Types of Tequila – A Guide for the Best Drinking Experience
Whether you’re a long-time tequila fan or you’re just starting to explore it, there’s a lot to discover about this historic Mexican spirit. With tequila’s multiple varieties and aging processes, you might be unsure about the differences between types of tequila. Learn all about what the spirit is and where it comes from along with the five different types of tequila and how they taste.
What is Tequila?
Tequila is an alcoholic spirit from Mexico that is, by law, derived from the Blue Weber agave plant in one of five states. These include Jalisco, Guanajuato, Michoacan, Nayarit or Tamaulipas. Jalisco produces and exports the vast majority of tequila, and most tequila distilleries are located in the state’s highland and lowland regions.
Tequila is distilled with at least 51% agave and no more than 49% sugar. It gets bottled anywhere from 35% to 55% ABV (alcohol by volume), but in the US it must be sold with at least 40% ABV.
During the 1600s, Don Pedro Sánchez de Tagle, known as “the Father of Tequila”, produced “mezcal de tequila” at Mexico’s first large-scale distillery in Jalisco. This was basically the same as mezcal until the 1870s. It was then discovered that blue agave was best to produce the spirit with, and the industry began to produce tequila as we know it today. During prohibition, it became popular in the US when American tourists discovered it in the nearby bars of Tijuana and bootleggers smuggled it across the border.
The Types of Tequila
The different tequila types are mostly determined by their aging process and duration. In general, the more time a tequila ages during production, the higher its quality. The spirit’s wood character and color are impacted by the time it spends sitting in oak barrels.
There are five main types of tequila.
Blanco tequila, also known as Plata, silver, or white, is not aged in oak. So, it carries the agave’s natural flavor and characteristics in their purest form, along with the terroir of the region in which it was grown. Distillers have the option to briefly age this type of tequila in steel tanks (or neutral oak) for less than two months. This lets flavors settle in while still bringing forward the strongest notes once bottled.
You’ll find that Blanco tequila has a strong profile and is hotter than other types of the spirit. It delivers notes of vegetal grassy or herbal, citrus, black pepper or other spices, and sweetness from the agave.
Blanco tequila works well in cocktails since it stands up next to nearly any mixer. At the same time, this can make it harsh for newbies to tequila or those who prefer milder flavors. So, if you’re looking to enjoy Blanco on its own, you’re best off with an extra smooth brand that delivers its complexity without the fiery burn.
To make aged or Reposado tequila, distillers use the Blanco type but store it in oak barrels where it sits anywhere from two months to one year. As it ages, it retains the original agave juice notes while developing a unique flavor all its own. The liquid turns to a dark gold as the wood tannins turn to honey and caramel notes, sometimes with a toastiness. The natural spicy, citrusy flavors of the tequila still hold but help to create more complex flavors like chili, chocolate, vanilla and cinnamon. When it comes to enjoying a good Reposado, you’ll find some can stand up to cocktail mixes but others are best savored neat or on ice.
If the aging process passes a year but ends prior to three, you no longer have a Reposado but an Añejo tequila instead. The longer time frame and the fact that it sits in no larger than a 600-liter barrel gives Añejos even more wood character than their predecessor. It also makes the colors and notes darker and more intense and brings out a richer flavor. Some Añejos replace the acidity of younger tequilas with a more caramelized, sweeter taste.
Any tequila left aging in oak for over three years is considered Extra or Ultra Añejo. Classified as a tequila type in 2006, the relatively new Extra Añejo needs to be cut with water to reduce its high proof and make it an even smoother spirit. This type of tequila can be expensive and is often compared to a quality scotch due to its long aging time, caramel quality and peatiness.
Joven tequila is rarer and trickier than other types. It can be a combination of unaged Blanco and aged tequila, almost akin to a blended scotch. But, it can also be a “mixto” tequila, meaning that sugar, color, flavor, or oak extract has been added to mimic the taste and feel of aged Reposados and Añejos. Since they’re not made with 100% agave, Jovens come at a lower price point than their aged counterparts. You’ll find Joven tequila works well in cocktails, with its Blanco citrus the aged character brings out.
