How is Tequila Made?
We all know that tequila is made from the agave plant. But how is it made? What are some of the processes involved in making this iconic Latin-American spirit? This blog post will cover everything you need to know about the question how is tequila made, including what types of equipment are used, where the ingredients come from, and what makes a good quality tequila.
How tequila is made – What is tequila?
Tequila is a type of mezcal that is distilled from the agave plant. Although mezcal is made from a variety of agave species, tequila is only made with Weber’s blue agave (also called agave tequilana). Agave tequilana has four varieties: Azul, Azul Listado, Siguin, and Pata De Mula. Azul is the only variety used to produce tequila. Its common name is “blue agave.” Blue agave thrives in the Mexican climate, which is why Mexico has claimed it as their own. In 1974, the Mexican government issued a Declaration of the Protection of the Appellation of Origin Tequila stating that because of its geographical location, “tequila” is only to be produced and sold in and from Mexico.
What does the word “tequila” mean?
The origin of the word is uncertain and remains a mystery. It’s theorized that it’s an ancient Nahuatl term. The word means “the place of harvesting plants,” “the place of wild herbs,” “place where they cut,” “place of work,” or “the place of tricks.” Imagine having to write a Nahuatl essay in school and having to use the right version of “tequila” in a sentence. Jose Maria Muria, author of the books Tequila and A Drink Named Tequila, places the origins of the word from the Nahuatl words “tequitl” or work, duty, job, task and tlan or place. Other sources say it means “the rock that cuts.” And yet still, others say it’s a corruption of the name of the native peoples, Ticuilas or Tiquilos. Regardless of its name origins, all are suitable for tequila, the spirit of the land.
How is Tequila Made?
STEP 1: TEQUILA WASH IS CREATED
The tequila wash is the equivalent to the whiskey mash. “Wash” refers to the mixture of ingredients fermented to produce alcohol.
Tequila is made from Azul or Blue Weber agave. Blue Agave nectar from any old grocery store can be used to save time.
Tequilas have two main categories. First, tequilas made from 100% agave for the wash are called “Puro” or pure tequilas. They make up the expensive tequilas like Patron, Don Julio, Espolon, and other higher-end brands. The second category is “Mixto” or “mixed” tequilas. These are made using at least 51% agave during fermentation. The other 49% or less come from sources other than the agave plant like cane sugar. Popular mixto tequilas are El Jimador, Joe Cuervo Gold and Sauza.
STEP 2: COLLECTING THE INGREDIENTS AND MATERIALS
- 5.5 Gallons of water
- Blue agave nectar
- Cane sugar
- Active dry yeast
- Brew pot
- Heat source
- Long Spoon
STEP 3: AGAVE NECTAR AND WASH PROCEDURE:
- The brew pot is placed on the heating source and 4.5 gallons of water is poured in.
- The water is heated to 125 degrees fahrenheit.
- Raw cane sugar and agave nectar are stirred in with a long spoon until completely dissolved (it can take a while for the agave to dissolve).
- Once the agave nectar and cane sugar are dissolved, 1 gallon of cold water is poured in to cool down the wash.
- When the wash has cooled to 80 degrees, active dry yeast is added.
- The wash aerates for 5 minutes.
- The wash is poured into a fermentation bucket.
- Then, the fermentation bucket is sealed with the air-lock, and stored in a dark place around 75-80 degrees fahrenheit.
STEP 4: FERMENTING TEQUILA
- Cheese cloth
- pH meter
- Citric acid
The wash ferments for 5-7 days. When ready, it no longer tastes sweet or emits vapors from the air-lock. The yeast fully converts all of the sugars to alcohol in the wash.
Then, the ABV (alcohol by volume) is tested using a hydrometer.
STEP 5: STRAIN IT
After fermentation, we completely removed any solid material that can form during the process. The solid material isn’t meant to be consumed and may lead to headaches, among other problems.
We use a cheesecloth before distillation. Expert distillers test the pH of their wash. An ideal pH is 4.5 to 5.0. Citric acid brings the pH down and calcium carbonate brings it up.
STEP 6: GETTING PREPPED TO DISTILL THE TEQUILA
- Pot still
- Still burner
- Cleaning products
- Cheese cloth
- Fermented and strained tequila “mixto” wash
Next up is the distillation process. The tequila wash contains undesirable contents (alcohols that can cause serious illness or side effects, even death if consumed like acetaldehyde, acetone, and methanol) that need to be separated and disposed of. We use a siphon to do this, in this case, a cheesecloth. Once the undesirable contents are disposed of, we are now ready to make tequila. Distilling the fermented wash produces a purer, concentrated spirit.
STEP 7: PREP AND CLEAN THE POT STILL
An important part of the process, prepping and cleaning the pot still maximizes the quality of the distillate. It creates a pure tequila free of unwanted impurities.
