Tequila is distilled from the juice of the abundant blue agave plant’s heart (known as the piña); it has become one of the most popular liquors in the world. While it’s the essential ingredient to the classic margarita, it’s just as popular served “neat” (or with a side of lime and salt, affectionately known as “legs” to it’s legion of fans).

Tequila had a rocky history climbing to the top-shelf of the bar. Let’s learn a little more about this drink, where it came from, how it’s made, and some of the brands that best represent it today.
 

What is tequila?

Tequila is a distilled spirit from Mexico made from the blue agave plant. There are variety of different tequila types, with a long history behind them. 

Shot of añejo tequila with lemon slices

History of tequila

Tequila originated, unsurprisingly, in a Mexican town called Tequila–you can still find it today, roughly 40 miles outside of Guadalajara in the Jalisco state of Mexico.

Mexican tequila has been around since the 1500s, when the Spanish conquistadors drank all of their brandy and decided, “Hey, we should probably start making more liquor.” They saw the abundant blue agave plant fields in the area to provide them their hooch, and the rest is history.

Actually, there was another step involved–but, we’ll talk about that in the distillation segment in a little while.

It was not until some 80 years later that Don Pedro Sanchez de Tagle began to mass-distill the liquor in Jalisco, calling the drink “tequila extract.” Don Cenobio Sauza (you’ll probably recognize his name from the still-popular Sauza brand of tequila) was the first to shorten the name to simply “tequila.”

The liquor, whether tequila gold, tequila silver, is remarkably similar to the drink known as mezcal–in fact, the only true difference between tequila and mezcal is that for the production of tequila, the agave is boiled or steamed before starting the fermentation process. For most Mezcal production, the agave is cooked in wood fire pits, which gives the distinctive smokey flavour.. In the “Venn Diagram” between the circles of tequila and mezcal, there is an interlocking center area–a drink known as “mixto tequila.” Purists might scoff at mixto, but in our opinion, it’s perfectly drinkable–especially when mixed.

 

Different types of tequila

Three bottles of tequila with citrus

There are many different types of tequila that are produced within the tequila industry. Here are the top three but click the link to get an in-depth overview of all the tequila types.
 

Blanco tequila (silver / plata)

Blanco tequila is characterized by not being aged; rather, it’s bottled immediately (or within weeks) after it’s distilled. This is the harshest variety with strong agave flavors, and is typically the most commonly used tequila for shots or tequila slammers. Blanco is also commonly used in tequila cocktails, due to its unique flavour. 

Reposado tequila

Reposado translates to “rested” (i.e. aged), and this variety is aged for at least two months, but not more than a year in an oak barrel. Thus, reposado tequila takes on more of the taste of the wood.

Añejo tequila

Añejo is an aged tequila, hence the requirement that this variety of tequila being aged for over a year in small oak barrels or casks. This obviously lends tequila añejo tequila its distinctive oaky flavor.

Along the same lines, there’s also a recently-added category of high end tequila known as “Extra Anejo” that must be aged for at least 3 years. These are usually the choice for a sipping tequila.

 

Agave field farmers

 

What is tequila made from?

Tequila is made from the blue agave plant and goes through an extensive process of production. 

 

How is tequila distilled? 

Blue agave plant

Now, let’s take a look at how the drink is distilled before it ends up in your Friday night tequila slammer. The key ingredient to tequila is the blue agave plant, pictured above. 

First, the sugary juice of the blue agave plant is pressed out to be extracted. This can be done by hand, but is more commonly accomplished by presses or specific juicers and/or clamps.

Next, the distinctive cactus juice is fermented for three or more days in stainless steel or wooden vats. The temperature slowly rises and the natural wild yeast converts the juice’s sugars into potent alcohol. The process is not done yet, though, because at this stage it’s only about as strong as wine or beer.

Now, we’re getting to the good part: distillation! This is where the Conquistadors’ European (and, before them, Arabic Moorish) influence helped take things to the next level: the copper still is then utilized to distill the juice.

The method from this point on can vary from distillery to distillery, but tequila usually distilled at least twice–sometimes three times, leading to a higher alcohol content (proof). If you’re really into learning about the distillation process, find out whether the bottle you’re interested in was distilled in wood, steel, or copper (copper tequila distilling is increasingly rare, but can still be found if you look hard enough).

