Are you ready to learn about the different types of tequila?
We are not going to start a the beginning. We are going to start at the end and work our way back. I want to mention tequila brands that use artificial flavors and colors to create commodity tequila because this article is not about that. This article is about different types of tequila that do not use any artificial flavorings in their recipes. Additives are a part of the food and beverage industry and can be found in nearly all processed foods. However, it is all too common to overuse additives to cover up poor-quality ingredients or to create an artificial flavor profile.
Tequila manufacturers are under huge financial pressure to produce more tequila than there is agave. Costs are skyrocketing and some producers might be willing to cut some corners. Financial considerations have changed the way that tequila is produced. Celebrity influencers have jumped all over the tequila bandwagon to make money marketing a commodity.
I recently read an article about the best tequilas to bring home from Mexico and it was all the big-name brands and influencer tequilas that are available in every market in the world. When you come to Jalisco you should buy premium tequila from small producers that don’t have big marketing departments or international distribution deals. These tequilas are made by people who love tequila in its simplest form: agave, yeast, and water.
We are going to talk about the different types of tequila being made in Jalisco and what separates a good tequila from a bad tequila.
What is Tequila?
Tequila is a registered trademark with a lot of intellectual property lawyers protecting the brand. Back in the day, there was a Tequila Volcano and a Tequila Valley. The town of Santiago de Tequila was settled in 1530 by Franciscan monks well before Guadalajara was founded at its current location. There are archeological sites at the base of the volcano that show large settlements of original people that used the agave plant in a multitude of different ways.
The blue agave plant grows well in the local volcanic soil. The original people called the agave the marvelous tree because of all the uses they found for it, including consumption. Raw aguamiel agave juice is highly nutritious while fermented juice is intoxicating.
The Spanish introduced the copper pot alembic still in the 16th century. The indigenous people swapped out the coconut sap for the cooked agave wine creating what we know today as mezcal. People have made mezcal with around 40 different species of the 150 species of agave found in Mexico.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, the mezcal from the Tequila region was developing a style that included predominantly Weber blue agave. Later they would experiment with steam ovens as opposed to the bonfire-type ovens typical in other agave spirits.
There are strict regulations on what can and can not be called tequila. If it doesn’t come from an officially registered factory it can’t be called a tequila. The appellation of origin is very small. Tequila can only be made in the 125 municipalities of Jalisco and a small number of municipalities that border Jalisco in Nayarit, Guanajuato, and Michoacan. For some reason, there are a few municipalities in Tamaulipas that are also allowed to use the name ‘Tequila’ even though they are on the other side of the country.
Each bottle of tequila is labeled with a number called a NOM (Norma Oficial Mexicana) that will identify the producer of each brand. I highly recommend downloading the cell phone app Tequila Matchmaker for more information on the factories that make your favorite tequila brands and the techniques they use.
Today there is a non-profit organization called the Consejo Regulador de Tequila (CRT) that certifies compliance with the rules for using the name “Tequila”. Intellectual property rights are tightly guarded and there is a lot of bureaucracy to navigate in order to use the name “Tequila”. The CRT is also a trade group that is made up of tequila industry professionals from farmers to distillers to marketers, who want to promote and protect a quality product.
General Categories of Tequila
There are only two main types of tequila or general categories: ‘Tequila Mixto’ or ‘100% Agave’. When the bottle just says ‘Tequila’ that is a mixto tequila.
100% de Agave means that there are NO other inexpensive sugars like high fructose corn syrup or cane sugar used in the fermentation process. Tequila has a minimum of 51% agave sugars and 49% other sugars. This tequila with a blend of different sugars is called mixto tequila. It is cheaper than 100% agave and is considered to be of lower quality.
We want to taste the agave flavor in agave-based spirits. It is a marvelous plant and some species take over 30 years to fully mature. The blue weber agave plant has a unique natural sweetness that is the essence of tequila. This is what sets tequila apart from other agave-based spirits like sotol, bacanora, and raicilla.
There is a lot of bad tequila out there. The influencer boom only compounded the multinational beverage industry’s commodification of this traditional beverage. Big companies need consistency and a bottle that always tastes the same no matter what the agaves look like.
