How-To & Diy

The Basics of Tequila

August 14, 2013

Inspired by conversations on the Food52 Hotline, we're sharing tips and tricks that make navigating all of our kitchens easier and more fun.

Today: Erik Lombardo, bar manager of Maialino in New York City, teaches us all about tequila -- brought to you by Patrón TequilaSign up for a chance to dine at the next Patrón Secret Dining Society.

Tequila from Food52

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Tequila may be the most maligned spirit in the world. Everyone has a tequila story, and most of them took place when we were too young to know better. But for the discerning drinker, tequila offers as much subtlety and complexity as fine whiskey. A part of the misunderstanding comes from a general lack of knowledge for what truly constitutes tequila, so in an effort to bring some justice to the underdog, here is everything you’ve wanted to know about tequila.

5 Conditions for a Spirit to be Tequila

• Made in the delimited zones around the city of Tequila, Mexico (near Guadalajara in Jalisco)

• Made from the Blue Agave (Agave Tequilana or Tequilana Weber Blue) plant

• Made with at least 51% Blue Agave spirit. Generally speaking, the higher the Blue Agave content, the higher the quality.

Bottled in Mexico 

• At least twice distilled

How Tequila is Made

Tequila is one of the most labor intensive spirits to make in the world.

The “Piña,” or root bulb of the agave cactus, is harvested, then cooked. The cooking method varies from producer to producer: they can be steamed, roasted, even buried over coals underground.  The piñas are then juiced and the juice is fermented before being distilled in either pot or column stills -- again, the choice varies from producer to producer.  The tequilas are finished by aging in wooden barrels; the amount of time aging changes what type of tequila is produced.

Tequilas from Food52

5 Categories of Tequila

Blanco ("White") or Plata ("Silver"): Usually un-aged and bottled immediately after distillation, or aged less than 2 months in stainless steel or oak barrels

Joven ("Young") or Oro ("Gold"): A mixture of blanco tequila and reposado tequila 

Reposado ("Rested"): Aged at least 2 months, but less than a year in oak barrels of any size

Añejo ("Aged" or "Vintage"): Aged at least 1 year, but less than 3 years in small oak barrels

Extra Añejo ("Extra Aged" or "Ultra Aged"): Aged at least 3 years in smaller oak barrels (600 liters or less)

Anejo from Food52

What affects the end product?

• The ripeness of the agave (same as the importance of the ripeness of the grapes in making wine)

• The proportion of agave in the tepache (the fermented juice) -- there is less quality in mixtos (blends)

• Origin of the plants (The highlands make a sweeter and spicier tequila, while the lowlands make one that's more elegant and herbaceous.)

• The method used to cook the agave piñas (slow roasting brick ovens vs. autoclaves)

• Process of distillation 

• Finishing (time of rest, origin of oak, lenth of oak-ing, toast of oak, etc.)

What's your favorite way to drink tequila? Sign up for a chance to dine at the next Patrón Secret Dining Society.

This article was brought to you by Patrón Tequila.

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Lost_in_NYC
  • LLStone
  • Thomas Lemke
    Thomas Lemke
  • walkie74
  • Leanne
Erik Lombardo

Written by: Erik Lombardo


Lost_in_NYC August 21, 2013
Another cool bit of information to impress dinner guests or dates with: On every tequila bottle there is a 4-digit rating that the Mexican gov't grants the distiller. Its usually on the front or back within a square. Basically the higher the rating, the smoother and higher quality the tequila it is (no burn sensation). Jose Cuervo is the 1100's, hence the burn one feels when you knock it back (with or without lime). Milagros is in the 1400's so its definitely smoother and can be consumed on the rocks/neat/fancy cocktail.
Thomas L. August 21, 2013
This information is incorrect. The number you are referring to is the NOM number. This four digit number identifies the distillery in which the tequila was produced. This number has nothing to do with the quality of the tequila. The CRT, which assigns these numbers, has nothing to do with rating or ranking tequila.
LLStone August 19, 2013
Cold and sipped, with an occasional bite of citrus with raw sugar. Good!
Thomas L. August 16, 2013
2oz fresh squeezed lime juice, 2oz Leroux triple sec, 1oz 100% agave tequila blanco of your choice(anything aged ads an uncharacteristic wood flavor) or 2oz of tequila if you like it stronger. Add crushed ice and shake. Strain into lowball glass and add crushed ice from shaker until full. Recipe never fails.
walkie74 August 15, 2013
Cold as possible and sipped, preferably with homemade salsa and chips. My husband is terrified of it, but that just means I can drink his share :)
Leanne August 14, 2013, that sounds amazing!
Lynn W. August 14, 2013
Great article simple put. Saw a tequila distillery in Mexico outside Mazalon. So interesting thanks
savorthis August 14, 2013
I generally prefer tequila on the rocks with just a slight squeeze of lime, but I did really enjoy a smoked tea, kumquat cocktail we made:
SuSu August 14, 2013
Blanco or plata tequila, juice of 2 limes, 1/8t raw honey, top with sparkling water and garnish with lime twist.