If your tequila needs a salt-and-lime chaser or you wake up smashingly hungover, you’re drinking it wrong. It’s time to learn how to enjoy this ‘elixir of the gods’.

Tequila Expert Guide

All About Tequila

You’ve likely been drinking tequila improperly all these years, or even given up on it. Many of us have had unfortunate tequila nights, waking up with only a headache and regrets.

But tequila doesn’t deserve the bad rap it gets – we’re pointing the blame in the wrong direction. The problem is the way we’ve been consuming it and the quality.

The number one mistake is: tequila is not meant to be drunk like a shot, but sipped like a fine whisky or cognac.

The second typical mistake is: choosing a cheap tequila or mixing it with sugary drinks.

Tequila is known to be one of the purest liquors in the world – and so, relatively hangover-free. This is especially true of the ‘blanco’ variety – young, colorless tequila – which encapsulates the health benefits and unique flavors of the Mexican agave plants.

As the cult status grows for fine tequilas, international drinkers are no longer limited to the cheap and nasty stuff (the ‘mixto‘ kind that gives you the headache). Today, you can find many top-shelf tequilas worthy of a sip.

The world of Tequila is rich, varied and largely unexplored, with some of the best tequilas still to claim fame outside of Mexico’s border. As the tequila trend heats up, the industry continues to mature and experiment. 

Despite the newer fame abroad, tequila has an old soul. The first distilled agave spirits started in the 16th century, blending indigenous agave processes with Spanish distillation techniques. This makes it one of North America’s first indigenous distilled spirits.

Today you can visit tequila’s epicenter in the Mexican state of Jalisco, right where a town called ‘Tequila’ stands today. In Jalisco, you can forage small liquor shops, full of tequila brands you’ve never heard of.

Now tequila is up there with fine wines and top-shelf whiskies, even to the tune of a $1,000 a bottle.

The Spanish rhyme about tequila explains it all:

Si no hay remedio, un litro y medio

If there’s no remedy, a litre and a half.

Translation: tequila is the solution to everything. And, if you drink tequila right, you’ll hardly notice the hangover. Not only will you want to jump on the connoisseur bandwagon, you’ll probably want to drive it, too.

Here we explain the steps to understanding the intricate world of tequila and its flavors to help you become the expert.


Tequila Facts At A glance

Our Top 3 Favorite Tequilas

Tapatio Extra Anejo: One of the smoothest aged tequilas on the market from an old family distillery. It is aged for more than 10 years, and they use the original 80-year-old yeast culture. Although it’s hard to find and pricey, you won’t be disappointed.

Fortaleza/Los Abuelos: This was of the first distilleries to export to the United States in the late 1800s. It was later revived by the family keeping the traditional methods, including stone-crushed agave, that were once considered too ‘inefficient’. The result is a smooth but full-bodied agave blanco tequila.

Don Julio 70: This was one of the first ‘cristalinos’ on the market (aged tequila that is filtered with carbon). If you’re new to tequila or don’t like the strong alcohol hit, this is a good beginner’s choice because of the sweet vanilla notes.

Where Does Tequila Come From?

Tequila has been awarded DO status (denomination of origin) – like Champagne or Comte cheese – which means that the agave must be grown and distilled in Mexico to be called tequila. It recognizes that environmental factors, like soil, are paramount to flavor. If your bottle doesn’t say ‘made in Mexico’ (hecho en Mexico), it is not real tequila.

Tequila Is Only Made in Mexico

Only certain areas in five Mexican states can call their distilled agave ‘tequila’, which are:

  • Jalisco – the birthplace of tequila, and the location of a town of the same name; you can visit around 20 distilleries in the area.
  • Michoacan
  • Guanajuato
  • Nayarit
  • Tamaulipas

However, this doesn’t stop some companies bottling their tequila elsewhere, which some argue reduces quality.

The rest must label their products as ‘distilled agave.’ Although, other agave alcohols have also received DO status, such as sotol, raicilla and mezcal.

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authentic tequila nom guide

What Is Authentic Tequila?

The Consejo Regulador del Tequila (CRT, or Tequila Regulatory Council) says just over a hundred distilleries officially produce more than 1,000 tequila brands.

The complete process of tequila, from growing to bottling, is strictly controlled by CRT’s Norma Oficial Mexicana (NOM). All authentic tequilas bear the NOM stamp on the bottle, with a number that refers to the parent production company. You can search where your tequila comes from using the NOM. If you like a brand, the NOM will show you what other tequilas that distillery produces.

By law, real tequila only needs to contain 51% of agave sugar. This creates two main distinctions of authentic tequila:

  • Mixed (mixto) – alongside the 51% of agave sugar, there will be a mix of other sugars, like brown sugar or corn syrup. This increases the chance of a bad hangover. The price is usually better, so they are used for cocktails, but you can’t rely on the healthy (especially celiacs).
  • Pure agave tequila – Premium quality is labelled as 100% agave or pure agave. This increases the distinct agave flavors, and the purity reduces the day-after hangover and offers the health benefits associated with tequila.

