Tequila is a distilled alcoholic beverage made primarily from the blue agave plant in Mexico. Its origins can be traced back to a beverage called pulque, produced in Central America before the region was colonized by Spain in the 16th Century.
Tequila started to gain prominence after Mexico gained independence from Spain in 1821. By the early 20th Century, the drink was associated with the Mexican revolution and symbolic of the new nation. A taste for Tequila developed in the United States during World War II, when European spirits were difficult to obtain and Tequila was readily available.
The production process and choice of raw materials has become more refined over the centuries; modern-day Tequila is made only from the "heart" of one variety of blue agave (Agave tequilana Weber azul). Weber Azul is larger and more blue-gray in color than other, greener varieties of the A. tequiliana species. In contrast, Mezcal is estimated to be made from 30 to 50 different species of Agave.
However, It was only in 1873 that Tequila was officially named to differentiate it from mezcal. Now the term "Tequila" is legally protected, and spirits bearing the name must be produced in certain parts of the Mexican states of Jalisco, Tamaulipas, Guanajuato, Michoacan and Nayarit. The town of Tequila, where the spirit was first made in the 16th Century, lies in the shadow of the Tequila volcano 35 miles (55km) northwest of Guadalajara city in Jalisco. Mezcal can be made much more widely throughout Mexico.
All Tequila bottles carry a NOM (Norma Oficial Mexicana) number that identifies the distillery where they were made. It is a four-digit code distributed to distilleries by the Tequila Regulatory Council (Consejo Regulador del Tequila). While it does not guarantee quality it is a legal requirement for all 100 percent agave Tequila. The majority of brands share production facilities so only a few companies have individual dedicated distilleries and therefore unique NOM numbers.
Another point of difference is that Tequila is distilled two or three times, whereas mezcal goes through the process only once. By law, 51 percent of the fermented sugars in Tequila must come from the blue agave, which means that some proportion of the Tequila may come from other sources; the best Tequilas will always state their contents on the bottle and many will have used only blue agave.
There are a number of common misconceptions surrounding Tequila. First, worms are not traditionally placed inside bottles. If they are present, it is usually a marketing gimmick. It would generally be considered bad luck to find a worm naturally in Tequila, because it would actually be the larva of a moth that feeds on agave. Nor is Tequila made from cactus, as is commonly believed. The blue agave is not a cactus, but a succulent related to the yucca, with leaves that can grow up to seven feet (2.1m) long.
Tequila may come in three major categories: Blanco, Reposado and Anejo. Tequila Blanco (sometimes referred to as white, silver or plata) is not aged in wood and is therefore clear in color. It has the purest agave flavor due to its lack of oak influence, and flavors associated with the style include pepper, honey and sweet spice. Tequila Blanco is most often used in cocktail-making due to its lack of color, but some premium examples exist for sipping.
Tequila Reposado (meaning "rested") has been aged in wooden casks for between two and 12 months. Typically, it retains much of the strong, peppery flavor of the agave, although it is mellower than Tequila Blanco because of the time it spends in wood. The wooden vessels used for aging can be of any size and are most often made of white oak. This process of maturation allows for some evaporation through the porous wood, which helps to soften the heat of the alcohol. Oak also imparts some softer flavors to the spirit, and Tequila Reposado is noted for its flavor profile, which includes cinnamon, honey, vanilla and smoke.
Tequila Anejo has been aged in small oak barrels for at least 12 months. Añejo – Spanish for "aged" – is less punchy than its younger counterparts and has a smoother, more complex texture, with flavors of sweet spice, chocolate, dried fruit and smoky oak. Tequila Anejo must be aged in barrels no larger than 600 liters. This means the spirit has more contact with the wood than Tequila Reposado, leading to a stronger oak influence. The pure agave flavor is less pronounced in Tequila Anejo, having been softened by the aging effect of the oak. Tequilas that have been aged in oak for longer than three years are commonly referred to as Extra Anejo.
Top-quality Tequila is not aged for as long as premium whiskies from Scotland or Ireland. This is because of where it is made, not because of the nature of the plant it comes from. Mexico, being much closer to the Equator than most of the world's key whisky-producing regions, has a much warmer climate. The evaporation process in the wooden casks is therefore faster, and Tequila that has been aged for up to three years can be considered roughly equivalent to a malt whisky that has been aged for 10 years or longer. The same is true of rum aged in the Caribbean.
Tequila's signature cocktail is the margarita.
- Margarita – with salt and lime
- Tequila Sunrise – with orange and grenadine
- Paloma – with grapefruit and lime