Tequila is a distilled spirit made from the agave plant that can only be produced in certain regions of Mexico. There are several styles of tequila and specific regulations that distillers must follow. Tequila is enjoyed globally and is most often consumed in Mexico and the U.S. While it is an essential ingredient in margaritas and a variety of tequila shots, there are many other tequila cocktail recipes to explore.
Tequila vs. Mezcal
Mezcal is the name for any distilled spirit made from the maguey (agave) plant. Technically, tequila is a mezcal, but all mezcals are not tequila, similar to how bourbon and scotch are types of whiskey. Both have laws governing their production, though mezcal can use a greater variety of agave grown in nine Mexican states and must be produced in those areas. The most significant difference is in how the agave is prepared. Mezcal distillers traditionally bake the agave in earthen pits, which imparts a noticeable smoky flavor.
Other agave spirits include pulque, sotol, raicilla, and baconara. All are technically mezcals, but each has its own attributes and production methods. Only tequila and mezcal are readily available outside of Mexico.
What Is Tequila Made From?
Tequila is made by distilling the fermented juices of the Weber blue agave plant (Agave tequilana). A member of the lily family, it looks like a giant aloe vera plant with spiked barbs on the tips. After seven to 10 years of growth, the agave plant is ready to be harvested.
Underground, the plant produces a large bulb called a piña, which resembles a giant white pineapple. After removing the leaves, the piñas are cut and slowly baked in steam or brick ovens to transform the starch into sugar. The baked agave is then crushed to extract the sweet juice, which is fermented with yeast to convert the sugar into alcohol.
The fermented agave juice is distilled in either pot or column stills and often distilled twice to produce a high-alcohol concentrate called tequila ordinary. Depending on the style of tequila, it may rest briefly in tanks or age in barrels, and some tequila is filtered or blended. Before bottling, the distillate is cut with water to obtain the bottling strength. Tequila is typically 35 to 40 percent alcohol by volume (ABV, 70 to 80 proof) but may not be stronger than 55 percent ABV (110 proof).