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What Is The Difference Between Tequila and Mezcal?

Mezcal? Oh, you mean Tequila’s smoky cousin.

Tequila

How Is Tequila Made: A Complete Guide

by Scott Connor 17 Nov 2022

How Is Tequila Made: A Complete Guide

It’s a moment of celebration. Pure joy. Your friends and family gather around as a bottle of fine tequila pours freely. Glasses clink in revelry, and everyone indulges in the complex elixir. The taste is fiery, yet crisp; the refined flavor sparks an inquisition: how is tequila made exactly, especially one as flavorful as this?


If you’re drawing a blank on the centuries-old process, don’t sweat it, patron


The process of producing tequila can be poured out in 7 smooth shots that go down easy on the palate. Let’s take a trip to the arid highlands of central Mexico and walk the journey tequila takes from the tierra (earth) to your taza (glass).


#1 Growing and Harvesting Agave

To begin, we first must answer: what is tequila made from?


Like beef to a filet mignon or tuna to a slice of sashimi, pure tequilas are too composed of a singular, refined ingredient: blue agave. 


Blue agave is a gargantuan, spikey plant native to the dry, high-elevation strip of land spanning across central Mexico. Here, the blue agave plant flourishes due to the region’s unique mix of sandy soil and low precipitation. The area and the agave plant are so closely intertwined that tequila production is strictly limited to 5 states within Mexico: Jalisco, Guanajuato, Michoacán, Nayarit, and Tamaulipas.


Jimas, agricultural workers of the region, tend the agave plants for a total of ten years before the saps inside have sufficiently matured. Once at peak ripeness, the Jimas cut the leaves off the piñas (named because of their resemblance to pineapples) right down to the base. This giant, pinecone-like heart of the plant is what the Jimas have waited a decade to harvest—this will go on to be baked, barreled, and bottled as the agave spirit drink we all know and love.


#2 Baking the Piñas

The agave heart is oozing with sap that’s just waiting to be harvested. Tequila producers employ heat in the extraction of this precious nectar. Baking the plant builds pressure in the interior and converts inulin, the agave’s sugar, into the more recognizable fructose. There are a few different ways that tequila-makers go about this process:


  • Traditional Ovens – Called “hornos,” these can be anything from enlarged stainless steel enclosures to more traditional fire pits lined with stones. The time-honored method of production, this baking process generally takes about 48 hours.

  • Autoclaves – Combining spinning and heat in this modern twist on the old tradition may be the choice of some tequila makers looking to expedite the process. It certainly gets the job done quicker, prepping the piñas in a quarter of the time of the traditional hornos.

Regardless of the method a tequila-maker chooses for baking their agave, once the cores cool, they’re ready to take the next step to become the distilled spirit we know and love.


#3 Pressing and Extracting

Pressure from the Earth turns coal into brilliant diamonds, just as pressure from mills transforms roasted, earthy agave into delectable tequila. 


In order to release the toasted juices from inside the plant’s woody fibers, the large cores of the piña must be chopped, crushed, and ground. Similar to heating strategies, distillers have a couple of options when deciding how to extract the desired liquids.

  1. A mechanical grinder crushes it into a fine mass, grating it until the agave nectar inside escapes. This method is used more frequently nowadays as tequila production evolves alongside modern technology.

  1. Cut-up agave cores are placed into a mammoth grindstone, called a tahona. Mules are used to turn this wide, weighty mill as the chunks beneath are reduced to a fine mush and give up their sugars. While not as commonplace anymore, some distillers still practice this proven tradition.

Regardless of how the agave is pulverized, the instruments are then rinsed down to collect any errant sugar. The resulting liquids are filtered to remove any fibrous material and the fledgling tequila is ready to begin another stage of its evolution.


#4 Fermentation

The agave juice extracted from the agave pulp is not yet alcoholic (or all that appealing to drink for that matter). It must first undergo several more trials before being worthy of the name: Tequila. 


