It only takes a few seconds to down a tequila shot, but the process of making such a popular liquor takes so much more time and work. Tequila is similar to Champagne and Scotch, wherein its production is heavily regulated and can only be produced in specific regions in Mexico.
Authentic tequila can only be made with the Weber Blue Agave plant, which is native to mainly the Jalisco region. This plant will undergo many steps, from cultivation to bottling, to become the bar staple that we know and love.
If you understand the laborious process on how to make tequila, you’ll only appreciate and give the liquor more respect. Let’s dive in!
How Did Tequila Come To Be?
About two millennia ago, the Aztecs discovered the early form of what we know today as tequila and called it Pulque. Fermented from agave juice, Pulque was considered a sacred beverage among the Aztecs and was only administered to the gods and priests.
Another ancestor of tequila is Mezcal. It originated in the early 16th century when Spanish colonists in Mexico began teaching distillation techniques to natives. The colonists’ brandy supply ran out, so they had to become creative with their drinking habits.
The Europeans learned about the natives’ use of agave in the production of pulque, which led them to experiment with the agave plant using European methods and equipment, resulting in mezcal.
Mezcal fans discovered the exceptional quality of the mescal wine produced in the Tequila region of Jalisco. Since the Cuervo family was one of the most prolific producers in the region, the Spanish government granted them official permission to create commercial mezcal in 1795.
By 1858, Cuervo ruled supreme. However, Don Cenobio Sauza, who used to work for Cuervo, started his own distillery that year, too. And for his mescal, Sauza employed only blue agave plant, having been the first brewer to understand its superiority.
His creation was first sold in the United States as “tequila” in 1873. The blue agave concoction was originally dubbed “Tequila Extract” after its location of origin.
Tequila’s market expanded as it was made widely available in the US during the late 19th century. However, it wasn’t until the Prohibition era that tequila became the star alcohol. People who were tired of drinking smuggled Canadian whisky and illegal gin opted for tequila, and they adored it!
What Does Tequila Taste Like?
If you’re a beginner at the tequila scene, the most basic way of differentiating the varieties is by looking at their color, which is impacted by different aging times. Aside from the look, tequilas also differ in aroma and flavor.
There can be variations in the process of making tequila that lends unique aromas to the final product. For instance, when agave is cooked, it’ll have the aroma of both raw and cooked agave, whereas when it is fermented quickly, it’ll smell more raw and unprocessed agave.
Aromas like fruity, floral, spicy, metallic, and chemical are only a few of the many that can be produced during distillation. And the aging process can impart wood, vanilla, cocoa, and coffee
notes of bourbon and other whiskeys because of the used barrels that are often used.
In terms of flavor, tequila can range from fruity and sweet to earthy and savory. Vanilla, black pepper, caramel, honey, citrus, and oak are all present in the background as accent flavors. Aged tequila can be recognized for its more robust flavor.
Rules and Regulations On Tequila Production
Tequila is a protected alcoholic drink in Jalisco, and the process of making it is closely regulated by the government with several rules.
The Tequila Regulatory Council, or Consejo Regulador del Tequila, verifies compliance with these requirements, which include the registration of all agave produce farmed solely for making Tequila. Plus, the labels of all authentic tequilas should have a Norma Oficial Mexicana (NOM) number.
Furthermore, the regulations stipulate that all tequila must include at least 51% blue agave, and producers are permitted to use other sugars, usually cane, for the remaining percentage.
One can tell that a bottle is a pure tequila if it sports a “100% Blue Agave” mark. These are known to have a premium and purer agave taste. On the other hand, tequila that is not 100% blue agave is referred to as a mixto.
ABV-wise, it is required that tequilas should be bottled at least 35% and should go through aging for at least 14-21 days; or, in a Blanco tequila’s case, they are rested.
And regarding labeling, the following information must be included on all tequila bottle labels: type, purity, NOM, distiller’s info, CRT, “Made in Mexico,” Denomination of Origin Tequila (DOT), brand, ABV, additives, volume, batch, warning disclaimer, “Tequila”, and batch size and number.
Process of Making Tequila
Tequila is traditionally produced in a time-consuming, manual process that excludes the use of machinery. However, today’s tequila is typically made with more high-tech processes, though some companies still use traditional methods. Here are the stages in tequila production:
Growing agave is a sluggish task that calls for constant supervision. Depending on the soil, climate, and cultivation, agave can take anywhere from six to ten years to mature and reach harvesting age.