Rectification is one of the last stages of tequila production and uses chemistry to standardize the final product in terms of alcohol, taste, color, and viscosity. It is easy to overuse those chemicals to cover up defects or create a unique flavor profile that doesn’t exist naturally in the agave.
Additive vs Additive-Free Tequilas
Even within 100% agave tequilas the official rules for making tequila allow up to 1% of additives that do not need to be disclosed. The one exception to this is tequila blanco which is not permitted to have any additives at all. Oro, reposado, añejo, and extra añejo could have some Splenda and fruit syrups (any sweetener really), some glycerin for viscosity, oak extract, or caramel coloring without having to disclose anything to the public.
It is very easy to use these additives to create flavor profiles that have nothing to do with the agave. Influencer tequilas are notorious for playing with additives to create artificial flavors. Tequila 818 tastes like vanilla cake yet it is still labeled 100% agave. There are hundreds of other examples including Casamigos, Cincoro, Teremana, Villa One, E-Cuarenta, Santo Mezquila, DeLeón, and many more. Check out the Tequila Matchmaker app for more information on the tequilas that you buy.
I recommend supporting producers that have confirmed that they do not use artificial flavoring agents in their tequilas. It is easy to hide the flavor of poor-quality agaves with a ton of oak flavoring
The Main Types of Tequila: Blanco vs Reposado vs Añejo
When I am teaching young waiters about wine I am constantly asked what the best wines are. The simple answer is the one that you like the most. The same logic applies to the best tequila brands. There are a number of different styles with very different flavor profiles and it is hard to say that one style is better than another. You are never going to convince a Frenchman that an oak-aged, California-style chardonnay is better than a Pouilly-Fuissé (un-oaked chardonnay). And you will never convince my mom to give up her oaky, buttery, Rombauer Chardonnay. What you should do is try a number of different styles to see what you like the most.
Tequila can be broken down into a number of classes depending on the aging process, and how it is blended and filtered:
Silver tequila or blanco tequila is the best type of tequila. It is the purest expression of agave. Regulations allow tequila blanco to be rested for up to two months in oak barrels and there is no limit on the size of the oak barrel. Many of these tequilas have never seen the inside of an oak barrel and come straight from the still. Still-strength tequilas are sold with 46% ABV or higher.
This is the most popular style of tequila in Guadalajara. Tequila blanco typically has strong notes of agave, citrus, herbs, and grass. It is the purest form of tequila before it is altered by oak barrels.
Tequila Joven u Oro
Gold tequila and joven tequila are styles of tequila that blend a blanco tequila with a small amount of aged tequila. It is very common to use additives such as glycerin, sugar syrup, oak extract, and caramel coloring in these tequilas.
While there are examples of additive-free gold tequilas it is not common.
Reposado tequila is aged in oak barrels from 2 to 12 months. The oak barrels must be made from white oak, American oak, or French oak barrels. Used Borbon barrels, brandy barrels, and wine barrels are all popular choices for aging tequila. There is no limit on the size of the barrel that may be used for aging like there is for añejo and extra añejo tequila.
The oak starts to develop the aromas of vanilla, caramel, and butter complementing the agave flavors. Different tequilas will have very different flavor profiles because of the time and types of barrels the tequilas are left to age in. Lager barrels impart less oak flavor while smaller barrels impart more flavor.
Añejo tequila is aged in oak barrels for a minimum of 12 months. The oak barrels must be less than 600 liters in capacity. A standard wine barrel is usually 225 liters and a bourbon barrel is a little smaller than that. This is where the notes of vanilla, caramel, butterscotch, and oak aromas really start to develop Extra-aged tequila will have a complex flavor and an amber color. Premium añejo tequila bottles are more expensive than blanco tequilas because of the aging process.
Tequila Extra Añejo
Extra añejo tequila is aged in oak barrels for a minimum of 36 months in oak barrels no larger than 600 liters. This is where the caramel and toffee flavors start to intensify and take on notes of whiskey, coffee, and raisins.
Tequila Cristalino or Diamante
This tequila type is not an officially recognized class of tequila but it is a style that is increasingly popular. So popular in fact it is creating a shortage of traditional añejo tequila.
