Updated: May 9
Everyone is familiar with tequila. Most people have had tequila at some point. A few people probably have a story about drinking tequila. But there are things about tequila that many people don’t know. Read on to learn all about tequila- its history, the different types, and of course how to enjoy drinking tequila.
THE HISTORY OF TEQUILA
Tequila is probably the most well-known spirit from Mexico, but there are many interesting facts about tequila that are not common knowledge. Tequila has been around for centuries and it’s the first distilled drink and the first commercially produced alcohol in North America. However, it didn’t start as the tequila that we know today.
Tequila is a distilled alcohol made from a succulent plant called agave. The agave plant, also known as a maguey plant, has many uses other than just making alcohol. Its leaves are used to make a fiber which is then made into many things, including clothing rope, and paper. The agave plant is also used to make sugar, agave nectar, which is a syrup-like sweetener.
The Aztecs harvested the sap from agave plants and fermented the liquid into a milky drink called pulque. Pulque is a distant ancestor to tequila. The first evidence of pulque in history dates all the way back to 200 A.D. when pulque appeared in drawings on cave walls. This drink was so important to the Aztecs and their culture that they even worshipped the gods of alcohol, similar to the Ancient Greeks. These two gods were Mayahuel, the goddess of the agave plant, and her husband Patecatl, the god of pulque. Needless to say, pulque was a prized part of the Aztec culture.
Many centuries later, in the 1500s, the Spanish arrived in North America and first distilled agave. It was common in Europe to drink alcohol with meals because the water was not clean and therefore was unsafe to drink. As their supply of alcohol, such as brandy, started to dwindle, the Spanish turned to the agave plant to produce more alcohol from local resources. With some experimentation, the Spanish improvised with agave and mud and created what was known as mezcal wine. In the early 1600s, the first large-scale distillery was built in Tequila, Jalisco.
In the 1700s mezcal became an important export because the town of Tequila was on a major trading route. The Cuervo family began to distill tequila commercially in 1758 and at one point they had more than three million agave plants in their fields. The Cuervo family was the first distiller to put their tequilas into bottles instead of barrels and their first bottle was sold in 1906. Now known as Jose Cuervo, it is the largest manufacturer of tequila today.
Don Cenobio Sauza bought a distillery in 1873 and started producing tequila. He is credited for using blue agave for his tequila and determining that it was the best type of agave plant to produce tequila. Since then it has become the standard in tequila production. Sauza owns around 300 agave plantations and is the second-largest manufacturer of tequila.
During Prohibition, tequila’s popularity rose while it was being smuggled across the border. It also saw many changes in its production during that time. Distillers started using non-agave sugars in their fermentation process that not only affected the actual product but also changed the reputation of the tequila industry. At one point, some distillers were using 49% other sugars, mainly cane sugar, in their tequilas.
As a result, various steps were taken to attempt to regulate different aspects of tequila and its production. The Mexican government said that any product with the name “tequila” must be made from distilling agave and must be from Jalisco in Mexico. They also made it illegal for other countries to produce and sell their own tequilas. There is a Tequila Regulatory Council created to oversee quality control and maintain standards in the production of tequila.
Tequila consumption continued to grow in the United States and soon it started to transition to being thought of as a high society spirit. In 1983, the first premium tequila, Chinaco, was sold in the United States and helped tequila appeal to a wider audience.
Today there are more than 500 brands of tequila on the market. It’s so popular that even celebrities like George Clooney have their own tequila brands (Clooney’s tequila is Casamigos and it’s quite good). Every bar has a tequila cocktail on its menu and some bars are dedicated to the spirit. Two noteworthy bars that celebrate tequila are Mayahuel and Leyenda. They are located in New York City and I have been to both so I can personally vouch for their unique menus and delicious cocktails.