Once the still and all equipment are properly cleaned, the tequila is poured into the still. Unwanted particles and sediments cause the distillation to burn and can soil the final product. Because of this, a siphon is used to reduce sediment build up.
STEP 7: THE POT STILL IS FIRED UP
The still is inspected before turning on the heat. Clamps, domes, hoses, and condensers are all checked. The still is fired up to raise the temperature of the tequila wash. The tequila wash goes through two separate distillations. In the first, the entire distillate is collected without separating the heads, hearts, and tails.
Once the still reaches 168 degrees fahrenheit, the temperature is increased to continue producing distillate.
This process continues until the distillate measures less than 20% ABV, which we measure using a hydrometer. The remaining contents of the still are kept as they are used in the second step of the distillation process. The first distillate is diluted by 20% with water. Then, we stir the mix thoroughly and add it back into the still. We’re ready to begin our second round of distillation.
STEP 8: COLLECTING THE DISTILLATE
Next, we collect our tequila distillate. All of our hard work has paid off! This part in the process takes a keen eye and knowledge, and takes experience to complete successfully.
Just like a whiskey distillate, tequila distillate includes four parts: foreshots, heads, hearts, and tails.
The first 5% of the process consists of the foreshots. Foreshots contain dangerous alcohols like methanol which are extremely toxic. As standard practice, the first 250ml per 5 gallons are thrown out as these consist of the foreshots.
The foreshots are isolated and discarded. They are NOT to be consumed.
Next are the heads, the next 30% of the tequila. Similar to the foreshots, the heads are also filled with volatile alcohols that shouldn’t be consumed like acetone.
Acetone smells like solvent. Drinking the heads of the tequila doesn’t result in life-threatening problems, but will result in a painful hangover. The heads are isolated and discarded.
The next 30% is known as the “hearts.” This is where the consumable part of the spirit is consumed. The still temperature is raised to 175-180 degrees fahrenheit.
The smell of solvent decreases and is replaced by a sweet-smelling ethanol alcohol. The hearts are determined by their neutral and slightly sweet flavor. Only a tiny bit of the distillate is tasted on a finger, as this still isn’t the finished product.
The trick distillers master is identifying the (no pun intended) sweet spot where acetone stops being produced and ethanol starts.
Finally, the last 35% of the tequila is the “tails.” The tails are characterized by their sight, smell, and taste. An oily film collects on the top of the tequila distillate, and it smells and tastes burnt. The tails contain protein and carbohydrates from the wash–we don’t want these in the final product. The tails can be reused as their own wash in the future–it’s a great way to repurpose them.
STEP 9: AGING THE TEQUILA
There are various aging timelines for tequila. There isn’t a legal requirement to age tequila, but each type of tequila has its own aging characteristics. Each type has its own look and flavor profiles.
Blancos or silver tequilas. These aren’t usually aged, but can rest in oak for up to 60 days. Slightly aged blanco may have a slight green tinge to it.
Joven (Gold) is a type of blanco blended with aged tequilas. It has a caramel hue and other additives for coloring.
Reposados are aged in oak barrels anywhere from two months to a day before the 365th day of the year. They are darker in color than blanco and joven and develop a richer flavor due to aging in barrels.
Añejos are aged in oak barrels for one to three years. On the higher end of quality, these are sipping tequilas.
Extra Añejos are aged longer than thirty six months in oak barrels.
Want to try a different type of tequila every month? Consider joining our Tequila of the Month Club.
A tequila club subscription is the best way to familiarize yourself with varieties of tequila without needing to conduct your own research.
Taster’s Club is a great way to experiment with different types of whiskey with the help of experts. We curate sought-after, rare bottles from around the world, put one in a subscription box, and send it to your doorstep every month. Each box contains one 750ml bottle of Bourbon as well as tasting, history, and distillery notes so that you can gain knowledge and a refined palate for bourbon.
So, if you’re interested in expanding your palate but don’t want to go it alone, a tequila club is the perfect option.
To review, making tequila is a 9 step process. First, the agave is harvested. Then, the agave piña (the heart or the succulent core) is shredded and the agave fibers are prepared for sugar extraction. Next, a diffuser extracts the sugar within the shredded agave fibers. This produces water and agave sugar. Then, the agave is hydrolyzed to transform complex sugars into fermentable ones. This takes about 6 hours to convert inulin to fructose.
Next is fermentation. This is carried out in stainless steel tanks using a blend of yeats and nutrients. Then, the liquid is distilled. The first distillation occurs in steel distillation columns and the second takes place in stills. Then, the spirit is filtered. Filtering depends on the methods employed by the distiller. After this, the tequila may be aged depending on the type. Reposado tequila is aged in white oak wood for at least two months. Añejo tequilas are aged in white oak barrels for at least twelve months. Extra añejuo is aged for at least 36 months.
Finally, demineralized water is added to the tequila to adjust its gradation. The spirit is bottled, sold, and enjoyed!