Cocktail Queries is a Paste series that examines and answers basic, common questions that drinkers may have about mixed drinks, cocktails and spirits. Check out every entry in the series to date, including 5 questions on bourbon and 5 questions on rye whiskey.
Of all the major families of spirits that are regularly consumed in the U.S., tequila is both one of the most misunderstood, and one perennially designated as “up and coming.” And indeed, the latter is accurate—tequila is almost always on the rise,. and every year brings more converts who realize that well-made tequila has countless applications beyond the obligatory margarita. In a liquor market that has increasingly been premiumized, tequila has done well for itself, with extra-aged examples becoming commonplace and the spirit often being praised for the neat drinking experience it offers, in addition to its importance to the craft cocktail movement. Tequila is always a spirit with a lot of upside.
Despite this, though, consumers in the U.S. still tend to have a poor grasp of what really defines “tequila” and its brother mezcal, and a loose understanding of how it’s produced and what makes it unique. So with that said, let’s quickly run through everything you really need to know about tequila and mezcal.
In other pieces in this series, I’ve phrased this question as “what is the U.S. definition” of a spirit, but this is one case where a United States definition is unimportant—tequila is defined by the fact that it’s a product of Mexico, and no spirit distilled from agave outside of Mexico can be labeled as “tequila.” The very word “tequila” is a bit like saying “whiskey,” then, in the sense that you’re filing that spirit into a larger, overarching family tree that has many substyles within it.
In the simplest terms, tequila is the product of distilling the fermented juice of Blue Weber agave plants—the only species of agave (and there are many) that is allowed in the production of tequila. Tequila production is well regulated and also limited by region by the “denomination of origin” (AOC) title it received in 1974, which means spirit labeled as “tequila” can only be produced in five Mexican regions: Michoacán, Guanajuato, Nayarit, Tamaulipas, and Jalisco, where the vast majority of tequila is made. Mezcal has similar protections.
To make tequila requires Blue Weber agave plants that have been grown for several years—the agave isn’t considered mature until it reaches 8-12 years old, which means a would-be tequila distillery can’t just start growing agave and produce tequila within a few years. The mature agave is harvested by the skilled tradesmen known as jimadors, who hack away the spiky leaves of the agave to collect the hearts, which are called piña. These large cores of the agave plant are the source of all the fermentable sugars that are used to make tequila. After harvesting, they are traditionally cooked via steam, and then milled and smashed. The juice is then fermented with yeast, and the resulting fermented juice is distilled several times in pot or column stills. What you’re left with is the most basic form of unaged, “blanco” tequila.
Blue Weber agave is a beautiful plant, but the leaves are quite sharp and tough, making its harvesting a challenging job.
Most flagship tequilas from big companies proudly proclaim that they are 100% blue agave tequila—that would be tequila where all of the fermentables come directly from the agave. There is also the cheaper and less reputable style of “mixto tequila,” however, which allows a portion of the fermentables to be other substances, such as sugar or molasses, while also allowing added coloring. “Mixto” is typically seen as lesser-than as a result.
These terms refer to various categories of aged tequila, which are matured in oak barrels much in the same way as American whiskey. Unlike in the tightly defined American whiskey market, though, tequila producers have a wide array of choices when it comes to oak aging. Whereas something like bourbon or rye whiskey in the U.S. must be aged in newly charred oak, tequila producers in Mexico can use new or reused oak, with the latter being more common. Tequila can even be aged in large wooden vats to proclaim it is “oak aged,” but this won’t produce nearly the same amount of influence from the wood as barrels, which have greater surface area contact with the spirit.
Blanco tequila is a bit of a deceptive category, as one might assume this means completely unaged spirit. And indeed, many blancos are unaged, but others are simply aged for short periods (less than two months) in either stainless steel or oak barrels. This style has the freshest, most intense agave flavor and is typically characterized as tasting salty, herbaceous and fruity. However, there are also clear-looking styles such as cristalino, in which a tequila is aged for a year or more before being charcoal filtered to remove that color, in much the same way as aged white rums. It just goes to show that as in other styles of spirits, color can really only tell you so much about what to expect.
Reposado tequila is a lightly aged spirit, designed to “take the edge off” the blanco tequila as it were. Simply meaning “rested” in oak, a reposado has spent at least two months in wood, but less than one year. Many retain the brightness and herbaceousness of the blanco tequila, while smoothing out some of the rougher edges and adding subtle oak influences. Reposado tequilas are versatile and cocktail friendly as a result—you can use them in pretty much all the same scenarios you would use blanco tequila.