National Tequila Day is July 24th and is dedicated to celebrating the beloved spirit. Get together with other tequila fans and go to a bar that specializes in tequila to try a few different kinds for a fun celebration. Buy a bottle or two and invite some friends over to experiment with tequila cocktails and enjoy a nice summer night at home. Make it easy on yourself and check out our margarita-making kit for everything you need to whip up some tasty margaritas. Best idea yet- get a few kits and host a margarita-making party with a group of friends! It’ll be lots of fun and you’ll be talking about it for the rest of the summer.
TEQUILA VS MEZCAL
Tequila and mezcal are often confused and sometimes even used interchangeably. They may seem similar at first, but once you know more about them, each one has its own unique characteristics. Tequila and mezcal are both Mexican spirits and they are both made from the agave plant, but that’s about it for their similarities.
A popular phrase in the alcohol world is “All tequila is mezcal, but not all mezcal is tequila.” Mezcal is defined as alcohol made from agave, so tequila is a type of mezcal. This is in the same way as scotch and bourbon are types of whiskey.
Tequila must be made with blue agave and only in specific parts of Mexico, so it has stricter guidelines for production. Mezcal can be made with many types of agave; up to 30 varieties of the plant are used in fermentation. Furthermore, mezcal can be produced in many regions of Mexico, some overlapping with those of tequila production, but with a wider range.
The way that each spirit is made is also different. They are both made from the core of the agave plant called the pina. Tequila is made by steaming the agave and then distilling it in copper pots. Mezcal is made by cooking the agave in mud pits and smoking it with wood and charcoal then distilling it in clay pots. This technique is what gives many mezcals their smoky flavor profile.
TYPES OF TEQUILA
A bottle of tequila can only be labeled as” tequila” if agave sugar makes up at least 51% of its fermented sugars. There are two classifications of tequila: mix and 100% agave. A mixed tequila has a combination of agave sugars and other sugars, usually cane sugar or corn sugar, used in fermentation. A 100% agave tequila is exactly what it sounds like- a tequila made from only the agave sugars with no other sugars added. The pure agave gives this tequila a smoother taste and these are usually higher quality so they could be enjoyed as a sipping tequila. A mixto tequila is generally cheaper and is better for making cocktails.
There are three main types of tequila: Blanco, reposado, and Anejo, as well as two variations that have been added more recently: Joven and Extra Anejo. The names mostly refer to the length of the aging process and each of these tequilas has its own specifications and qualities.
Blanco Tequila is the youngest tequila, usually aged for only a few weeks and up to a few months. Blanco tequila is also referred to as silver, white, Plata, or platinum because it is clear in color. This is because the aging process is short so it doesn’t develop the color of older tequilas. It’s usually made from 100% agave so even though it’s young in age, it is still quite smooth to drink. Blanco tequila is the most common for mixing cocktails because it’s lighter and less expensive than older types.
Joven tequila comes next, as “Joven” means “young” in Spanish. Other names for Joven tequila are dorado, gold, or oro because of its slightly golden hue. This is usually a mixto tequila, meaning it is made from a combination of agave and other sugars. However, sometimes there are also other things added such as grain alcohol or coloring, so this type isn’t as pure. To enjoy a quality joven, make sure it’s made from 100% agave with no additives.
Reposado tequila means that it has been rested. For tequila to be classified as a reposado, it must be aged in wood casks for anywhere between two months to a year. Distilleries will often age their tequilas in barrels that had been used for bourbon to add a slight flavor to the aged tequila. This aging process causes the tequila to take on a natural golden color. It also imparts some flavors from the barrels such as oak and vanilla, making a reposado tequila more complex and nuanced. Reposado tequilas are sometimes used in cocktails, but drinking it neat or on the rocks allows the drinker to fully enjoy it and taste all the subtle flavors.
Anejo tequila is an aged tequila that has been rested in barrels for a minimum of one year. The aging process is similar to the reposado tequila, but the longer aging time gives the Anejo tequila even more flavor from the barrels and an even darker color. It also tends to lose some of the agave characteristics of a younger tequila. An Anejo tequila is so smooth and full of flavor that it is best enjoyed as a sipping tequila to appreciate all it has to offer.