Agave Tequilana Weber variety Azul or blue agave is mainly planted in the Jalisco state of Mexico. This area is rich in the kind of soil the plant thrives in – iron-rich red volcanic soil! About 80% of the blue agave plantation is in Jalisco, and the remainder is in Guanajuato, Michoacán, Nayarit, and Tamaulipas.
It’s also important to provide ample sunlight for the blue agave, as it does best in hot weather. Preferably, the temperature shouldn’t fall below 50°F. However, the absence of a sufficient wet season can also be detrimental to these plants. Fortunately, Jalisco experiences a rainy season from June to October.
Only experts with years of experience are trusted with the delicate task of harvesting the agave. When harvesting the piña, also known as the “heart of the agave,” the harvester, or “Jimador,” uses a sharp, curved tool called a “Coa” to strip the leaves away.
When tequila was made traditionally, it was up to the Jimador to determine when the blue agave was ready to be harvested. Typically, the blue agave plant is mature between 8 and 10 years of age, and the farmers could further determine it based on the sugar concentration.
Modern technology has allowed a more precise and diligent way of determining the sugar content through scientific testing. The legal minimum for sugar content in blue agave is 24% Brix, but some wait until it reaches around 30% and even 40% before harvesting.
Blue agave has no specific harvesting season since they ripen at different rates throughout the year. While some large distilleries harvest and use relatively young agaves, others choose those at least 10 years old and beyond in their production. It’s worth noting that older piñas have more starch than young ones.
Once the plants have been harvested, they need to be cut in halves or quarters before cooking them. You might have heard of “roasting” the agave as it’s the term often used, but this is only applicable to mezcal. For tequila, agave is cooked by steaming.
The chemical reaction necessary to convert the starchy sap into fermentable sugars is triggered by steaming the piña for one to two days. There are two main ways to cook piña: using a traditional brick oven, also called a “horno,” or in a stainless steel autoclave.
The former is the traditional method, which takes more time and muscle, but some producers still favor this as it results in better quality. With this method, the sugars don’t get overly caramelized, which yields sweet and less bitter results.
Autoclave cooking, on the other hand, is more up-to-date, rapid, and high-pressure than horno. Its disadvantage, however, is it retains the bitter components while cooking, hence, yielding bitter results.
In some distilleries, they allow the piñas to cool for one to three days before grinding them. At this point, the flavor of freshly steamed piñas is somewhere between that of a sweet potato or yam and caramelized honey, with a light aftertaste of tequila.
Shredding the piña and pressing for its juice, also known as “aguamiel,” comes after sufficient cooking. This juice is also what’s used to make agave nectar or syrup.
Before the technology existed, wooden mallets were the only means to break up the steamed piñas, and juice extraction was done by stomping, much like grape treading.
However, farmers quickly shifted to using a “tahona,” a huge and heavy volcanic stone wheel used to gently roll on the shredded agave in a pit to extract the aguamiel.
Though this method is vastly superior to smashing things with a wooden mallet, it takes 6-12 hours to finish and is less efficient than a shredder. Furthermore, only 70% of the agave’s sugars will be extracted with this method.
And just a fun fact: to impart a stronger agave flavor to the mosto or must, some tequila producers take some of the crushed fiber from the tahona pit after the extracting process to the fermentation tanks!
In today’s tequila distilleries, they utilize mechanical crushers or shredders to get rid of the spent agave fibers. First used to process sugar cane for rum and aguardiente, this equipment has since found widespread use in the tequila industry.
Fermenting tequila in steel tanks – Image by Long Island Lou Tequila
The fermentation process occurs in stainless steel tanks or wooden vats. Producers first check for the sugar concentration in the aguamiel, which is strictly maintained between 8% and 16%. Water may be added to ensure the sugar concentration reaches this requirement.
The characteristics of the tequila will be influenced by the strain of yeast used to ferment it. Traditional practices involve using yeasts that are naturally present in the air and spontaneously trigger fermentation. But the majority of distilleries now employ commercial yeast for a quicker process.
During fermentation, the yeast feeds on the sugars and carbohydrates in the juice and converts them to alcohol via enzymatic reactions. Similar to how the blue agave can be cloned by dividing off new plants from existing ones, yeast can reproduce asexually through budding.
It takes about three to five days for fermentation to complete, but it might take as long as 12. Some producers like to employ lengthy fermentation because they want their tequila to be more robust. The product after this step is then called mosto.
Distillation is important as it purifies the mosto and provides a higher alcohol concentration. There are two main kinds of stills used for tequila distillation: classic alembic, which is sometimes referred to as a pot still, and the modern column, also called a Coffey still.
