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Tequila History: The Quick Version

You have chosen to drink tequila at the best time in history to do so. Never before have so many people had such ready access to so much excellent tequila. There are currently about 60 tequila distilleries producing 1,200 brands. How did we get here and how can we make sense of all those brands and types of tequilas?

For thousands of years, indigenous Mexicans used the blue agave plant for a variety of purposes: food, textiles, tools, building materials, and alcohol. The agave was seen as a divine gift, and its juice was fermented to brew pulque, a mildly alcoholic drink. Under Aztec rule, drinking was a privilege reserved for the priestly ruling class, sacrifice victims and the elderly and dying.

The Spanish conquerors brought alembic stills with them, and were distilling the local agave brew into a high-volume alcoholic beverage by the early 1600s. Local distilling went underground after King Carlos III prohibited it to ensure the Crown would continue to rake in duties on Spanish wine and spirits. The “mezcal wine” produced in the village of Tequila had already gained a reputation as the tastiest in Mexico when one José Cuervo received the first royal license to produce it legally.

During Mexico’s turbulent 19th century of independence struggles, foreign invasions and civil wars, tequila was the drink of soldiers and the lower classes – a fact that colors its reputation to this day. The 1870s saw industrial processes start to dominate production, and Cenobio Sauza became the first to export tequila to the US and Europe.

Tequila production ebbed and flowed with the global economic and political events of the 20th century. Tequila makers organized themselves and pushed the Mexican government to impose standards on production. In 1994, they formed the CRT (Tequila Regulatory Council) and two years later, tequila was internationally recognized as an exclusively Mexican product, analogous to Champagne, Cognac or Scotch. Taken together, these developments have resulted in the proliferation of excellent tequila that we enjoy today.

What is Tequila?

Tequila is a distilled spirit made exclusively from the blue agave in the Mexican state of Jalisco, or certain regions of 4 other states. Agaves are harvested when they are 6-10 years old and steam-cooked. The sweet juice is extracted from the fibers and fermented to produce a “must” of about 5% alcohol. This liquid must be distilled at least twice to be called tequila.

There are two categories of tequila: ‘100% agave tequila’, and (plain old) ‘tequila.’ The former derive all of their alcohol from sugars obtained from the blue agave. Tequila connoisseurs always prefer 100% agave tequilas for the superior flavor and minimal hangover potential. Plain ‘tequilas’ (called mixtos by many) derive their alcohol from both the blue agave and up to 49% of “other sugars,” usually cane. If a bottle does not say “100% agave,” it is a mixto.

Within 100% agave tequilas, there are four commonly-found classes, or ages.

  • Blanco or “silver” tequilas are generally un-aged and clear in color.
  • Reposado or “rested” tequilas are aged 2-12 months in oak barrels.
  • Añejo or “aged” tequilas are aged 1-3 years in oak barrels.
  • Extra-añejo tequila is aged over 3 years in oak barrels.

Whatever tequila you prefer, you are part of a unique drinking tradition stretching back thousands of years.

Be proud, and enjoy. Salud!