Añejo tequila is a spirit that has been aged for at least a year, but less than three years, and is much more influenced by the oak as a result. Unsurprisingly, añejo tequila is often pitched to whiskey drinkers as a result, given that its more extended oak aging tends to open up more impressions of vanilla, caramel and oak from the barrel. It has many cocktail applications, but it likely shouldn’t be swapped into recipes for blanco tequila as you might with reposado. Most añejo tequilas are primarily intended for neat drinking.
Extra añejo tequila is a somewhat less official and more recent category, but a sensible response to the increasing interest in ultra-premium, “top shelf” tequilas that are designed for neat drinking. This label simply denotes that the tequila has spent at least three years in oak, implying that the flavors present in an añejo have simply been taken that much further. Obviously, this is the most oak-defined category of tequila, and at this level you expect to lose some of the fresher/grassier/herbaceous character found in blanco tequila. It is a considerably different type of spirit.
It is common for many brands to offer a blanco, a reposado, and an anejo tequila.
Mezcal, like its brother tequila, is produced from fermented agave juice that is then distilled—the first major difference being the types of agave. Whereas tequila can only be produced from Blue Weber agave as previously noted, mezcal can be produced from any variety of agave, and more than 30 varieties are frequently used in mezcal production as a result. This means that technically you could accurately describe any bottle of tequila as “mezcal” (because it’s made from agave), but only mezcal made from Blue Weber agave, in certain locations, could bear the title “tequila.” Confusing? A bit, perhaps.
There’s one other, major difference, though, that has a bigger impact on the flavor divide between tequila and mezcal, and it has to do with how the agave cores (the piña) are cooked. Whereas in tequila production, the piñas are typically gently and slowly steamed to produce a very clean-tasting distillate, the piñas for mezcal are traditionally slow-roasted in underground pits before being milled. This produces a very different flavor, much in the way that peat-smoked barley produces a very different style of scotch whisky than those whiskies not using peated barley. Commercially produced mezcal isn’t required to have the resulting smoky flavor profile, but this has now become what consumers expect, and producers craft their mezcal to match that expectation. This is all to say that ultimately, mezcal tastes like a smokier, roastier spin on tequila.
Despite that, mezcal does tend to still be subject to misconceptions and disinformation. The very name has made some believe that mezcal has psychedelic properties thanks to its similarity to “mescaline,” but this is completely false. If you see strange things after drinking tequila and mezcal, it’s simply the result of overindulging, as with any other spirit.
Ah yes, the most persistent misconception that has been floating around the concept of tequila for decades—the old “worm in the bottle” issue. To state in the simplest terms: No bottle of tequila actually contains a worm, caterpillar or scorpion. None of these creatures are allowed as an additive in bottles labeled as “tequila.”
That is not to say that these things don’t exist, however—but they exist only in mezcal. The idea of the “worm” in the bottle, referred to in Spanish as con gusano, was simply a marketing gimmick that one mezcal producer introduced decades ago, and it stuck around enough to confuse consumers into thinking that this was a hallmark of the style when it’s actually fairly rare. The “worm” in question is traditionally a caterpillar of the moth Hypopta agavis, a common pest of the agave plant. Some producers of lower-end mezcal began sticking these caterpillars into bottles as a bit of a sideshow gimmick, and the resulting lore and urban legends that built around them—such as the idea that the worm was also a psychedelic if consumed—has resulted in these cheaper brands sticking around for decades. Suffice to say, the “worm” is edible but has no special properties. Higher-end mezcal brands, meanwhile, don’t have any interest in sticking the caterpillars in their bottles.
The vast majority of mezcal is perfectly caterpillar-free.
Bartenders and mixologists are at least partially to thank for tequila’s continued ascent in terms of U.S. consumption, along with the obvious factor of immigration. Thanks to bartenders using tequila in a wide variety of delicious cocktails, public perception of the spirit has slowly moved away from its more collegiate, fratty roots, acknowledging its position as a “fine liquor” with many uses. Whereas a few decades ago, tequila might have been thought of as a spirit fit only for shots with lime and salt, or the foundation of a margarita, it’s now afforded much of the same sort of respect as whiskey, gin or rum.
As for the idea of producing “tequila” within the U.S., it’s an industry that is just starting to take root, but one that faces many challenges. For one, they can’t call the product tequila, that being a protected term for Mexico’s spirit. The few such examples in the U.S. must therefore use terms like “agave spirit,” which leads to distilleries doubting whether consumers will realize this means a product that is meant to function as a tequila replacement.
Likewise, making agave spirits in the U.S. requires a source of mature agave, which means either planting your own agave and waiting years for it to mature, or sourcing it from abroad. Tequila production likewise requires special equipment for stripping, milling and separating juice from pulp, none of which is present in your average American distillery. All in all, it makes producing American-made agave spirits something of a high hurdle to clear, with significant start-up costs.
Still, if tequila continues to grow in popularity in the U.S., it’s something we could see more of in the future.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.