Tequila is typically subjected to two separate distillation processes. When the distillers are through with the first round, they are left with a hazy liquor known as “ordinario.”
The initial distillation lasts for 1.5 – 2 hours at temperatures of 195-205°F. This converts mosto, which typically contains about 4.5–5.5% alcohol, into a product containing between 23-25% alcohol. Alcohol evaporates during the distillation, leaving behind mostly water and particulates.
The second distillation, which takes about 3 – 4 hours, will result in the production of a clear liquid which is now called tequila. Adding ingredients like caramel or wood essence, or letting the tequila age in wooden oak barrels, give some tequilas their final hue.
The spirit’s complexity is heightened, and new aromas and flavors are introduced as it ages. A broad range of factors influences the final product and its quality during the maturing process.
The type of wood barrel, the degree of charring or toasting, years of aging, the type of spirit the cask used to age, and environmental factors, such as humidity, temperature, and ABV, all play a role.
Most commonly, tequila is matured in repurposed American whiskey barrels. The rules, however, permit any kind of oak – Canadian, French, and Hungarian oak are some examples, as well as brand-new barrels.
Although the duration of the maturing process will change depending on the type of tequila that is being produced, it is required that all tequilas age for a minimum of two to three weeks. Below are the different types of tequila and how long they’re aged:
- Blanco Tequila – 0 to 2 months (rested)
- Reposado Tequila – 2 months to 1 year
- Añejo Tequila – 1 to 3 years
- Extra Añejo Tequila – 3+ years
- Joven Tequila – blend of both aged and unaged tequilas
Blanco tequila, also known as Plata or white tequila, and Joven are the only two varieties of tequila that are not matured. While Blanco tequilas can be held in airtight stainless steel tanks, this does not impart any additional age to the spirit; they just get rested.
The longer a tequila has spent aging, the dark its color. This is why Reposado tequila, along with Añejo and Extra Añejo range from light gold to dark brown.
Before being bottled, the tequila is filtered through cellulose filters or activated charcoal to get rid of any remaining impurities.
Then, the tequila gets bottled via a high-tech, mechanized filling machine which, most of the time, is also equipped with other functions such as placing corks, putting labels, testing the clarity and quality control, and washing the bottles with tequila (for some).
But that’s not to say manual fillings of tequila bottles do not exist anymore. Some distilleries still use human labor for the bottling process. Some even insert the corks and paint their labels by hand.
In order to sell something created in Jalisco after bottling, it must first obtain an origin certification. Otherwise, ‘Hecho en Mexico’ (Made in Mexico) is all that has to be said on the label if the tequila is made in other areas in Mexico.
Can I Produce Tequila At Home?
Realistically speaking, making tequila at home is possible, but the things that need to be done before you can do so make it nearly impossible. And in essence, it’s not illegal to make your own tequila at home; it’s only illegal if you don’t follow the necessary regulations.
Moreover, there are three challenging conditions you must meet:
- Your Weber blue agave plant must come from one of the five states in Mexico where its cultivation is legally allowed – Jalisco, Michoacan, Nayarit, Tamaulipas, and Guanajuato;
- Your “home” tequila distillery must be found in one of the mentioned five states, and most importantly,
- The Tequila Regulatory Council must give you their stamp of approval, meaning that you have passed all of their necessary inspections and have earned certificates.
These procedures for acquiring authorization are generally time-consuming and complicated. To avoid squandering time or resources, it is vital to pay attention to a great deal of detail, and the processes must be carried out in the appropriate sequence.
And even if you’re meeting these important requirements, you also have to factor in the cost of cultivating your Weber blue agave plant or sourcing them, the necessary tools or machinery, and more!
Plus, you aren’t guaranteed a well-tasting tequila despite all the effort and money you’ll be putting into your home tequila production.
The needed equipment is typically quite pricey for the hobbyist distiller, and even if you have already acquired it, it can still be risky. Since alcohol evaporates quickly and is flammable, it poses a significant danger; thus, distilling requires care and expertise.
The bottom line is that making your own tequila requires much work, and if you factor in the cost and time involved, it’s probably not worth it.
It would be wiser just to buy tequilas made by established brands, or if you want to see how tequilas are made, you could always source for distilleries that offer tours!
Tequila involves a special ingredient and has a fascinating production process that takes a lot of resources and effort. Learning about the dedication and particularity of tequila production makes it more interesting and valuable.
So, when you buy a bottle of your favorite tequila next time, try to examine the label to get a glimpse of how it was made. And if you want to take it further, you can always research for more information online.
What are your thoughts about the process of making tequila? We’d love to hear them, so comment below!
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