Differences Between Tequilas

You’ll see different colored tequilas which reflects how long they have been aged. The aging process changes the taste of the tequila, often infusing flavors from the type of wooden barrel they are aged in.

There are five main tequilas:

Blanco (White) / Plata (Silver) / Platinum – this tequila is bottled directly after distillation, or up to one to two months for a smoother taste. This is the closest you can get to the true flavor and sweetness of the agave.

Oro (Gold) / Joven (Young) – this tends to be cheap mixto tequila with added coloring and flavors. But some are colored by mixing a white and reposado tequila.

Reposado – this ‘rested’ tequila ages from 2 to 11 months and takes on a golden hue from sitting in wooden barrels.

Añejo – ‘old aged’ tequila sits in a barrel for at least a year and is a deep amber color. You get richer notes of vanilla, butterscotch and caramel flavors.

Extra Añejo – this tequila is aged three years or longer and is a deep mahogany color. Like any aged alcohol, it is super suave (smooth) and becoming very popular. It is equal to a fine whisky.

different tequila expert guide

Newer Kinds of Tequila

Cristalino – This is one of latest tequila trends. It’s an añejo or extra añejo tequila that is filtered, usually with carbon, to create a clear tequila. The end flavor retains the taste and texture of an aged tequila, while enhancing the fruity, floral and sweet notes of the agave. It is an easy starting tequila, often because many have sweet, almost vanilla-candy-like flavors.

Tequila mixes: There are numerous drinks mixing tequila with a range of flavors. You can find tequila liqueurs, cremes, infusions, flavored, and mixed soft drinks or seltzers.

What About the Tequila Worm?

Real tequila is also banned from being bottled with a worm or scorpion. You will likely only find a ‘worm’ in mezcal, which is less restricted than tequila – but even then, premium mezcal brands don’t do it.

In fact, putting worms in tequila is not known as a traditional Mexican practice, but more likely to be a marketing gimmick. The worm – or gusano – is the larval form of a moth or butterfly that eats the agave. Its presence can indicate an infestation, and consequently a lower-quality tequila, although some say gusano are good luck and was used to show the alcohol content of a mezcal.

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what tequila made from guide

Is Tequila Made From Cactus?

No! Tequila is made from the agave plant, which it actually a succulent and not a cactus as commonly thought.

What Is Tequila Made From?

By law, Tequila can only be made from the Blue Agave type, known as agave azul or agave tequilana, specifically the Weber Blue variety. Blue agave is reportedly the go-to ingredient for tequila because of its higher sugar concentration compared to other agaves, plus for its shorter reproduction cycle and higher resilience.

Tequila must be made of at least 51 percent of Blue agave sugar to receive the ‘authentic’ tequila stamp. Premium brands, however, use 100 percent agave and that’s why they’re worth the higher price tag. The flavor is smoother and the hangover less severe.

So, knowing what you buy is important. Don’t be fooled by a bottle that just says ‘tequila’ – it will likely be mixed sugars. Premium tequilas will always be marked with a big stamp of ‘100 percent Blue Agave’ or ‘puro de agave’ because that kind of quality is worth shouting from the rooftops.

How Tequila Is Made

It might be a surprise to learn that tequila is made from the core of the blue agave plant – the whole plant is dug up and the long spiky leaves are cut off. This means the plant can never grow back, so agave shortages and price jumps are an issue in the industry.

Once the leaves are expertly cut away, the core looks like a pineapple. And in Spanish it’s called exactly that: a piña. Unlike a pineapple, however, these cores are heavy, weighing up to 100kg. It’s enough for 8 to 10 bottles of tequila.

The planting, caring, and harvesting of agave plants is still relatively manual. The shape of the plant means that methods have remained largely untouched by machinery.

Instead, it is the knowledge of the jimadores, the harvesters, who keep these plants well cultivated and harvested at the right time using centuries-old knowledge. The trick is to keep trimming the plant’s central, meter-high stalk (quiotes), to stop the plant from flowering and dying too early.

From here, the step-by-step process for tequila turns relatively industrial.

how tequila made guide pina

The Tequila Making Process

The piñas are usually cooked in industrial, stainless-steel pressure cookers to break down the starch into sugar. Then they are shredded and rolled in a mill. The pulp fiber is biodegradable and used as compost, fire fuel, paper or animal feed. 

Some half a dozen brands, such as Patron, still use the traditional stone wheel (tahona) to crush the piñas, believing it develops a sweeter, smoother, and stronger agave flavor.

The liquid is then left to ferment in stainless steel or other types of vats, after which they are distilled two or three times. At least two distillations are required by law. Some producers, such as Casa Noble and Corzo, have experimented with a third distillation but it’s not common; some say it removes too much of the agave flavor.

Another key indicator of quality is the length of fermentation; some providers speed up the process with a mother culture, but slow-fermentation (up to 7 days) produces better flavors and quality.

