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Different Kinds of Tequila & How They're Made

May 3rd, 2024

Tequila is a spirit that is rapidly increasing in popularity in the United States. In fact, in 2021 it overtook whiskey in terms of popularity and is second only to vodka! With more brands popping up on shelves and more cocktails being created than ever, it’s well worth taking the time to dive into the makings of this spectacular spirit that’s gripping the public by storm.

From agave to a glass: the tequila-making process

At the heart of all tequila lies the blue agave plant — specifically the Weber Azul variety. Most often found in specific regions of Mexico like Jalisco, Guanajuato, Michoacan, Nayarit and Tamaulipas, these agave plants take between seven and ten years to mature enough to flower and reproduce, making them a pretty significant investment long before they’re ready to harvest! 

Once the plants are mature, skilled agave harvesters called Jimadors carefully remove the heart of the plant known as the piña, which is what kicks off the journey to tequila. The plant dies once the heart is removed, though they can be regrown using the shoots and leaves like most other succulents.

Fun fact: blue agave is the only agave that makes tequila, but other agaves can be used to make other spirits, too. These other kinds are known as “agave-based spirits” and can taste similar, though true tequila is made using 100% blue agave. Legally, a spirit can only be called tequila if it’s been produced in Mexico. 

Anyway, on to the production.

The journey from piña to tequila begins with a few long days of cooking and preparation. Traditionally, piñas are roasted in earthen ovens for several days, a process which unlocks the starches within the agave and converts them into fermentable sugars. Some modern producers have now switched to industrial machines that steam the piñas, achieving a similar effect in a shorter time frame. Either way, the natural starches have to be converted into natural sugars so that fermentation can occur. 

The piñas are then shredded and crushed to extract the sugary juices known as aguamiel (“honey water”) — yeast is then introduced to this aguamiel, triggering fermentation. This process is the same for nearly every liquor or beer, though the base ingredient differs and the length of fermentation may vary. 

During fermentation, the yeast consumes the sugars and converts them into alcohol and carbon dioxide, resulting in a fermented mush called mosto (“must”). The more sugars present in the mosto and the longer the yeast is left to ferment, the more alcohol in the final product. Producers can measure the alcohol content and, when the desired level is reached, can start moving the mosto through filters to remove any debris and then to stills for final processing. 

This final step in the tequila-making process involves separating the alcohol from the filtered liquid via distillation. Alcohol has a lower boiling point than water does (it boils at 173.1°F while water boils at 212 °F), so distillers carefully heat the liquid enough to turn the alcohol into vapor while leaving the water in liquid form. The alcoholic vapor rises, condenses in cooler air and then falls back down into a separate container in liquid form free from impurities and contaminants while still full of flavor; this first distillation is cloudy, strong and known as the ordinario, and a second distillation is required to make the liquid clearer, purer and stronger. 

Once the tequila has been distilled, it must be aged. Not only does this allow the alcohol to continue fermenting, but it allows the flavor to grow in depth, especially if the tequila is aged in oak barrels.

This is where tequila branches off into its six major kinds. The production and distillation process is exactly the same up to this point, but it’s the method of aging that really starts to bring out different flavors, colors and textures within a bottle of tequila!

Tequila blanco (“silver” or “white”)

This unaged or minimally-aged spirit represents tequila in its purest form. Bottled shortly after distillation (or after filtration in stainless steel or neutral oak barrels) blanco tequila embodies a bright, agave-forward version of the liquor. The freshness and relative youth of the alcohol features notes of citrus and pepper, flavors most associated with blue agave in its freshest form. Due to its clean and crisp profile, blanco tequila is a favorite for fruit-forward and sour cocktails, particularly the classic margarita. If you enjoy the flavor of agave on its own, though, then this is the version of tequila to sip on neat.

Tequila reposado (“aged”)

Named after the Spanish word for "rested," reposado tequila undergoes an additional step in its development: aging. 

Reposado tequilas are aged in oak barrels for a minimum of two months but no more than a year. The type of oak barrel used can significantly influence the final flavor profile: previously-used bourbon barrels can give off rich notes of vanilla, caramel and warm spices, while new white oak barrels contribute more intense oaky characteristics. The type of barrel and length of rest is, ultimately, up to the producer!

The aging process for reposado tequila softens the initial bite of blanco tequila while also introducing deep, subtle flavors from the oak. This creates a more complex and balanced spirit  where the agave character still shines through, making it a hit both neat and in cocktails.

Tequila añejo (“extra aged”)

For those seeking a more in-depth oaky influence, añejo tequila offers a richer and smoother spirit with much more complex flavors.  To be considered añejo tequila, the tequila must be aged for a minimum of one year but no less than three years in oak barrels with a maximum capacity of 600 liters. 

Thanks to the smaller batches and longer rest period, the spirit takes on a richer amber color and develops more concentrated flavors of vanilla, caramel, dried fruit and even hints of chocolate! This version of dark, rich tequila takes on characteristics similar to whiskey at this point, and can be enjoyed in much the same ways. 

Añejo tequilas are best enjoyed neat, which allows the full complexity of the aged agave and oak influence to be fully appreciated. 

Tequila extra añejo (“ultra-aged”)

It’s not hard to guess what makes this tequila different from the others, and you’d be right in guessing that it is, indeed, aged for an extra long time.

Extra añejo tequila is aged for a minimum of three years, allowing the agave and the oak to really get as strong as possible. It’s up to the producer to age it for as long as they see fit, but most extra añejo tequilas are bottled after three years. 

As such, it would be a crime to mix this spirit with anything to dilute its taste, so sip it neat or over ice to really get the most out of the carefully-crafted drink!.

Tequila cristalino (“crystal clear”)

Cristalino tequila is a clear spirit, but it’s not at all like blanco tequila. Rather, cristalino tequila is made by filtering añejo or extra añejo tequila  through some activated charcoal and a sediment filter to remove any coloring, resulting in a clear-colored spirit with all the flavors and complexities of an aged tequila. Plus, the charcoal makes the tequila smoother and silkier — it’s a win-win-win!

Tequila joven  (“gold”)

Finally, this last type of tequila isn’t really made with any particular process. Instead, it’s just a mix of blanco and añejo tequilas. The resulting color isn’t as dark of an amber as the aged spirits nor as clear as the white tequila, and it’s the shimmering golden color that gives this particular style of tequila its name!

Because it’s a mix of two different kinds of tequila, joven tequilas can taste very different depending on the ratio and blends of the combined tequilas. It’s up to the producer to decide what ages to use and how to balance the flavors, and as such it’s best enjoyed as a sipping tequila in order to fully appreciate the complexities.

Be aware, too, that some gold tequilas under this category are really a mixture of flavorings and colorings added to a spirit that is not entirely made with agave; these are known as mixto tequilas. If you want the real stuff and none of the fake additives, make sure your gold tequila is a mixture of 100% real aged and blanco agave tequilas.

At the heart of all kinds of tequila is the agave plant, and it should always be the star of the show in whatever tequila you like to sip. Aged tequilas should add flavors to complement the complex agave, while young tequilas proudly portray the plant’s characteristics in bright, fresh flavors. However you enjoy sipping, shooting or mixing your tequila, now you know how to spot a good quality spirit from the crowd and know what makes each kind so special!


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Featured photo by BRUNO CERVERA on Unsplash

Author of Article

Colleen Ford is a South African who now lives in Spokane, Washington. She loves to travel, camp (in warm weather) and bake.

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