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Tequila tasting in 5 snapshots

We answer 5 common questions on tequila’s history, production and care for collectors

Tequila is readily identified as the key ingredient in everyone’s favorite Cinco de Mayo drink—the margarita. Yet the spike in tequila sales that happens each and every May in the United States in conjunction with the anniversary of the Battle of Puebla is not an anomaly: since 2002, tequila sales in the United States have grown 158%—or an average increase of 6.1% per year.1

You know whether you like your tequila with rocks or salt, but how much do you know about its production and history? This botanically-based spirit—and its cousin, mezcal, have been enjoyed for centuries, long before they became the perfect companions to your Taco Tuesday. Here, we answer five common questions about enjoying, collecting, and even insuring this popular spirit.

 

1. How is tequila made?

 

Tequila is made from the agave plant, a succulent indigenous to the southwestern United States and Mexico. The first spirited drink made from this heat-loving member of the botanical asparagales family is documented in Mexico over two thousand years ago.2 This beverage, known locally as pulque, was made by fermenting the sap of the agave plant. Think of it as the spiritous evolution of the agave nectar you may use to sweeten your drinks.

Tequila, however, is made from the heart of the agave plant, instead of its sap or leaves. The heart of an agave plant is similar to that of an artichoke—and it can be roasted to break down its sugars, caramelize its flavor and yield a smoky bite. To make tequila or mezcal, agave hearts are roasted, often in earthen ovens, and covered to smolder for days. Eventually, the fermented mixture is boiled, and the steam collected in a distillation still.

Botanist Amy Stewart observes that Spanish colonists who came to Mexico in the 16th century most likely introduced new technology that made the distillation process more efficient. By 1621, a priest in Jalisco, Mexico noted that roasted agave hearts produced, “a wine by distillation clearer than water and stronger than cane alcohol, and to their liking.”3

 

2. Tequila and mezcal: What’s the difference?

 

Although both tequila and mezcal are made from the agave plant, there are three main differences between the two spirits:

  • They are made with different kinds of agave
  • They are grown in different regions
  • They are distilled differently

You may be surprised to learn that all tequilas are mezcals, but not all mezcals are tequilas. Why? Tequila, which comes from a designated area around Jalisco, Mexico, is made from blue agave, agave tequilana.  In contrast, mezcal can be made from more than 30 varieties of agave, including agave tequilana. Espadin, the most common agave used in mezcals, is the base for more than 90% of these spirits.4

While tequila is made in from Jalisco, mezcal comes from Oaxaca, Guerrero and a few Mexican states in the north. Variations in the production process can also make for differences between these two spirits: while mezcal’s agave hearts are often roasted in an underground pit, which imparts a smoky flavor, tequila’s agave cores are often heated and steamed in an oven.5

Reader beware—next time you are looking to fashion a margarita, look for tequilas that say 100% agave on the label. Otherwise you may be drinking a mixto, tequila distilled from agave and other non-agave sugars.

 

3. Let’s get technical: Can we review some tequila terminology?

 

Like other complex distilled spirits, both tequila and mezcal are aged inside oak barrels once the distillation process is over.

It seems to be a quirk or commonality among enthusiasts for high-end wines and spirits that share similarities in production or region to create different rating or quality structures that can differentiate them. One thinks of the winemakers in the French regions of Bordeaux and Burgundy, who created different categories for their respective wines (Premier Cru is the high end for Bordeaux, while Grand Cru is the top level for Burgundy, and Premier Cru is the next level).

Tequila and mescal define their categories slightly differently. They are based on age—the older, the better:6

Tequila:
  • Blanco (silver or plato/0-2 months)
  • Reposado (2-12 months)
  • Añejo (1-3 years)
  • Extra Añejo (3 years +)
Mezcal:
  • Joven (blanco or abacado/0-2 months)
  • Reposado (2-12 months)
  • Añejo (at least one year)

4. Are there collectible tequilas?

 

Artisanal, small-batch and specially-aged tequilas and mezcals, like other premium spirits, have entered the collector marketplace. And they are on the rise—the Distilled Spirits Council reports that the super-premium category of tequila has seen an impressive 706% growth since 2002.7

As with other high-end spirits, the flavors of premium tequila and mezcals depend on the types of barrels used and the length of time the spirit has spent aging. There may also be differences in the way the agave heart is heated or distilled. Terroir, the beloved term of oenophiles to describe the special characteristics of the soil or region where the grapes for a particular wine were grown, also comes into play with tequila and mezcal.

A recent Robb Report article on high-end agave spirits highlights some of the artisanal qualities in the hundred-dollar-a-bottle-and-higher category.8

The well-known brand Patron kicked off the premium tequila movement, so it’s no surprise that they also produce expensive and aged extra añejos for the market. Gran Patron Piedra is produced using a very traditional process, where a stone wheel (called a tahona) slowly crushes the agave. The resulting juice is then fermented and distilled along with the crushed agave fiber.8

A noteworthy, and quite affordable, premium tequila, Qui Platinum Extra Anejo Tequila, is the first platinum (clear) extra-añejo. A proprietary filtration system transforms the dark amber color the liquid takes on after the barrel aging process back to a clear liquid. If you like the “maturity” of your tequila to be visible, Qui Rare is the brand’s special twelve year old extra-añejo, with a tell-tale dark caramel color that reveals its aging in Tennessee whiskey and French Bordeaux barrels.9

Another flavorful extra-añejo is El Tesoro’s Paradiso, which is aged for four to five years in former bourbon barrels for a complex flavor that brings out notes of chocolate and dried fruit.10

 

5. How can I preserve and store my tequila (and mezcals)?

 

For common distilled spirits, such as whiskeyvodka, and tequila, the general rule of thumb is to store them at room temperature, with a preference for cooler temperatures, between 55 and 60 degrees. Cooler temperatures can preserve spirits longer. Why? As temperatures rise, alcohol begins to expand and can evaporate more quickly. Heat also can cause the liquor to oxidize more quickly and change flavors over time.

Keeping your bottles in the dark is preferable, too. While sunlight and UV rays won’t spoil liquor, extended exposure to the sun can also speed up the oxidation process.

For added protection, consider insuring your fine spirits. Like high-value wines, collectible tequila and mezcals can be protected by a “blanket” insurance policy for wine and spirits on a specialty coverage form for collectibles. The peace of mind just may make your next margarita taste even sweeter.

Katja Zigerlig is Vice President, Art, Wine + Collectibles Advisory at Berkley One (a Berkley Company).

To learn more about Berkley One’s collectibles coverage, visit us here.

Follow more trends in the world of collectible wine and spirits with our primers on wine, roséchampagne and Japanese whiskey.