Learning the step-by-step process of how Tequila is made gives a hint at why this is a drink to be savored, just like a good whisky or cognac – and today you will easily find tequilas in the same price range.


tequila tahona making process guide
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Who Invented Tequila?

Is tequila a Mexican invention… or Spanish? Well, it’s both.

It was the indigenous fermentation of agave that inspired the Spanish to distill it.

Pulque: The Origin of Tequila

Fermented agave drinks, liked the famed pulque, have existed in Mexico for millennia. Pulque is thought to be the oldest fermented drink in North America. 

Pulque is made by fermenting agave nectar, called aguamiel ormiel de maguey. The fermentation process is volatile and furious, taking only 12 to 24 hours. It should be drunk fresh as it doesn’t last long and is not easily transported. If you put it in a closed water bottle, it would explode.

Historically, pulque had mystical and spiritual properties, believed to have been a gift to humankind from the goddess Mayahuel. It was thought that the more you drank, the farther your spirit could travel from your body.

It’s a vitamin-filled brew that is thought to have medicinal qualities. Like in the past, today some people use pulque as a sacred and healing substance. It has a low alcohol percentage, but the hit of vitamins can give you a nice buzz.



History of Tequila

While indigenous communities were experts at fermenting agave, they did not have the facilities or knowledge of distillation.

Then a catalyst struck: the Spanish conquerors ran out of their brandy. This drove them to experiment with distilling agave, taking cues from the natives’ agave techniques. And so, tequila was born, and later a town sprung up in the area where this all began.

Around early 1600, some 80 years after the first production of tequila, Don Pedro Sanchez de Tagle began mass production. Later, the Cuervo family received the first license to commercially produce tequila. The Jose Cuervo brand is one of the most renown around the world.

Today, some tequila distilleries are still family-owned dating hundreds of years; although many well-known tequilas have been sold to multinationals.

You can visit several of the traditional distilleries and agave fields, much like you would take a tour around Napa or Bordeaux. The distillery of Herradura, set in a gracious hacienda from 1870, even played a role in a 1920s rebellion as a hideout for Christians running from Mexican soldiers.

tequila history distillation

Tequila Vs Mezcal

Agave has been used in Mexico for thousands of years. It has played a spiritual role in ceremonies and marked events such as marriages, births and funerals.

Tequila has enjoyed longer fame in the international scene, although the commonly exported brands are less consumed in Mexico (like Jose Cuervo). In recent years, however, smaller brands are exporting so you can find more variety.

Industrialization has allowed tequila to be mass produced, unlike its cousin mezcal which is still generally a handmade process.

The main differences between tequila and mezcal are:

  • the cooking process
  • the type of agaves used
  • the states in which they can be produced.

The first difference is the smoky flavor of mezcal, which comes from cooking the agave trunks in a coal-pit for a day or longer (like in the picture).

Secondly, tequila is only made from blue agave. Mezcal can be made with a number of agaves with more flavor variety. Especially when you try rarer agaves, some of which take up to 30 years to mature.

Mezcal is a newer star in international markets as the quality reaches better standards. Appreciation for this hand-crafted artisanal alcohol is growing to cult status, especially for unique maguey types like Tobala or Jabali.

tequila guide information

What Does Tequila Taste Like?

At the most basic level, Blue Weber agave has herbal spice and citrus notes.

If the ‘tahona’ stone-wheel crushing method is used, such as in brands like Patron and Olmeca, additional flavors can be drawn out, particularly sweet notes, like earthy sweet potatos.

Aged tequila also picks up a variety of flavors from the barrels, such as:

  • caramel and vanilla notes from American oak
  • dry fruit flavors from French oak
  • citrus and fresh wood hints from Hungarian oak
  • notes from other alcohols if pre-used barrels are used, such as old cognac or wine barrels.

If you want to mix tequila in a cocktail, it’s best to use a white, silver, or platinum tequila to not overpower other flavors. Although, some cocktails using aged alcohols and not too many ingredients, such as a manhattan, can work well with aged tequila.

For pairing, tequila and tacos are the perfect match, while aged tequilas can complement meaty flavors such as slow-cooked beef, chipotle and chorizo. Although tequila works well as an aperitif or a post-dinner drink.


Is Tequila Hangover Free?

Agave – or maguey – is said to have medical properties and be relatively smooth for hangovers. It’s also gluten free, so celiac and gluten sufferers can have a good time. But only if it’s 100% pure agave and isn’t mixed with other alcohols, sugars or poor-quality mixes. And, provided, you don’t drink the whole bottle.

If there’s no 100% label, it will be a mixed tequila (tequila mixto), where up to 49% can come from other sugar types, such as cane or grain sugars. Some flavorings are also allowed, such as oak extract, caramel coloring, glycerin and sugar syrup. These additives are what intensifies a hangover.

If it’s 100% agave and bottled while it’s young–known as white or blanco tequila–it’s much cleaner. Without wood aging, there’s less chance of chemical impurities entering the alcohol – the kind that hurt your hangover.

So, drink it neat, drink it pure, and drink it young – and your hangover will be less noticeable.

tequila expert guide

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