Overall, tequila is a smooth, sweet, spicy, and sometimes fruity or toasty spirit with an agave taste. Tequilas can be complex and vary depending on their type, production location, aging time, and storing method. Despite most tequila production being heavily industrialized, it’s still pretty diverse in flavor.
Some of the cheaper bottles might taste plain, but you can find a wide range of high-quality tequila intended for sipping. For example, you’ll taste the spirit more purely in a Blanco. Reposado has a slightly caramelized flavor, while the long oak aging process of Añejo and Extra Añejo gives the tequila a woody flavor.
HIGHLAND VS. LOWLAND TEQUILA
The terroir of each area that Blue Weber agave comes from produces different flavors. Agave from the highlands of Jalisco is grown in richer soil that creates sweet notes of fruit, floral, and mineral. The state’s lowlands are thought to have a better water supply, giving the mineral-rich soil’s darker, earthier, spicier, and herbaceous taste to its agave. This type of tequila can take some getting used to at first. So, if you’re just starting out with the spirit, try a highland type in a cocktail before sipping it straight.
How to Drink Tequila
People drink tequila in all sorts of ways, and you’ll definitely find this varies between the US and Mexico. For a more authentic tequila experience, opt for a pure 100% agave Reposado, Añejo or Extra/Ultra Añejo tequila as opposed to mixto, which is made with sugar. Savor and truly appreciate it by sipping it slowly.
But, if you don’t have much experience with tequila, you can always try the American method with lime and salt first. The smaller, brighter limes work best since they’re juicer and sweeter than the larger variety. Take a sip or two, dip a lime wedge into some salt and suck just a little bit so as not to overpower the flavor.
Of course, tequila also makes a great feature of many go-to cocktails, like the margarita, el diablo, or Paloma. The bottom line is you can’t go wrong – just follow your tastebuds.
HOW IS TEQUILA MADE?
Tequila is made from Blue Weber agave, a large succulent plant. Its bulb, or piña, gets baked and juiced. Then, the juice is fermented with yeast in barrels (usually oak).
To be considered tequila, the spirit needs to be distilled with at least 51% agave and no more than 49% sugar. It gets bottled between 35% to 55% ABV (alcohol by volume), and it must be sold with at least 40% ABV in the US.
WHERE DOES TEQUILA COME FROM?
In the 1600s, tequila was first produced as “mezcal de tequila” at Mexico’s first large-scale distillery in Jalisco. Until the 1870s, it was largely the same as mezcal. Then, the Blue Weber agave variety was discovered as the best to produce the spirit from. The drink became widely popular in the US during prohibition when bootleggers snuck it across the border and American tourists enjoyed it in the neighboring bars of Tijuana.
WHAT ARE THE TYPES OF TEQUILA?
There are five types of tequila.
- Plata/Silver/White/Blanco: Unaged or aged less than two months in stainless steel or neutral oak barrels.
- Joven/Gold/Oro: Unaged Plata tequila blended with aged or extra-aged tequila or oak extract, caramel coloring, or sugar syrup.
- Reposado/Rested/Aged: Aged for a minimum of two months but less than a year in wood barrels or storage tanks.
- Añejo: Aged in oak barrels up to 600 liters for at least one year but less than three.
- Extra/Ultra Añejo: Aged in oak for at least three years.
WHAT DOES TEQUILA TASTE LIKE?
Overall, tequila is smooth, sweet, and fruity. The oak aging process of certain types makes it complex and toasty. Tequilas from Jalisco’s highlands are sweet with mineral, fruit, and floral notes. The state’s lowlands produce a more spicy, herbaceous, and earthy flavor which is initially a little harder on the palate. So, for those just getting to know the spirit, it’s best to start out with a cocktail made with highland tequila.