Tequila has solidified its position as one of the most popular spirits worldwide. It is distilled from agave (‘Uh-Gah-Vee’), a cactus-like plant hailing from Mexico. Traditionally, to make this legendary liquor was exceptionally labour-intensive, and some distilleries still make tequila this way.
However, just like every other industry, technology has become central to reducing the necessary labour and enhancing the process. But even with the help of technology, the process is highly artisanal and still requires extensive effort in some steps of the procedure.
So how is tequila made? To find out, continue reading to learn about the tequila production process that includes how the agave plant is cultivated, harvested, prepared, distilled, aged, filtered, and bottled. This is followed by commonly asked questions, giving us insights about the spirit.
9 Steps to Making Tequila
We found the answer to the often-asked question, how is tequila made? Continue reading to find out more on each of the 9 steps in the process.
- Growing the Blue Agave
The name of the agave plant is a Greek term meaning ‘noble’. While it may look like a cactus, it’s actually a succulent that belongs to the lily family. Of the 166 types of agave, 125 are indigenous to Mexico. However, there is only one agave used to make tequila.
Agave Tequilana Weber Azul is the name given to the plant by a European botanist called Weber, although it’s commonly referred to as ‘Blue Agave‘ due to its slight blue tinge. The plant can grow up to 1.8 metres in height with long, spiky leaves (pencas) protruding from its spherical base. The growing structure of the plants means that when mature, they can reach a diameter of 3.6 metres.
Before the plant is harvested, it has to grow and mature, which takes about 7 years. Farmers of blue agave have to tend the plants throughout the year. Weeding occurs about twice a year, and the plants are periodically checked for pests and infections.
When blue agave starts maturing, it grows a central flower stalk, known as a quiote (‘Kwai-O-Tee’). If left to develop fully, it will render the plant useless for tequila production because the plant’s energy (inulin) is used to grow the quiote. To stop this from happening, agave farmers cut off the quiote so that the plant’s sap is diverted from the stalk to its heart, referred to as the piña.
- Harvesting the Agave Plant
After about 7 years of cultivation, the agave piña swells and ripens as it fills with sap. A sign of maturity is the loss of pencas, the agave’s lower leaves. Harvesters, known as jimadors, cut off the leaves from the agave heart, which looks like a massive pineapple.
Once the leaves are removed, the heart is determined to be fully matured if it has 4 to 6 brown spots of seeping sap. More than 6 spots indicate that the agave has overmatured and started decomposing. Once the agave plants have reached maturity, the jimadors have 6 months to harvest the entire crop before the decay accelerates.
With an average harvest weight of 32 kilograms, the piña contains the sugar concentrate that eventually becomes tequila. To make 1 litre of 100% tequila, producers need about seven kilograms of piña.
The sugar level is measured and considered ready to harvest by most producers when it’s at least 21%. A piña containing the maximum amount of sugar will yield superior quality tequila to those with less sugar content.
- Cooking the Agave
Depending on their individual sizes, agave piñas are cut in half or quarters to allow for a standardised cooking process. All the segments are placed into a steam oven where they’re baked. This is done to convert the sap inside the piñas into fermentable sugar.
Traditional masonry steam ovens, called hornos, were once used to bake the agave segments for 24 to 48 hours. Afterwards, the steam is turned off, and the baked segments are left to cool for up to 48 hours.
Modern techniques use autoclaves instead of hornos. These large cylindrical steel tubes act as a pressure cooker that can cook the piñas in about 7 hours. The steel sides of the autoclave disperse heat faster, significantly reducing the cooking and cooling time.
However, if the piñas are cooked too quickly, the sugars will burn off, creating a bitter taste. Slow baking the agave plant is preferred because it better retains its sweet, fruity flavours.
The energy in agave is known as inulin. When cooked at high temperatures, the steam softens the piñas, which breaks down the inulin into fructose.
- Extracting the Fructose
Once cooked, the piñas are shredded to release the sugary juice that contains fermentable sugars. Traditional producers use a primitive mill, called a tahona, which is a heavy wheel that’s towed around a circular pit by mules or oxen.
As the wheel moves around the pit, piñas are placed in its path, which crushes and squeezes sugary sap from the agave fibers. Due to its crude design, only a handful of producers still use this method. Most modern producers use roller mills to extract the sap.
Piñas are placed through the roller mill and crushed while water is sprayed from above onto the shredded fibres. The water washes off the sugary residue on the fibres. Another set of rollers squeezes the agave fibers for sugar extraction. This is done until the fibers are dry. This juice is known as aguamiel. Once all the juice is extracted, it’s run through a large sieve, called a pachquil.
Running the aguamiel through the pachquil separates any large particles leftover from the previous step. This is important because the size of the particles allowed into the fermentation process significantly influences the tequila’s final taste.
- Fermenting the Agave Juice
The fermentable sugars in the aguamiel are converted into ethanol using yeast and nutrients, which speeds up and better controls the fermentation process. The type of yeast and nutrients used in this step also influences the final taste of the tequila. Traditionally, producers used the yeast found on the agave plant, but modern tequila distillers cultivate their own yeast strains.
Fermentation vats are usually aerated from the beginning to encourage yeast cells to multiply. As the process continues, the air supply that bubbles through the vat is turned off. This triggers anaerobic fermentation, which causes the yeast to create ethanol.
