Discover the different types of tequila that differ in the way they are made and aged and learn all about the various ways to serve tequila as well as the various cocktails that can be made using tequila.
20 years ago there weren’t all that many tequila brands.
Fast forward and now we have bespoke tequilas popping up all over the place. Maybe George Clooney’s and Rande Gerber’s massive $1 billion success spurred the movement. Who knows?
Fancy bespoke brands aside, there are 5 main types of tequila. That’s what we cover here.
Tequila is a regional distilled drink that is made from the blue agave plant. This alcoholic drink is made primarily in the regions surrounding the city of Tequila. Jalisco is the most famous central western Mexican state where this drink is made. In most regions of the world, tequila is served as a shot with lime and salt; however, it is served neat in Mexico.
Tequila is a type of mezcal, and both of these drinks are produced in the same region. The difference between them is that tequila can only be made from blue agave plants rather than any other type of agave. The city of Tequila is the biggest producer of the drink due to the red volcanic soil, which is well-suited for the production of the blue agave plant. More than 300 million plants are harvested from the region each year for tequila production.
The type of tequila is dependent on where the blue agave plant was grown. Agaves that are harvested from the lowlands of the region tend to have a more herbaceous flavor and fragrance. On the other hand, plants grown in the highlands of Los Altos have a sweeter taste and aroma as well as a larger size.
The required alcohol content for tequila production is 35-50%. Mexican law dictates that only the state of Jalisco and some limited municipalities in other states can produce tequila. In more than 40 countries, Mexico is recognized as the origin of tequila. In Canada and the United States, it is protected by NAFTA, while other countries such as Israel and Japan have bilateral agreements with Mexico on tequila. It has protected designation in the European Union as well.
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History of Tequila
The first record of tequila dates back to the 16th century near the city of Tequila. This city was not fully established until 1666. In pre-Columbian central Mexico, a fermented beverage called pulque was made from the agave plant. After Spanish conquistadors ran out of the brandy they had bought, they began to distill the agave beverage. This was the first North American indigenous distilled spirit.
Around 80 years later, the mass production of tequila was started by Don Pedro Sánchez de Tagle. This was the first tequila factory situated in the modern-day territory of Jalisco. The first person to export tequila to the United States was Don Cenobio Sauza. His grandson’s efforts led to the international belief that real tequila only comes from the Mexican state of Jalisco, where the agave was used.
Many tequila brands have remained family-owned businesses, but the most well-known brands have developed into multi-national corporations. Over 100 distilleries in Mexico make over 900 brands of tequila in the country. Around 2,000 brand names have been registered as of 2009. This is why you will notice a serial number that is assigned to the bottle of tequila depicting which distillery it was sourced from. Due to the number of distilleries, multiple brands of tequila can emerge from the same location.
5 Types of Tequila
A lot of people think that there are only two types of tequila: the cheap kind that will ensure you are crippled the next morning with an unforgettable hangover that gives you dry mouth and a debilitating headache, or the premium, expensive tequila that drains the bank account. In reality, there are five different types of tequila that differ in the way they are made and aged.
Remember, some of the toughest regulations impact how tequila is produced. It can only be made around the city of Tequila, which includes some regions of Jalisco, Michoacán, Nayarit, Guanajuato, and Tamaulipas. There are also two basic categories of tequila that dictate the production of the liquor. The first is called mixto, which includes at least 50% agave sugar in the production, mixed with other sugars like fructose and glucose. The 100% agave tequila is made only from the sugars of blue agave plants.
Blanco tequila is a clear white spirit drink, which is commonly known as ‘plata’ or ‘silver’ tequila. This type of tequila is usually served un-aged. Right after being distilled, it is bottled and packaged to be sold. During the production process, some distillers will allow the spirit to settle or ‘finish’ in stainless steel tanks for around 4 weeks before it is bottled for sale. Some rare blanco tequila products are even aged for 2 months for a ‘suave’ or smooth spirit.
This type of tequila is known for the truest flavors since it is served in its purest form. The flavor of the blue agave plant can truly shine since it hasn’t gone through the aging process in wood barrels. Distillers have been known to call this type of tequila, “the essence of tequila.” This is because it holds the most genuine taste of the natural sweetness of blue agaves.
The name Joven is derived from the Spanish word meaning ‘young.’ It is commonly known as Gold Tequila because of the rich golden or light brown color that the drink has. This liquor’s colors come from the flavoring agents added to it, such as sugar, oak tree extracts, glycerin, and caramel coloring. These flavorings and colorings are added right before the bottling process begins.
