Tequila 101: The Various Types Of Tequila
While different wines are derived from various grape types, tequilas are made from the same plant. So, the different types are distinguished using their age or duration in oak barrels.
The main types of tequila are Blanco, Reposado, Añejo, Extra Añejo, and Joven. Other variations are called Cristalino and Curado, which undergo additional processes or use additional ingredients.
Each type offers unique flavors and aromas that become more complex the longer they’re aged and can be consumed as is or used in tequila cocktails. Keep reading to discover more about the types of the famous Mexican spirit!
Tequila is a mezcal made from the blue agave plant. Its roots go back to the Aztecs, who drank pulque, an alcoholic beverage derived from the agave's fermented sap. The Spanish began distilling mezcal in the 1500s, but modern tequila only appeared in the mid-1700s.
Producing tequila requires years' worth of time and strenuous processes. Making the tequila itself doesn’t take as much time as growing the main ingredient - blue Weber agave. This is because it takes about seven to nine years before a blue agave matures.
The extensive growing period of the plant and its geographical regulations make tequila relatively expensive. But once blue agave plants are harvested and are ready to be used, the production process will be smooth sailing.
The plants are shaved off of their spiky stalks until the center or piña remains, where all the sugar is stored. Next, the piñas are slowly roasted, usually in traditional ovens or autoclaves, until they get soft. They are then mashed to extract the juices or the aguamiel, which are to be fermented and distilled.
The blue Weber agave is grown and sourced only in Mexico, mainly in Jalisco but also in some parts of Guanajuato, Michoacán, Nayarit, and Tamaulipas. By law, tequila can only be produced in Mexico to be legit, but about 80% of its whole production is consumed in the US.
The most common way to distinguish types of tequila is the amount of time they’ve spent aging after being distilled. This creates further distinctions from taste to color. Let’s dive deeper into their intricacies!
Blanco means “white” in Spanish, but Blanco tequila or silver tequila is characterized by its crystal clear appearance. Its color, or the lack thereof, is attributed to the absence of oak barrels, as tequila Blanco is generally not aged.
Most of the time, they are bottled right after being distilled, but some producers let their Blanco tequilas rest in steel tanks for no more than two months to oxidize, which can lend a soft green tone.
Being an unaged tequila (most of the time), Blanco is known as the purest form of tequila because you’ll only taste the genuine flavors and qualities of the blue agave plant from Mexico.
Furthermore, Blanco typically has pronounced agave, citrus, and pepper flavors. These are what make this type so versatile, as it can be used in different cocktails, such as Margarita, Paloma, and Tequila Sunrise.
However, that’s not to say Blanco isn’t great for sipping because certain bottles are great to sip alone, especially those made of 100% agave. The taste of those bottles is considerably richer and more authentic, making them a sipping pleasure!
Age: 0 - 2 months
Tasting notes: Agave sweetness, grassy, black pepper, herbal, and citrus zest
Reposado, meaning “rested” in Spanish, is tequila that is aged for at least of two months and at most a year. Aside from the aging period, you can also discern Reposado tequilas by their color, which is a bright golden hue due to its time in the barrels.
Reposado ages in freshly charred oak barrels before being bottled. Reposado producers largely utilize American white oak, but no law says it should be aged in this kind of wood. Barrels made of Canadian or French oak are sometimes used in some distilleries.
Furthermore, the oak barrel gives Reposado additional flavors and qualities that aren’t in a Blanco, such as oak notes. Its complexity is pleasant, but compared to Añejo, it’s not as heightened.
If you're looking for a really one-of-a-kind taste experience with a richer Reposado, look for those matured in barrels that were once used to age bourbon, Cognac, or whiskey. You’ll find that the flavors will be unique and more appealing!
Whether you like to shoot it or sip it neat, Reposado tequila is a sophisticated drink. Plus, they are equally adaptable in mixed drinks as Blanco, except they provide a smoky aspect.
Age: 2 months - 1 year
Tasting notes: Agave, spices, vanilla, jasmine, citrus fruit, caramel, and smoke
Tequila that surpasses a year of aging is labeled as Añejo, which means “old” in Spanish. The law says Añejo should have an aging period between one and three years, and barrels should only hold 600 liters, giving the batch ample time to develop a deep, woody flavor.
Añejo acquires a gorgeous dark golden hue, as well as vanilla and flowery notes on the nose due to the aging duration. Also, caramel is sometimes used in Añejo to enhance its flavor and color.
Most people agree that Añejo tequila is the smoothest and the sweeter version compared to Blanco and Reposado. Furthermore, some people who prefer dark spirits, like whiskey, feel that Añejo is a great substitute because of its slight oak and vanilla-y notes.
Because of the time it takes to age, Añejo can be rather pricey. However, if you're on a limited budget, you can still find bottles on the market that won't break the bank.
Drinking Añejo tequila is the optimal method for fully appreciating and accepting tequila's rich, deep, and complex flavor profile.
If you want to fully appreciate the tequila's nuanced flavors, add ice or a few drops of water to it. You will notice deeper vanilla and caramel sweetness greeting you! You can also use it for a tequila variant of an Old Fashioned or Vieux Carre.
Age: 1 - 3 years
Tasting notes: Creamy, oak, vanilla, honey, and caramel
It wasn't until 2006 that extra Añejo was officially recognized as a distinct category of tequila. Usually, producers use American and French oak barrels for aging this type of tequila, but other wood barrels can also be utilized.
Like Añejo, one batch must only be 600 liters but is matured in wood barrels for over three years. Because Extra Añejo tequila has longer interaction with the barrels than other tequilas, the result has the deepest amber color and the most robust aromas and tastes.