Like the chrysalis transforms a caterpillar into a majestic butterfly, the agave nectar’s fermentation tank takes the liquid inside from acrid to alcoholic.


The unfermented liquor, known as mosta, is inoculated with a strain of yeast known as Saccharomyces cerevisiae. This helpful fungi eats the sugars present in the mosta and produces ethanol as a result.


Ethanol is the compound distillers seek in the production of alcoholic drinks. Less fortified beverages, such as beer and wine, likewise obtain their alcohol through yeast-based fermentation. 


Fermenting the mosta also forms flavors and compounds that will be identifiable once the final product is bottled and shelved.


But, we all know from experience that tequila is not in the same class of beverage as beer or wine. Thus, what the distiller has after the fermentation process is far from the final product. 


#5 The Distillation Process

The result of the mosta’s fermentation process is a low-alcohol concoction rife with off-flavors. It needs to be distilled, and not only once.


The fermented agave juices are siphoned into stills composed of wide copper vats. Here, they are heated to their boiling point. The resulting steam is collected and condensed back into liquid before the process is done all over again. 


This method of distillation is commonplace among hard liquors, from brandy to vodka and everything in between. 


In order to deliver a high-quality product that is free from impurities, premium tequila is distilled in two stages, called shattering and rectification. By this point, the drink is a far cry from where it began life as a spiny succulent. Still, even after agave’s adventure from dirt to distillation, this clear tonic is not always the end result.


#6 Powerfully Aged

They say that people who handle growing older with grace age like fine wine. 


However, those of us that improve as we advance in years mature like quality aged tequila. 


At this point in tequila’s lifespan, it can be bottled and sold as tequila blanco. Alternatively, to allow the complexity of the liquor (and its flavor) to develop, it can be stored and aged in oak barrels.


The amount of time that tequila is allowed to age is indicative of its quality. More time in the oak barrel enhances the final product, resulting in a deeper flavor, richer color, and more intense aroma. Still, confused about the difference between reposado vs Blanco? How long a tequila ages also determines its classification:


  • Respado – A minimum of two months, up to one year
  • Añejo – From one to three years
  • Extra Añejo  – More than three years

After an extended slumber in its oaken cask, a highly-refined tequila is awoken and sent forth to face the final leg of its production journey.  


#7 Bottling and Branding

Once a tequila has been aged for the desired amount of time, it's ready to be bottled and sent off for consumer sale. 


The image that a bottle and label projects is an integral part of a distiller’s branding. 


Patron, one of the most well-known tequilas, has achieved commercial fame due to their bottle’s iconic status in pop culture.


Other tequilas, such as the Clase Azul Ultra Extra Anejo, aged nearly fourteen years, come in decanters so elegant that they could be mistaken for antiques themselves.


Whatever bottle a company chooses, tequila’s trek from sandy root to rich and smooth is now complete. Tequila’s journey to your Paloma, however, still has one final step. 


Have Your Favorite Tequilas Delivered with Barbank 

Growing agave, harvesting its agave fiber and sap, and distilling tequila from start to finish is a lengthy and arduous process. Even with the correct materials and equipment, you still can’t lawfully produce tequila outside of central Mexico.


But great tequilas just don’t appear out of nowhere. Instead, they come from an online liquor delivery service like Barbank. Thankfully, there’s a simple way to have premium tequilas sent straight to your door: online tequila delivery.


If you are still curious about what is reposado tequila, and how it is made, now is the time to order any brand of palate-provoking, conversation-sparking tequila that your heart desires for your soirée. You’ll never again be caught off guard when your friend takes a sip and asks, “What is tequila made of?”


“Blue agave,” you’ll answer confidently. You’ll then regale everyone with tales of rural agriculturalists harvesting pineapples as large as trees, or mule-powered millstones grinding agave Azul pulp into nectar. But those are stories for other days. Instead, you’d rather let your distilled spirit speak for itself. 


Top-shelf bottles and premium brands are delivered directly to you, all a click or tap away with Barbank.

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