Joven tequila is also made by combining un-aged Blanco tequila with other extra-aged or aged tequilas. The Joven tequila type isn’t as popular as other tequila types like Blanco, Añejo, and Reposado. Gold tequila is mostly made from the mix to process and served in the form of mixed drinks like margaritas. This is mainly because it is one of the more affordable types of tequila.
Reposado tequila is known as ‘rested’ or ‘aged’ tequila. It is heavily regulated by the Mexican government and production guidelines have been laid out clearly for the production of this type of tequila. Reposado tequila has to be aged in oak barrels for at least two months to be classified as this type. The maximum amount of aging is the year mark after distillation.
Reposado tequila has a gold color and is usually aged in French oak or white oak barrels. The resins and tannins in the barrels dictate the resulting flavor of the brand. Different types of wood barrels give the drink its different flavors. Barrels may be previously used to age other spirits like bourbon, whiskey, cognac, or wine, which can impact the taste of the tequila.
Añejo tequila is derived from the Spanish word ‘old.’ Añejo tequila has guidelines for the aging process which dictate that the drink must be aged in oak barrels for at least a year but less than three years. The Mexican government has issued a law that states that for tequila to be considered añejo tequila, the liquor can only be aged in barrels with a maximum capacity of 600 liters.
This type of tequila is usually aged in French oak casks, whiskey barrels, or cognac barrels. This tequila is usually richer, smoother, and more complex than reposado tequilas, which are only aged for a year at most. It develops a smooth amber color that is slightly darker than reposado tequila. These tequilas have also garnered the name of ‘vintage’ tequila.
Extra Añejo Tequila
Extra Añejo tequila is also known as ultra-aged liquor. It was recognized by the Mexican government in 2006 and goes through the same process in the distillery as añejo tequila. It even has the same aging process as the añejo tequila but for a longer time period. This tequila is only classified as extra añejo if it has been aged for more than three years.
The tequila needs to be aged in a barrel that doesn’t exceed more than 600 liters. The result is a darker color of dark mahogany añejo. Due to the lengthy process behind the production of this extra añejo, this type of tequila is the most expensive but also the smoothest tequila. After the aging process has passed, the alcohol content of the liquor is diluted with distilled water.
The most traditional way to drink tequila in Mexico is neat, without any salt and lime on the side. In some regions, fine tequila is served with a side of sangrita as well. This is a sour, sweet, and spicy drink which is usually made with grenadine or tomato juice, orange juice, and hot chili. Equal-sized shots of sangrita and tequila are sipped alternately to take the edge off the tequila being consumed.
Bandera is another popular tequila drink in Mexico named after the Mexican flag. It is made with three shot glasses that resemble the flag with one filled with lime juice (for the green color), one with white tequila and the last one with sangrita (for the red color).
In the rest of the world, tequila is usually served with a slice of lime and salt. This sometimes referred to as “lick-sip-suck”, “lick-shoot-suck”, or “training wheels” since the ingredients are imbibed in this way, but overall, it is called the Tequila Cruda. The drinkers of the tequila cruda moisten the back of their hands by licking right below the index finger and then pour salt on it. The salt is licked off, and the tequila is drunk. It is then followed by quickly biting off the fruit slice. This is usually a group activity that is conducted in a simultaneous fashion. In some regions, people drink tequila in a way that is known as the Tequila Slammer. This is the combination of a carbonated drink with a mix of tequila.
Lime is the most common chaser for tequila shots since it balances and enhances the flavor of tequila. Salt also helps to lessen the burn of tequila. In some countries like Germany, ‘oro’ gold tequila is often consumed with a slice of orange and cinnamon. White tequila like Blanco is usually only served with lime and salt.
The bottles of tequilas are considered mixto tequila unless they have a label on them that shows that they are manufactured with 100% blue agave. Some tequila manufacturers do have labels like ‘made with/from blue agave’ but only those made completely from agave can be designated as 100% agave.
Some lower-quality tequila brands market their products to be served chilled, especially when consumed as a shot. Chilling the alcohol of lower-quality tequila actually helps to mask the smell and flavor it has. When chilled, the alcoholic drink is more palatable to the customer, even though it is the cheap kind.