Extra Anejo tequila is the oldest, or longest-aged, of all the types of tequila. It must be aged for at least three years in barrels which makes it the darkest in color. It is so complex and smooth that it should not be mixed into a cocktail. Sipping it neat or with a little water is the best way to enjoy an extra Anejo tequila.
HOW TO ENJOY TEQUILA
Tequila can be enjoyed in many ways. The most common ways are in cocktails, such as the margarita, or taking shots of tequila with salt and lime. However, taking shots of cheap tequila tends to lead to hangovers and drinkers having poor experiences, then being turned off from trying tequila again.
Tequila isn’t usually thought of as alcohol to be had straight. With its popularity increasing, more drinkers are educating themselves about tequila and realizing that it can be enjoyed as a sipping spirit, just like whiskey, scotch, or bourbon. This is the case for tequilas that are aged longer and have different flavor profiles. If they are mixed in a cocktail, some of the more subtle flavors could be lost. Therefore, if you’d like to taste the differences between tequilas, whether it’s brands or ages, drinking them neatly or with a little water is the best way.
Tequila cocktails are also a great way to enjoy the spirit. For some, sipping any alcohol on its own is just not appealing, so mixing it into a cocktail is the perfect solution. For tequila cocktails, using a younger tequila such as a Blanco is best. You could use a tequila that is aged for a different and smokier flavor, but it would also be a pretty expensive cocktail.
THE MARGARITA: AMERICA’S FAVORITE COCKTAIL
There are many tequila cocktails and more being created by bartenders every day. But none is more popular or more famous than the margarita. In its most basic form, a margarita is made up of three ingredients: tequila, lime juice, and Cointreau. The margarita is America’s favorite cocktail- it was the most-ordered drink in 2008 and in Nielsen surveys, the margarita has been at the top of the list since 2016.
As with many popular things, there are many stories and theories about the origin of the margarita. One of the most famous stories credits Margarita Sames for creating the drink in 1948. Legend has it that two of her favorite spirits were tequila and Cointreau, so she mixed them together and added some lime juice, and the margarita was born.
Margaritas are great for any celebration and a frozen margarita is especially refreshing in the heat of the summer. Although the basic margarita recipe is simple, there are so many variations that keep it exciting to drink. It has the basic components of many cocktails- alcohol (tequila), acid (lime juice), and sweet (Cointreau). This allows for easy changes because an additional fruit could be used and it alters the flavor profile of the drink. One of my favorites is the passion fruit margarita which can be made by simply adding some passion fruit syrup!
Another great twist on the margarita is to make it spicy. The most common way to add some heat to your drink is with jalapeno peppers. This could be done in different ways. The easiest is to muddle a few slices of fresh jalapeno in a shaker while mixing your drink. Another way is to infuse the tequila with jalapenos beforehand, giving it a deeper and more flavorful spice. There are bottles of infused tequilas on the market but you could also make your own at home. Get a few small jalapeno peppers or other spicy peppers of your choice, and puncture them a few times to allow the liquid to reach the center, then add them to the bottle of tequila. The number of peppers you use and the length of infusion time depends on your preference for spice level. Either way, you can’t go wrong with a delicious spicy margarita.
Margaritas are usually served with salt along the rim of the glass. This is because the addition of salt naturally brings out the flavors of the margarita. It tastes both sweeter and more tart when enjoyed with a little salt. You could even mix it up and add a chili salt or tajin rim to your margarita for an extra kick.
Interested in margaritas and want to make your own at home? Try our margarita class and learn all about the cocktail including how to make it yourself!
Let us know how you’ll be celebrating National Tequila Day on July 24th. Please drink responsibly and enjoy a fun summer celebration! Cheers!