Each tequila company has its own marketing but essentially they are blends of añejo, extra-añejo, and possibly a reposado that are later filtered with activated charcoal. The filtering leaves the tequila crystal clear, visually resembling a tequila blanco but with some of the flavor profile of an añejo.
Many people describe this tequila as smooth because it is easier to shoot because of its mild finish. Much of the spice and ethanol sharpness has been removed in the filtering process.
Flavored Tequilas are not tequilas but tequila-based beverages labeled “Licor” or “Crema”.
How Tequila is Made
While there are a lot of opinions about the different machines used to make tequila the steps are rather similar. Agaves are selected, cleaned, cooked, juiced, fermented, and later distilled, and sometimes aged. How you actually go about each of these steps is what sets one tequila apart from another.
Not only is this big business but it is also agriculture. Every once in a while there will be a shortage of agave and tequila producers need to make the most out of what they have.
Agave, maguey, Metl, and Tocamba all refer to that marvelous tree that is so important to the native peoples of North America. There are well over a hundred different types of agave plants and nearly 40 of those species are used to make mezcal. However, only one species, the blue agave Tequilana Weber, may be used to make tequila.
The agave was known as the marvelous tree to the people of Mesoamerica because of all the uses they found for the plant. You can make paper out of the leaves, nails, and needles out of the points, ropes, clothes, construction equipment, you name it. Today the biggest moneymaker by far is tequila.
The agave is a unique plant that takes a really long time to reach maturity. Some agaves can take up to 30 years to reach maturity. It takes at least 7 years for the blue agave to reach maturity and develop all those sugars that will be turned into tequila. As the agave reaches maturity a stock (quiote) will grow out of the piña and eventually flower. The stock moves sugar from the piña to the flowers making the piña useless for tequila production. Since agaves that have flowered can’t be used for tequila the quiote is removed in most industrial farms.
Most of the agaves on industrial farms are clones. It is impossible to reproduce through pollination if the plants are not allowed to flower. Cuttings are taken from the rootstock and replanted just before the rainy season starts to repopulate the harvested agaves.
There is a movement in some circles of tequila producers to allow for pollination even if it costs more money. There are a number of benefits of pollination including local ecology (bat-friendly tequilas) and genetic diversity. A plague could easily wipe out an industry with little diversity in the plant stock.
An Agricultural Product
The first step of crafting fine tequila is selecting the agaves. As in all agriculture, there is a fine line between ripe and under-ripe. The jimador is the farmworker responsible for selecting ripe agaves for harvest. Agaves are harvested to maximize the sugar content. The agave is cleaned of leaves leaving a ‘piña’. If you leave too much of the leaf it makes the tequila bitter.
The agaves are halved or quartered depending on their size and loaded into steam ovens. This is one of the key differences between Mezcal which uses a very different cooking style. The type of oven depends on the producer.
Brick steam ovens are the most common type of oven to see in the town of Tequila. Autoclaves are like huge pressure cookers. A diffuser is a machine that accomplishes several steps very efficiently but produces a somewhat insipid distillate. Diffusers are controversial. Some people claim they make the process more efficient while others claim they suck the soul out of the tequila.
The Cooked Agave
There are a number of different oven types for cooking the agaves but they all use steam. The steam oven is one of the principal differences between mezcal and tequila. The steam-cooked agaves typically do not taste as smokey as the mezcal agaves do.
Once the agave is cooked you can smell and taste the sugars. The cooked agave is absolutely delicious and I think that great tequila tastes like agaves rather than oak barrels.
The process of extracting the agave sugars from the cooked piñas could be modern or traditional. There are a number of small producers that are going back to ancestral methods. Rather than industrial machinery they are using a tahona like was used a hundred years ago. The tahona is a two-ton stone or concrete wheel that rolls in a circle crushing the cooked agave to extract the sugars. The finished product is expensive but tasty.
The next step is to ferment the agave juice in large vats. This is a chemical process where yeast converts sugar into alcohol. There are dozens of variations that will affect the taste of the final product.