- Distilling the Fermented Agave Juice
The fermented agave juice has to be distilled twice to be considered tequila. The ferments are separated using heat and steam pressure inside steel pot stills or stainless steel distillation towers. The first distillation phase takes a few hours to produce a liquid known as ordinario that has an alcohol content of 20% to 25%.
The second phase of distillation, known as rectification, creates tequila, and takes 3 to 4 hours. The end result is a distilled spirit with an alcohol level of 55% to 75%, although most distillers aim for 55% to preserve the agave flavor.
- Ageing the Agave Spirit
Tequila that’s fresh from its second distillation can be bottled and sold as Blanco (white) tequila. This variant is clear, and provides the purest agave taste. On the other hand, Reposado (rested) and Añejo (aged) tequila must mature in either French or American white oak barrels.
Reposado tequilas are darker and have an enhanced flavour due to the maturation period of 2 to 12 months. Añejo is the darkest type of tequila, it has to age for 1 to 3 years and its taste is more complex due to the longer ageing process. Extra añejo (very aged) is matured for more than 3 years, making it relatively more expensive and rarer than the other variants.
The longer tequila matures, the more tannins and colour it absorbs from from the wood barrel, which softens and adds character to the final product. Besides the length of ageing, the following also significantly determine how well the tequila ages:
- type of wood
- age of the barrel
- thickness of the barrel
- the barrel’s previous use
- entry alcohol level
- Filtering & Diluting the Tequila
Tequila can be bottled with an alcohol content between 35% and 55%. Producers use distilled water to dilute the spirit to its desired strength. Once diluted, tequila distilleries filter the spirit using paper, cellulose, or activated carbon to remove any undesired particles still present in the liquid.
- Bottling & Distribution of Tequila
Mixtos, non-100% agave tequila, can be sold and bottled anywhere around the globe. It’s often sold in bulk, exported at high strengths, and then diluted when bottled in the country where it’s then sold to the public.
Why can Tequila only be made in Mexico?
Unlike mixtos, 100% blue agave tequila must be bottled in specific Mexican regions, and each bottle has to show a label stating that it was made in Mexico, which is overseen by the Tequila Regulatory Council. This is due to the spirit’s Appellation of Origin status, which mandates that it has to be produced and named after a geographical area in Mexico, similar to champagne and cognac.
The tequila making process is limited to 5 Mexican states, namely Guanajuato, Michoacán, Jalisco, Nayarit and Tamaulipas. The centre of the tequila industry is Jalisco, as this is the state where it was first distilled hundreds of years ago in the town of Tequila.
The strength of tequila depends on the importing nation’s regulations. In Mexico, a bottle has between 35% and 38%, the USA has a minimum of 40%, South Africa is 43%, Europe is 38%, and the UK is 40%.
Frequently Asked Questions About Tequila
Now that we’ve covered the production process, let’s take a look at some common questions about the drink. These will tell us about the rich history of agave tequilas, the difference between tequila and mezcal, the primary types of tequila, and other uses of the drink.
When Was Tequila First Made?
Dating back to around 1000 BC, Mesoamerican civilisations started fermenting the sap of agave plants, referred to as pulque. Hundreds of years later, after the Spanish had seized what is now Mexico, they introduced copper pot stills.
This technology developed the distillation process of the agave juice, which resulted in the invention of Mezcal (more on this below). During the 16th century (around 1538), the Spanish first distilled the spirit in the town of Tequila, which gave the drink its name.
What is the Difference Between Tequila and Mezcal?
Tequila and mezcal are both agave-based spirits, and all tequilas are actually a type of mezcal, but not all mezcal is tequila.
Why is this the case? Well, the tequila-making process exclusively uses blue agave, whereas mezcal is made from over 30 types of agave, including blue agave.
Both spirits are made using the same parts of the agave plant, but tequila production steams the plant before distillation. In contrast, the distillation process of mezcal involves roasting the agave plant underground, giving the spirit its smoky quality.
How Many Types of Tequila are There?
There are only 2 types of tequila – blue agave and mixto tequila. The first type is exclusively made from the blue agave plant and doesn’t include added colouring or sweeteners.
If sugars or any other ingredients are added to the tequila, it is considered a mixto. This type contains a minimum of 51% blue agave, but the remainder consists of other sugars.
Are There Any Other Uses of Tequila?
Scientists have found a way to make artificial diamonds from tequila by evaporating the spirit into vapour. The gas molecules are then broken down into tiny particles, which are heated to 800°C, creating carbon atoms. These atoms are then deposited into the shape of minuscule diamond films.
However, while this is an exceptional scientific achievement, these synthetic diamonds are too small to be worn as jewellery. Instead, they can be used for various industrial and electronic purposes, such as silicon in computer chips, or helping to create extremely thin medical cutting instruments.
Final Thoughts on How Tequila is Made
So there you have it, now you can answer your friends asking ‘how is tequila made?’. While modern technology has changed the production process, it is still a highly artisanal practice. Many people and environmental components determine the taste and character of each distiller’s tequila.
The next time you sip on a margarita or take a tequila shot, you’ll be able to appreciate and understand this unique drink. Not only this, but now you know what the drink consists of, its long production process, and the hard work and dedication that went into getting it from Mexico into your glass.