Alcohol in the Making: The Story of Tequila

By on June 20, 2013

The history of tequila starts in central Mexico, and goes back millennia. Speculations on the origins of tequila range from the anthropological to the mythological. For thousands of years, people of central Mexico have been making a drink called Pulque, which is the precursor to tequila as we know it today. Tequila history starts with Pulque.

Pulque is an alcoholic drink made from the fermentation of maguey, also known as agave, sap. The making of it involves syphoning off sap from a carefully selected mature maguey over a long period of time. The collected sap is then coaxed into fermenting with the addition of a certain bacterium, different than the yeast used in beer manufacturing and mature seeds that jumpstart the process. After 1-2 weeks, if the delicate process has been followed carefully, Pulque is the result. It’s milky white, thick and viscous, and tastes not dissimilar to yeasty beer.

The cultivation of Pulque reaches back thousands of years. It played an important part in Aztec, Mesoamerican culture. It was a coveted commodity, valuable to their economy. Consumption of Pulque was generally restricted to upper classes and religious officials. It’s was also used medicinally for pregnant women and the sick. There were many rituals and practices surrounding the making and consumption of Pulque, including myths explaining its origin. Evidence suggests that the Mesoamericans were inspired to experiment with the maguey sap after watching rats chew away at the plant to get to the interior sap. The sap can at times ferment on its own within the plant, indicating to the Aztecs of the time its full potential. They believed the sap was the blood of Mayahuel, the goddess of the maguey plant. Representation of the drink appears in stone carvings dating back to the time of Christ.

The nature of Pulque changed in 1519, when the Spanish arrived in Mexico in large numbers. Instead of a sacred, storied, guarded, and mythicized drink from the gods, it became a popular drink widely available to all. Public drunkenness became such a problem, in fact, that laws were eventually created to stem its availability. When the conquistadors ran out of their still favored brandy rations, they turned their attention to the ancient Aztec Pulque. They learned the ancient methods of production, but also applied their European knowledge of fermentation processes and distillation. This experimentation with the maguey plant played an important role in the origin of tequila.

The distinct difference between a fermented alcoholic drink like Pulque and a clear, high alcohol content drink like tequila is the distillation process. The Mesoamerican societies of central Mexico weren’t familiar with distillation. The Spanish conquistadors occupying Mexico during the 16th century introduced the methods of distillation that eventually led to the production of tequila.

How to Make Tequila

In the making of tequila, first the agave plants need to be cultivated. Despite advances in farm techniques and machinery, the cultivation of agave is still largely a manual effort performed by experienced farm hands (known as jimadores). The growing of agave, selecting plants for tequila production, and the extraction of the necessary interior sap all involve delicate techniques that are passed down generation to generation in central Mexico. The central stalk of the agave plant is repeatedly trimmed, which keeps the plant from flowering and then dying. Instead, the agave is allowed to fully ripen and large quantities of sap are produced. At just the right time in the life cycle of an agave plant, the leaves are cut away and the sap can be carefully extracted using special tools including a long handled knife called a coa, reminiscent of a sickle. If the plant is either too young or too fully ripened, the sap will not contain the right amount of carbohydrates. The starch content must be just right in order for the desired fermentation to occur.


The cores of the agaves, the parts containing the valuable sap contents, are cooked. Heat breaks down the plant material and helps extract the sugary sap. After heating, the fibrous plant material is separated from the liquid sap that’s now ready for fermentation. Fermentation occurs in large vats over the course of several days with the exact timing depending on the judgement of experienced jimadores. This fermented juice, known as wort, is the liquid that then gets distilled into tequila. The wort is most frequently distilled twice to produce tequila. There is some debate about whether a third distillation is desirable or not. It increases the alcohol percentage and removes further impurities, but may diminish the natural flavor of tequila.

Twice distilled tequila, known as ‘silver tequila,’ is the most common. If it’s bottled immediately and not aged, it’s called Blanco. Aged tequila can fall into a few different categories depending on mixture and years of aging, including Joven (mixture of aged and non-aged), Reposado (aged 2 months – 1 year), Anejo (aged 1-3 years), and Extra Anejo (aged at least 3 years). Tequila is aged in oak barrels. The many variations in the aging process, including different types of oak used, barrel size, smoked or previously used barrels, etc. are responsible for many different flavor profiles. How tequila is made from the starter agave plants, particularly based on the elevation from where the agave plants were sourced, also has a strong effect on the taste of the final product.

Mezcal, or mescal, is an alcohol very similar to tequila and the two often get confused. Mezcal is also made from maguey, and its also distilled. It was created by the Spanish who experimented with agave mash just like they did to form tequila. However, tequila has to be made from blue agave and not any other variety. It also has to come from the Tequila region of Mexico. Mezcal tends to be roasted instead of steamed to separate the sugars, which has an effect on the final flavor. It’s also the drink that’s famous for containing a worm at the bottom of the bottle!