What kind of material is the fermentation tank made of? Is the agave juice fermented with or without the pulp? Is the pulp loose or tied in bunddles? What types of yeast are used to ferment? All of these decisions change the flavor profile of the finished tequila.
Lastly, is the distillation process. Fermentation can only get to 15-20% alcohol before the yeast dies and the conversion stops. Distillation raises the alcohol content by separating the alcohol from the water. The still is heated and the alcohol evaporates at a lower temperature than the water. The alcohol vapor is then cooled and becomes a liquid again with less water and higher alcohol content. Most tequila is double distilled but I have heard there are exceptions to this rule.
The Aging Process
Some people like to age tequila in oak barrels like you would age wine or whiskey. The oak adds a new flavor profile that you don’t find in agaves. This started as a marketing tactic to break into the US beverage market. US consumers were accustomed to drinking whiskey aged in oak barrels and Mexican producers wanted to take a little market share by introducing a similar product. It is interesting that in today’s multinational conglomerate atmosphere used whiskey barrels are sent from Jack Daniels to Herradura to age tequila.
Again, I highly recommend visiting both a large distillery and a small distillery. The big distilleries have great tours and theme park-style manicured grounds. Jose Cuervo has created a really enjoyable experience between the hotel, the distillery, the restaurants, and the events.
The smaller distilleries don’t have distribution in the United States. Many are making tequila for their family, friends, and community. There are some great small producers making very unique styles of tequila. While you are here, I recommend trying tequilas that you are only going to find in this part of Mexico.
How to order Tequila
Now that we have gone over the styles of tequila we need to see how it is ordered. While modern cocktail bars are starting to catch on the most common way to order a tequila is called ‘derecho’ or neat. The proper tequila glass (not a shot glass) resembles a champagne flute with a slightly wider mouth. It is not likely that you will find many tequila bars with true tequila glasses on hand. Some will substitute a champagne flute, others will use a small snifter. A shot glass is probably acceptable for most commercial tequilas. I would try to avoid anything gimmicky like a skull. Not only is it difficult to appreciate the aromas but it is difficult to drink out of.
Derecho, Divorciado o Banderita
A common way to order tequila derecho, or neat, is with a banderita or little flag. You will be served three separate glasses of tequila, lime juice, and sangrita. Sangrita is a mixture of tomato and orange juice prepared with Worcestershire sauce, Jugo Maggi seasoning sauce, Tabasco, salt, and pepper. It is kind of like a bloody mary without the horseradish. Sangrita is a great way to clear the palate between tequilas. I am not a fan of the ones that come in a bottle but love the ones we make at the bar.
Your tequila almost always will include one or two sodas with it. Ordering a tequila divorciado you will get a shot glass of tequila, a highball glass with ice, and a soda or two. You then mix the drink as you like at the table or bar. I like to order a can of soda water to sip with my tequila.
You don’t see the classic margarita being served in Guadalajara very often. It is much more common to see a Paloma cocktail or a Cantarito cocktail. The Paloma is a mixture of grapefruit or grapefruit soda and tequila. The Cantarito takes it a little further with grapefruit juice, lime juice, orange juice, grapefruit soda, and salt. They are usually served in traditional clay cups.
How to Drink Tequila
A word to the wise, go easy on the tequila when you are visiting Tequila, Jalisco. If you are taking one of those all-you-can-drink tours they probably aren’t serving the best of the best tequilas and it can turn into a very long day.
Tequila isn’t meant to be shot. It is intended to be sipped. The secret to tasting a high-proof tequila is to first give it a besito. Start with a little kiss just to wet the lips and prime your palette. Lick your lips and let your tongue get used to the alcohol. This way you will be able to appreciate the subtle flavors and secondary smell of each different style of tequila.
Also, don’t forget to drink plenty of water especially if you will be in the sun out in the agave fields. You probably wouldn’t be surprised how many visitors don’t make it through the day.
I hope this lesson has been helpful. I highly recommend you try some new tequilas from the list of 100% additive-free tequilas. There is a whole other tequila industry in Jalisco that many people have never heard of. I have family in Mexico City that has never heard of the local high-quality tequilas that the bar tenders drink.