origin. This designation has been internationally recognised as early as 1997 through the European Union. Additionally, it is included as part of the NAFTA agreements with Canada and the USA.
Finally, the Agave Landscape and Ancient Industrial Facilities of Tequila were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2006.
How Tequila Is Made
The cultivation of blue agave is managed by farmers known as jimadores and the process is labour-intensive. Little machinery is used and most of the process is undertaken by hand.
The jimadores prevent the aforementioned quiotes from growing by regularly trimming the plant. As a result, the agave doesn’t die but continues to grow until it is ripe. The timing is essential as an under or overripe agave will not properly ferment.
When the agave is between seven and fourteen-years-old, the plant is stripped of its leaves with a “coa”, a sharpened circular spade, to reveal the heart. The remaining core is referred to as a “piña” and it can weigh as much as 110 kg (240 lb).
Cooking The Blue Agave
The piñas are then placed into large brick or stone “horno” ovens where the raw agave is steamed at low temperatures for between 22 and 56 hours. Historically, the process took place in earthen pits. Yet, this is rare for tequila and is usually used for making mezcal instead.
Contrary to popular belief, the blue agave piñas are not baked or roasted. By using steam, the piñas become soft and the fructan and inulin are converted to fructose.
Some modern operations may use autoclave pressure ovens. However, although larger and much faster, the higher temperatures aren’t as effective at removing bitter flavours. Nevertheless, while less authentic, professionals claim that it can proposer cleaner flavours.
In any case, these aren’t quite as poor as diffusers, which work on an industrial scale to chemically extract juice from the agave.
Juice & Fermentation
Traditionally, producers will use a large stone wheel called a “tahona” to crush the steamed piñas after they have cooled down. Rather than using this rudimentary press, modern operations may instead shred the piñas instead.
The byproduct, known as “bagazo”, is a fibrous pulp and can be used in several ways. Some producers may like to add it to the fermentation tanks for stronger flavours. Otherwise, it can be recycled into compost, animal feed, burned as fuel or even turned into paper.
Meanwhile, the juice is called “aguamiel”, which is fermented in either wooden or steel vats for several days to produce a mashed wort called “mosto”. However, the process is somewhat different from other alcoholic spirits.
While the vats are airtight to prevent oxidization, bacterial activity is encouraged with a non-aseptic environment. Rather than introducing yeast in a sterile environment as with wine, beer, and cider, fermentation is spontaneous thanks to natural microorganisms.
The resulting byproducts are said to create richer flavours and aromas as the sugars and carbohydrates are converted to alcohol.
Occasionally, a microbiological starter culture may be added to the juice to accelerate fermentation. While this halves the twelve-day natural fermentation process, the faster process may reduce its overall quality.
This is because slow fermentation encourages the development of impurities called organoleptic compounds. Composed of oils, methanol, and acids, they develop later in the process but add more character and flavour.
Finally, many distilleries will ferment the agave during winter. As yeast is sensitive to temperature and Mexico is hot, steps must be taken to ensure that temperature don’t exceed 31°C (88°F).
The resulting mosto can range from between 4% to 9% ABV with older agave plants usually producing stronger alcohol. Once the juice is ready, it is usually distilled using traditional alembic stills, an ancestor of the copper pot still. However, continuous column stills may be used as well.
Mexican regulations require a minimum of two distillation runs. The first run is referred to as the “ordinario” while there second run is intuitively known as the “tequila”.
Distillation takes place slowly at what be regarded as low temperatures of around 83°C – 95°C (181°F – 203°F). Rather than rushing the distillation, time is taken to reduce the amount of impure heads and teals that are discarded.
Shredding the agave piñas will have created more impurities. Yet, if the producer used careful maceration with a tahona, the heads may not be cut at all. As the heads contain valuable organoleptic contains, it will result in more flavour.
However, the tails are always discarded as they contain toxic impurities like methanol. Nevertheless, they may be kept and reused for future distillation runs.
Finally, some producers have experimented with triple distillation. Yet, it’s widely regarded that triple distillation strips away too much of the agave’s natural flavours.
Different Types Of Tequila
If the distillate is destined to be sold as a blanco or plata tequila, it is hydrated with water and bottle after resting for no more than two months in stainless steel vats.
However, aged tequila has grown in demand. The ageing process will either involve American or French new oak barrels, which will greatly impart its flavours onto the distillate. If French oak is used, the casks may be toasted or “bousiné”, which is a technique often employed for French brandy.
While blanco tequila will likely have harsher and crisper flavours, tequila will mellow in body and structure as it is aged. Producers will tailor the ageing period according to the desired flavour profile they wish to create.
The ageing periods of tequila have been standardised by the designation of origins, which has led to the following categories:
- Blanco: “White” tequila is a clear and unaged spirit, which may or may not contain flavourings and additives.
- Plata: Unlike blanco tequila, plata or “silver” tequila may not contain any additives at all.
- Reposado: “Rested” tequila is aged for at least two months and not more than a year in oak barrels, resulting in an amber hue.
- Añejo: The tequila is aged for between one and three years in small oak barrels.
- Extra Añejo: A newer category established in 2006 for tequila aged longer than three years.
How Strong Is Tequila?
When sold in Latin America, tequila can be as low as 35% ABV according to each country’s local laws. Meanwhile, any alcoholic spirit must be at least 40% ABV in the European Union and North America.
Usually, the alcohol is hydrated, which means that it is simply cut with pure water. Most large-scale brands will usually retail their tequilas at exactly 40% as it means that they can sell a greater quantity.
Alternatively, a few distillers may “distil to proof”, which involves a careful distillation process where the resulting distillate is immediately bottled without hydration. Tequila that is distilled to proof tends to be above 55% ABV.
When ageing the tequila, this can be particularly challenging as the angel’s share will alter the alcohol content as it evaporates. Nevertheless, some distillers have mastered the technique into an art-form.
Having now learned about how tequila is made, check out more of our resources on the celebrated beverage: