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Preparation of Tequila

Tequila is a type of mezcal made only from the blue agave plant. It was developed from traditional Aztec brews after the Spanish brought the art distillation to Mexico, which allowed for the production of stronger liquor.

Tequila is a distant cousin of an Aztec fermented drink called pulque, which was used extensively in Mexican medicine and ritual for centuries. One of the many legends surrounding pulque says that it was given to the Aztecs by the Gods when a lighting bolt struck an agave plant, releasing the magical aguamiel (honey-water). Aguamiel is the term used today to describe the juice extracted from tequila's blue agave.

To make tequila, the blue agave is harvested when its starch is ripe enough that it will convert to sugar, usually at around 8-10 years. Its long leaves are cut off and the cores (aka piñas, which resemble pineapples) are roasted to create sugar. The aquamiel is extracted and put into pot stills with water and yeast. During fermentation, which lasts about 1-1/2 to 2-1/2 days, the yeast converts the sugar into alcohol. Then the brew is twice distilled.

Like the French AOC for wine, the Mexican NOM (Norma Oficial Mexicana) sets some standards for tequilas. For instance, tequila must be produced in a specific Mexican region, and anything labeled "aged tequila" or "100% agave" must be bottled in Mexico. (Most tequila today is 51% agave.) The classifications of tequila are:

White, silver, or blanco: Ready for immediate sale after fermentation.
Gold: Oak aged for 2+ months.
Reposado: Oak aged for up to 1 year.
Añejo: Oak aged for at least a year.


Fast Facts

  • Tequila is a town in Mexico that takes its name from a local Indian tribe. The word comes from a local language either translates to “rock that cuts” or “lava hill” experts can’t seem to agree. Either way, the agaves grow on a dormant volcano and sharp volcanic obsidian rocks surround the area.
  • Jimador is a worker skilled in harvesting agave.
  • All tequila is mezcal but not all mezcal is tequila. Mezcal is made from many types of agave, while tequila is only made from the blue agave.
  • The liquor mezcal is unrelated to the drug mescal (aka peyote).
  • Tequila is NOT made from cactus, but from the agave - a member of the lily family.
  • Tequila's widespread popularity in the US began around the 1940s with the invention of the margarita (origin unknown), and drinks like the tequila sunrise, though large amounts of it were smuggled across the border during prohibition.
  • The worm in the tequila bottle was never a Mexican tradition. It may have been invented to boost sales (or who knows, maybe it started with an accident and a clever lie.)

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