Many Extra Añejo producers have let out their disagreements or opposition against aging extra Añejo for more than four years as they believe that notes from the barrel will start overpowering the authentic notes and qualities of the agave plant.
Extra Añejo tequilas are the strongest-bodied and most flavorful varieties; hence they frequently complement foods and dishes with comparable potent characteristics. With their complex flavors and age, they can be likened to a high-quality Scotch and are best consumed neat.
Age: 3+ years
Tasting notes: Spices, sweet fruit, oak, vanilla, agave, dark chocolate, pepper
Despite meaning “young” in Spanish, Joven is actually a blend of unaged (Blanco) and aged (Reposado, Añejo, or Extra Añejo) tequila. It is usually priced lower and is often served in commercial settings like restaurants and bars.
When a Blanco gets mixed with aged tequila, even if the latter is only a small amount, the taste, aromas, mouthfeel, and other characteristics can vastly change. Winemakers apply this trick, wherein they practice adding small amounts of different varietals to create the ideal blend.
Some distillers also like to use a technique known as the Abocado process, which involves mellowing out the flavor of the gold tequila using additives.
Joven tequila, just like other types, is versatile enough to be utilized in an assortment of mixed beverages or more traditional sipping options like "on the rocks" and "neat."
Age: Depends on the blend
Tasting notes: Sweet agave, vanilla, earthy, spice, citrus fruits
The following tequilas are less well-known but are worth learning if you want to discover more about tequila. They are either derived from any main tequila types or modified with additional methods and ingredients.
Cristalinos are simply aged tequilas that are stripped of color using a filtration process. Basically, it looks like Blanco tequila but with the flavors and qualities of aged tequila.
There are several methods for filtering, but activated carbon (also known as activated charcoal) is by far the most prevalent. Producers either filter the tequila through a charcoal filter or add activated powdered charcoal to the tequila before running it through a filter.
While Cristalinos are not yet classified as a specific type of tequila, they have been acknowledged by the Consejo Regulador del Tequila (CRT) and might one day be officially classified as such.
It is said that Don Julio, one of Mexico's most renowned tequila distilleries, was the first to develop Cristalino tequila in 2011, led by its master distiller Enrique de Colsa. The bottle was made to celebrate the company’s founder, Don Julio González’s 70th year in tequila making.
One should expect the flavor and aroma qualities of mature tequilas to be present in a bottle of Cristalino. Activated charcoal also reduces the number of particular tequila molecules in the Cristalino structure, resulting in a more refined flavor. No wonder it’s growing quickly in the tequila market!
Age: 18 months or more
Tasting notes: Vanilla, floral, cinnamon, apples
Curado tequilas are those that have their flavors enhanced by the addition of natural ingredients like fruits, including strawberry, orange, lemon, and pineapple, and other flavor enhancers.
The guidelines give an allowable percentage of "non-traditional" ingredients of up to 75%. This means that 25% is the minimum requirement of agave spirit to be used for Tequila Curados, which is even less than a Mixto tequila’s 51% requirement.
Because of the addition of sweeteners, colors, and flavor enhancers, Curados can be a controversial topic of discussion. This is because the additional components may take over the natural flavor of the agave.
Nevertheless, there are still Curado bottles that are worth trying, especially if you want to try something new.
Age: 0-2 months
Tasting notes: Assorted fruits, honey, spices, herbal, caramel
The shortest explanation between the two is, "All tequila is mezcal, but not all mezcal is tequila." Mezcal is an umbrella term, much like whiskey and sparkling wine.
Tequila needs to be made specifically from blue agave, whereas Mezcal can be derived from about 50 agave plant varieties, including tobaziche, arroqueño, espadín, tobalá, and tepeztate.
Furthermore, tequila and mezcal come from two different regions. Tequila exclusively comes from the five regions mentioned above, while mezcal can be produced in the following regions - Tamaulipas, Oaxaca, Puebla, San Luis Potosí, Durango, Guanajuato, Guerrero, Michoacán, and Zacatecas.
Highland tequilas are those that are made using blue agave plants cultivated in the Jalisco Highlands, which is called Los Altos. On the other hand, lowland tequilas are made from blue agave piñas grown in lowland areas or El Valle.
The inherent flavor of the agave is altered by the unique environmental conditions in each of these lands. The higher altitude in the highlands means colder evenings and a greater likelihood of rainfall. While in the lowlands, one should expect harsh, dry weather and warmer evenings.
Tequila can be drunk neat, as a tequila shot, or on the rocks, but it also makes a great base spirit for various mixed drinks. We’ll lend you a list of our favorite tequila cocktails:
Mixto tequila is combined with various ingredients and is also called "mixed tequilas." One won't normally see these sold under the term "mixto tequila,” but you can know that they are Mixto if they are not 100% blue agave.
The minimum required percentage of blue agave for legal tequila production is 51%. Mixto tequilas meet this requirement, and different sugars and ingredients make up the rest of the percentage.
Sometimes, distillers use additives to enhance or rectify a batch of tequila in terms of taste, color, or texture before they are bottled. Mexican tequila regulations stipulate that additives can be used as long as they only make up 1% of the total mixture.
The four most commonly used additives are caramel coloring, sugar-based syrup, glycerin, and oak extract. They are only used in very tiny portions because they can be quite powerful, so adding more than the allowed amount can greatly impact the final product.
Some tequila elitists frown upon additives because they think they take away tequila's original flavors. But for some producers, additives serve a purpose in making their products uniform and using efficient methods.
Tequila is one of the best examples of what time and barrels can do to the same liquor. But whether a tequila is aged, unaged, blended, or filtered, each type has amazing flavors and aromas for different drinkers.
Which tequila type is your favorite? We’d love to know about your go-to in the comments below!
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