Make sure you know the basics.
Tequila sales are booming and Mexico’s most famous spirit is now more popular than ever. But if you are someone who still just thinks of it as "that thing I used to shoot on spring break," here are some terms that every tequila drinker should know.
First things first, what exactly is tequila? This spirit is a specific type of mezcal made from the blue agave plant and it is primarily produced in the area surrounding the city of Tequila, northwest of Guadalajara.
This is worth a mention just to make sure you're clear on the differences. Tequila is a type of mezcal, much like how scotch and bourbon are types of whiskey. Mezcal is defined as any agave-based liquor, which includes, but is not limited to, tequila. In total, mezcal is made from more than 30 varieties of agave. While modern “tequila” didn’t come to be until the 1800s, mezcal dates back to the 1500s when it was made by brandy-obsessed Spanish conquistadors.
Jalisco is the central Western Mexican state where 80 percent of all blue agave is grown. While laws have been relaxed so that tequila can be made in other Mexican states that don’t include the actual town of Tequila, very few distilleries operate outside of Jalisco.
Tequila, along with all other mezcals, must be made from agave. This desert plant is native to northern Mexico and the southwestern United States and includes hundreds of varieties. Tequila, however, requires blue agave, which thrives in the rich, volcanic soil found in Jalisco. Blue agave is larger than most other varieties used for mezcal and its core possesses a higher concentration sugar, which makes it especially suitable for alcohol production.
Normas Oficial Mexicana (NOM)
Much like France’s appellation d’origine contrôlée, the Normas Oficial Mexicana (NOM) certifies that specific spirits meet the geographic and ingredient-based requirements of Tequila.
For a spirit to be tequila, it must be made from at least 51 percent blue agave. If the tequila contains anything less than 100 percent blue agave, however, it is considered to be a mixto. Many of us may have had our first tequila experience with a mixto and not even known it: Jose Cuervo Especial.
Blanco, or silver, tequila is the most common take on the blue agave spirit. It is perfectly clear and can either be bottled directly after distillation or aged in steel tanks for up to 60 days.
Joven, or gold, tequilas are typically Blanco mixtos that have had coloring and flavoring added prior to bottling. These tequilas are less expensive and commonly used for mixed drinks. However, Joven tequila can also be the result of blending a Blanco with a Reposado or Añejo in order to maintain the 100% agave classification.
Reposado, or rested, tequila is aged in wooden barrels for anywhere from two months to a year and takes on a golden color as a result. Many different types of barrels are used for aging, including those that previously stored bourbon, cognac or wine.
Tequila that ages for more than one year is classified as Añejo, or “extra aged.” Distillers are required to age Añejo tequila in wooden barrels that do not exceed 600 liters. As a result of the extended aging process, Añejo tequila develops a rich, amber color and a more complex flavor.