Lastly, the liquor is cut with a small percentage of water to turn it into the drink utilized by today’s best tequila brands. The Tequila Regulatory Council (consejo regulador del tequila) will finally access the product and approve it for sale under '100% blue agave' and 'made in Jalisco'. 

You might be wondering where the famous “worm” comes in; for brands that still use it, this is added right before the liquor is bottled.
 

Interested to know more about how is tequila made? Read all about it here on our specialist page. 

 

Most popular tequila brands

Gran Orendian reposado tequila bottle and drink

Not too long ago, it was difficult to find much variety in tequilas outside of Mexico, or the best specialty liquor stores. Jose Cuervo and Sauza were the most commonly found brands worldwide.

The increased popularity of the liquor in the last few decades has been a boon for tequila-holics around the globe. Premium and “craft” tequila brands abound–Patron is one of the most popular in the world, but carries too hefty a price tag for some. Tequila prices really vary from style to style and brand to brand, so be sure to check out our linked expert guide on this! 

Fortunately, mid-range brands like Espolon, Coa, Quiote and the delicious El Jimador tequila reposado (a favorite of ours) are now readily available in bars and liquor stores, along with relatively cheap tequila (but extremely drinkable) offerings from Lunazul and nearly countless other brands.

Depending on personal taste, everybody probably has a different list of their top 10 tequilas, but the ones that we’ve listed above are more than enough to get you started.

If you’re having trouble finding one that you like, ask yourself a few of the following questions:

  • Do I like a crisp, bright taste, or do I prefer a mellower woody flavor? (For the former, choose a blanco tequila, for the latter, an anejo or extra anejo. For in-between,or if you’re not quite sure, it’s hard to go wrong with a good reposado.)
     
  • What’s my budget? (If its on the lower end, you’ll find more variety in the blanco or reposado category. Have some money burning a hole in your pocket? There are many worse things in life you could splurge on than a high-quality extra anejo tequila–just don’t drink it all in one place!)
     
2 Tequila Sunrise cocktails with straws

What to mix with tequila

Wondering what to mix with tequila? Nearly all citrus juices make excellent tequila mixers, as well as lemon/lime sodas like Sprite, or grapefruit ones like Squirt. However, if you ask our opinion, if you’re drinking an anejo or extra anejo tequila, you’re drinking something closer to a nice scotch whisky. This means, to us, that you don’t need much else to enjoy it–maybe a splash of soda water or a little bit of ice (from frozen purified water, of course–don’t let that fluoridated, chlorinated stuff anywhere near a nice bottle). Of course, there are always the classic tequila cocktails to enjoy tequila with! 

However you choose to drink it, next time you order a tequila shot, sunrise, or a tasty marg, remember that you’re not just drinking liquor–you’re drinking a little piece of Mexican history.


 

Where is tequila made? Highland vs Lowland tequila

Jalisco countryside with mountains

As with other alcohol, like wine and whiskey, tequila can also be influenced by geography. The characteristics of the land can heavily influence the characteristics of the tequila itself. Soil and weather conditions play their part in allowing every tequila distillery to produce a unique tequila. This can mean that tequilas of the same style have subtle differences based on its area of production. 

In Jalisco, specifically, the debate exists around ‘highland’ and ‘lowland’ tequila. Within the state, tequila is grown in either one of these two areas. Tequila enthusiasts have long argued over which area produces the better tequila. However, it’s also disputed as to whether the geography plays any significant role in the tequila’s flavour at all. Nonetheless, it’s worth a short explanation… 

Learn more about flavours and tasting tequila here. 
 

Highland tequila

Named in Spanish ‘los altos’, highland tequilas are said to be sweeter and fruitier, according to its enthusiasts. This area of tequila production is home to a richer soil, with intense floral notes. Highland tequilas pick up these sweet, rich flavours easily.

 

Lowland tequila

Those who are fans of lowland tequila (el valle), claim that these tequilas have much stronger flavours. The agave flavour is much stronger and is present alongside herbaceous, spicy, earthy and grassy notes. El valle is wetter and has much better access to water, hence the much earthier flavours.

Discover the highland and lowland tequila for yourself on our EBS Tequila and Mezcal Expedition. 

 

Inspired to master tequila behind the bar? Take a look at our EBS Bartender Courses here.