If you choose higher-quality, 100% agave tequila, you will not experience any significant alcohol burn. It will probably remove most of the flavor if you have it with lime and salt. This is why these types of tequilas are usually sipped from a snifter glass rather than the normal shot glass; they are designed to be savored instead quickly gulped. Sipping allows the drinker to taste the subtle flavors and fragrances that would otherwise be missed.
When tequila is served neat (without any additional ingredients), it is served in narrow shot glasses called ‘Caballito.’ This word means ‘little horse’ in Spanish. However, it can also be served in tumblers or snifters. The Riedel-made Ouverture Tequila glass was approved as the official tequila glass in 2002 by the Consejo Regulador del Tequila.
Some people also use the margarita glass for tequila consumption. It is often lined with salt or sugar and has become the staple for most tequila-mixed drinks.
There are many cocktails that are made using tequilas. Each has its own flavor profile that enhances the flavor of the Mexican alcoholic drink.
The tequila-infused margarita cocktail is one of the most popular drinks in the United States, which also helped make tequila popular in the region. A margarita is a delicious cocktail mixed with lime juice, orange liqueur and, of course, tequila. It is often served with salt lined on the rim of the glass. The drink is usually served shaken on the rocks (with ice), without ice, or blended with ice (frozen margaritas).
It is acceptable to serve margaritas in different types of glasses from wine or cocktail glasses to pint glasses or large schooners. However, the drink is traditionally served in eponymous margarita glasses, which is a stepped-diameter variant of champagne coupes and cocktail glasses.
This tequila-based cocktail is named after the Spanish word for ‘dove.’ The Paloma is usually prepared by combining tequila, grapefruit-flavored soda like Jarritos, Squirt, or Fresca, and lime juice. It is served on the rocks, usually with a lime wedge and sometimes with salt on the rim of the glass. Some people replace the grapefruit soda with fresh red or white grapefruit juice called Jugo de Toronja. It can also be made with club soda (optional sugar) and freshly-squeezed lime juice.
Simple Paloma is only made from two ingredients: grapefruit-flavored soda and tequila. More complex variants are called Cantarito, which has lime juice and orange or lemon juice.
Martinis are usually made with vermouth or gin and served with a garnish of lemon twists or an olive. Some versions of this drink are made with white Blanco tequila and sweet white vermouth. Tequila martinis are served with lemon juice and dashes of orange bitters. They are usually garnished with a lemon twist or olive as well.
The Tequila Sunrise a popular colorful cocktail made with orange juice, grenadine syrup, and tequila. It is served in a tall glass, unmixed. The origin of the drink dates back to the 1970s from Sausalito, California, and is named for its appearance. It looks like a sunrise due to the gradations in color.
The Matador is less widely known than the margarita but remains a popular tequila-based cocktail. The structure of the drink is relatively simple since it just has three main ingredients: lime juice, pineapple juice, and Blanco tequila. These are the three main exports in Mexico. The pineapple acts as the sweetener for the drink. The Matador is often served in a champagne flute or martini glass.
Tequila Slammers are cocktails that are served in rock glasses. They are commonly known in Mexico as the mópet or muppet. The drink is named after the way it is consumed. Around fifty percent of the glass is left empty to allow the drink to fizz, and then one’s hand is held over the top of the glass. It is then slammed into a hard surface that mixes the drink. This slamming action causes bubbles to rise, causing the drink to foam up. It is imbibed at once so that the gas doesn’t escape and causes swift intoxication.
Tequila Oro is a popular drink in Germany. The added cinnamon and orange make for a nicer and sweeter alternative to the usual lemon and salt version. The latter usually leaves a ‘sour puss’ expression on people that can be avoided by this version. If you choose this tequila drink, go for the 100% agave, higher-quality tequila, since it can enhance the whole experience for you.
Bandera is an exciting experience of drinking. Bandera means flag in Spanish and is quite literally a drink of three shots that look like the Mexican flag when arranged in the right order. This is considered a cocktail despite being served in three different shot glasses. One is filled with fresh lime juice for the green color, one with Blanco tequila for the white color, and the third is full of spicy tomato sangrita for the red color.
When you drink the cocktail, you take a sip of the tequila, followed by the lime juice and then the sangrita. The whole process goes together really well, but the key is to take small sips rather than shoot it down.
There is nothing more synonymous with the word ‘party’ than tequila! It is a popular drink that is consumed on a daily basis by millions of people all over the world. It is a fun drink to indulge in, and it can be even more fun to experiment with all the different tequila cocktails. But do make sure to drink responsibly!