How to Choose a Tequila


So how do you choose a tequila? With so many tequila makers, and so many tequila brands, how can you possibly decide? Different tequila companies use different distillation techniques, source their agave from different places, and age their tequilas differently to produce vastly different products. The making of tequila is an art, so here’s a short guide to appreciating it:

Highlands vs. Lowlands

One of the most distinct differences to be found in different tequila companies has to do with the land, or “terroir.” Similar to the way the growing region of grapes used in different wines affects the final taste, the environment in which the blue agave was grown affects the final taste of tequila. These environmental differences are most noticeably observed when tasting Blanco tequila, the unaged variety, because the smoky, oaky flavors of aged tequilas tends to take over the palate. The best way to test the differences in Blanco tequilas is to sip the two varieties in succession.

  • Highlands – Tequilas made from agave plants that are grown in elevated areas have a unique flavor profile. In higher elevation areas, as high as 8,000 feet, agaves have to survive a much different climate than the valley plants. Though hot during the day for most of the year, the plants experience cold nights, colder winters, and more precipitation. This has an effect on the growth of the agave. They tend to become bigger, and the resulting tequilas tend to have the following characteristics: floral, citrusy, fruity, sweet, herbal.
  • Lowlands – The hot lowland valleys of central Mexico are home to thousands of agave plantations. The tequilas made from these agaves tend to be less sweet, more robust tequilas. Flavors associated with these tequilas include: pepper, green pepper, spice, mineral, cinnamon, clay, earth

A Few Popular Tequila Brands

Patron – Patron is one of the most popular premium tequila companies in the United States. Originally started as an entrepreneurial venture by John Paul Dijoria, Patron was formed in 1989 as an offshoot of Siete Leguas and produced in their Mexican distillation factory. Due to extreme popularity, production has sinced moved to Patron’s own facilities. They use high quality ingredients including Weber blue agave plants grown in the highlands.

Siete Leguas – Siete Leguas has been making premium tequila since 1952. Named after Pancho Villa’s trusted horse, Siete Leguas is a highly respected and oft awarded tequila made from agave of the Los Altos highlands. They produce a variety of tequilas distilled in copper pots, ranging from unaged Blanco to ultra-aged D’Antano aged in oak.

Fortaleza – This is a small batch tequila made with strictly traditional techniques to produce an extremely unique flavor. The lowlands agave hearts are milled with stone. Heating takes place in an antique brick oven. It’s twice distilled in copper pots. It’s known for being fruity, spicy, and exceptionally smooth.

Don Julio – Don Julio is a particularly noteworthy tequila because it holds a distinct place in the history of tequila consumption. Before the widespread availability of Don Julio, tequila didn’t garner the same level of respect as high quality whiskies or wines. Don Julio is known as the first luxury tequila, launched in 1987. Don Julio himself had been experimenting with techniques to perfect tequila production for over 40 years. Because of his tequila background, his product was excellent. It became so popular in his hometown and surrounding regions, that it eventually became a world renowned brand. The Blanco is known for being crisp and “caramelly”.

Arete – Made in the El Llano distillery in Tequila, one of the oldest in Mexico. The tequila brand began in 1986 and has gained reputation as a high quality tequila at an affordable price. Made from the region’s blue agave and benefitting from Tequila’s pristine spring water sources, it’s been well reviewed since its start. It’s good for mixing or sipping, with a flavor that compliments other ingredients well. Try this one in your Margarita.

As a Mixer

Tequila is used as the base for many popular cocktails, including the Brave Bull, Baja Gold, Agave Kiss, El Diablo, and the Tornado. However, the following are some of the most popular:

Margarita – Perhaps the most famous of all tequila drinks, the Margarita has been around since at least the 1950s. The story of its origin is widely debated. It’s typical ingredients are Cointreau (an orange flavored liqueur), lemon or lime juice, and tequila. The rim is usually salted. There are many variants, but using high quality tequila procures the best ultimate taste.

Tequila Sunrise – This cocktail comes in two varieties… the original, and the more popular. The original version, from the Arizona Biltmore hotel where it was served in the ‘30s, is made from tequila, creme de cassis, lime juice, and soda water. The more popular version, invented at the Trident restaurant in Sausalito, CA during the ‘70s, is made with tequila, orange juice, and grenadine syrup. The ingredients in either version settle into a color spectrum that mimics the hues of a Caribbean sunrise.

Paloma – This is the most popular tequila cocktail in Mexico. It’s made by mixing tequila with grapefruit flavored soda like Jarritos or Fresca and lime juice or fresh lime. The rim may or may not be salted. Fresh grapefruit juice can also be used instead of the soda.

Tequila Slammer – This is simply tequila mixed with a flavored soda of your choice. Upgrade to Champagne and you’ve got a “Royal Slammer.” In Mexico it’s know as a ‘muppet’ or ‘mopet.’ Lemonade, Mountain Dew, and ginger ale are all common varieties.

In Mexico, tequila is traditionally taken as a shot, without lime and without salt. Sangrita, a popular Mexican drink containing orange juice, tomato juice, and hot chillies, is often served alongside tequila. It’s not uncommon to alternate drinks of tequila and sangrita, as they complement each other well. A shot of tequila next to a shot of sangrita next to a shot of lime juice is also common and is referred to as a Mexican Flag due to the colors of the three liquids. In many parts of the world outside of Mexico, tequila shots are sometimes taken with a wedge of lime and salt to make the strong flavor easier to palate. Higher quality tequilas are recommended to be sipped out of a snifter glass instead of a shot glass so that the distinct, rich flavors can be appreciated.

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