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Tequila, possibly Mexico’s most famous export, has seen an explosive growth in global popularity in recent years. The spirit takes its name from the town of Tequila which lies in the south west, near Mexico’s second city of Guadalajara. The rules for production are governed by the Consejo Regulador del Tequila (CRT), and Tequila can only come from five regions: Michoacán, Guanajuato, Nayarit, Tamaulipas, and Jalisco.

What is agave?
The other notable rule is that even though there are more than 200 varieties of agave, only one, the blue weber agave, can be used to make Tequila. The agave plant is a succulent native to Mexico. Don’t call it a cactus, the two are not related in any way. Some agave grows wild though most of the plants for Tequila production are now cultivated.

How long does agave take to grow?
An agave can take anywhere from six to twelve years to mature and can grow up to 2.5 metres (8 feet) tall. Harvesting the agave is a skilled and labour intensive process. When the plant is ripe, the jimador (farmer) removes the agave leaves with a sharp curved tool called a coa. These fibrous leaves are discarded, the part he’s after is the heart of the plant, called the piña, because it looks like a pineapple. These can weigh up to about 100kg (220lb) but usually come in at 30kg. They are made up of complex carbohydrates which are not fermentable so the next stage is to convert them into sugar. The exact time of the harvest is very important, because if the agave plants are gathered too early, the natural sugars will have yet to develop, and if it is gathered too late, the plant will have begun to decay.

Extracting sugar from the agave plant
To access those sugars, the piñas need to be cooked. They are cut up, by hand usually, and put in a giant oven. Here they are gently steamed in a process that can take up to three days. This process turns the starchy plants into a sweet pulpy mass. A more recent way of extracting the sugar from agave plants uses a machine called a diffuser. This essentially subjects the agave to high temperature, pressure, and often high acidity to maximise extraction from the agave fibres and cook the carbohydrates (although sometimes the liquid is cooked after the process).

Sugar and Tequila
The next stage is to release all that sugar rich juice from the cooked agave. Originally this would be done by crushing the cooked pinas under a stone wheel known as a tahona, pulled by a donkey. Some Tequilas are still made this way but most are milled and crushed in a machine. Fermentation takes place over days either with a wild or commercial yeast, today usually the latter as it creates a faster and more stable ferment. Tequila producers at this stage are allowed to add corn sugar so that it makes up a maximum of 49% of the final amount of fermentable sugars. This is done for cheaper Tequilas which are known somewhat disparagingly as ‘mixtos’. Following fermentation, the resulting agave drink will be between 4 and 6 % ABV. This is not dissimilar to pulque, a fermented agave drink that has been made in Central America for centuries.

How is Tequila distilled?
The next step in the Tequila process was introduced by the Spanish in the 16th century: distillation. In Tequila this is usually done in a two stage process in pot stills. The first stage produces a ‘low wine’ of 20-22% ABV which is then resdistilled to 55-75% ABV. Some producers, however, use column stills. Traditionally stills would have been made from copper and though stainless steel is also commonly used, it is important to have some copper contact to remove unwanted compounds.

Tequila has three varieties
The finished spirit is commonly divided into three varieties: blanco (or silver/plato, which is one aged for up to two months), reposado (2-12 months ageing) and añejo (1-3 years in oak vessels with a capacity of 600l or less). The barrels usually come from the bourbon industry though some new casks are used. There’s also an extra añejo category, introduced in 2006 and referring to anything over three years aged and cristalino, which is essentially añejo Tequila that has been filtered (often through charcoal) to remove the naturally occurring colours. Finally there’s gold Tequila which can be a mix of blanco and aged Tequila, but most often unaged ‘mixto’ blanco with abocado. No, not avocado, though wouldn’t that be fun, abocado is what’s classed as a ‘mellowing agent’ to mimic the effects of ageing and usually made up of caramel, glycerin and wood tinctures. Tequila will usually be reduced to a minimum of 38% ABV before bottling but you do see much stronger ones.

Tequila cocktails
The vast majority of Tequila is drunk in cocktails such as the Margarita, Paloma, and Tequila Sunrise. Many Tequila aficionados turn their noses up at so-called ‘mixto’ Tequilas which are made with up to 49% corn sugar. But if you’re making large batches of cocktails, then they make sense. Furthermore, the global boom in demand for Tequila has meant a shortage of agave which takes a long time to grow, so a mixto can be the more sustainable alternative.

Premium Tequila
Going further upmarket are 100% agave Tequilas. One of the joys of premium Tequila is that like with a good wine you can discern differences in flavour depending on where the agave was grown and how ripe it was when harvested. Highland agave which grows slower is said to taste fresher and more floral. Certain brands now release single field Tequilas. It’s worth trying these neat especially alongside Mexican food. Finally there are aged Tequilas: minimally aged ones like reposados have extra body and sweetness making them great in cocktails like a Negroni while añejo and extra añejo Tequilas which make great bourbon substitutes in cocktails like an Old Fashioned.

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Styles of Tequila

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