Terms and Facts
Historically, tequila is a mezcal. Mezcal can be made from more than 30 varieties of agave. Tequila is made in specific regions of Mexico and must be made from blue weber agave (agave tequilana) only. Mezcal has traditionally represented the wild west of agave spirits with a large variety of agaves and production processes used. The famous agave “worm” can be found in bottles of mezcal, but never in tequila. Mezcal is often produced using traditional methods that often results in a taste that is earthier and smokier than tequila. Many mezcals are grown and distilled around Oaxaca which is a lot further south than Jalisco where most tequila is produced. As mezcal grows in popularity, standardization is emerging rapidly to satisfy consumer demand for consistency.
The NOM is the Norma Oficial Mexicana (the Normative Number), and is a seal guaranteeing that this tequila, also used by mezcal, is made to government standards. It is on the back of every 100% blue agave tequila. The NOM also designates the owner of the distillery and each brand that leaves that distillery. Tequila.net has a full list of NOMs and the brands associated with each.
(Fortaleza Reposado back label)
The majority of 100% Blue Agave Tequilas are made in the Mexican State of Jalisco, which is North-West of Guadalajara and East of Puerto Vallarta. Mexican laws state that tequila can only be produced in the state of Jalisco and limited municipalities in the states of Guanajuato, Michoacán, Nayarit, and Tamaulipas.
Most often made at 38% alcohol content for U.S. distribution (76% U.S. proof), but can be produced between 31 and 55% alcohol content.
Blanco or Plata (white or silver) is often bottled fresh from distillation but may be aged up to 60 days.
Reposado (rested or aged) is aged for a minimum of two and a maximum of twelve months in oak casks or barrels. The longer the aging, the darker the color and the more flavors the tequila inherits from the oak.
Añejo (extra aged or vintage) tequilas are stored in government sealed oak barrels for a minimum of a year and up to 10 years. The barrels most commonly used for añejos are previously used bourbon or whiskey barrels from the USA, Canada or France.
Extra Añejo (Maduro or ultra aged) tequilas are aged for at least three years in oak barrels
This is the stuff more closely related to wicked hangovers than any other beverage. If it doesn’t say 100% agave, it’s probably a mixto. The famous Jose Cuervo Especial (pictured) is a mixto, and it often is the foundation of many well-margaritas. A mixto producer typically adds cheaper, non-agave sugars such as cane sugars. Mixto used to be more popular a decade ago, but as tequila consumption has increased, so has the demand for quality.
The Jimador harvests the Agave plant. His knowledge allows him to recognize when the Agave plant is ready for harvesting. As the Agave plant reaches maturity (8-12 years), a stalk or spike (Quiote) will begin to grow from the Agave, and the Jimador will cut and remove the stalk. The energy from the plant's flowering cycle will then encourage growth on the core of the Agave. The key to harvesting the Agave plant is to get the maximum sugar content before the piña begins to ferment. The Jimador uses a special tool, a Coa, which has a long wooden handle with a sharp circular cutting blade at the bottom.
The piña is an agave plant with the leaves (Pencas) cut off. It looks like a large pineapple and can weigh as much as 150 pounds. The heart of the piña is called the mezontle and it is often removed by distillers of premium tequila before cooling the piñas.
(Pictured: a piña being created by a Coa)