(n.) One of Mexico’s most famous exports, tequila is made from the heart of the blue agave plants grown in Jalisco and a handful of other states, which is harvested and steam-cooked to release fermentable sugars. The juice is then extracted from the plants and fermented before being distilled. The final product must be double-stilled at a minimum and is subject to a number of aging regulations.
Believed to be one of the first distilled products of the Americas, tequila is a descendant of pulque, fermented agave juice made by the Aztec. When Spanish conquistadors and Filipino sailors brought distillation know-how to the Americas in the 16th century, pulque went higher proof. By the early 1600s, a rustic version of mezcal, tequila’s direct parent, was being mass-produced in Jalisco. The spirit became further refined in the 19th century, when producers narrowed on the blue agave plant from Jalisco as the favored source.
Many Americans were introduced to the spirit during Prohibition, as Mexico, the closest neighbor to the dry United States, never stopped producing alcohol. The tequila-based Margarita, invented during or soon after Prohibition, has hardly flagged in popularity stateside since.
Although tequila has long had a reputation for down-marketness, suitable only for shots and mixed drinks, evidence suggests that Americans are recognizing higher-quality versions of the spirit. The Distilled Spirits Council of the United States reports that imports of super-premium tequila have grown over 400 percent from 2002 to 2012.
The best tequilas are distilled from 100-percent blue agave; all others bear the mixto label, which permits anything made with over 51-percent blue agave to be named tequila. There are five categories based on time spent aging barrels, which range from to bright and clean in flavor to smooth and almost cognac-like: blanco or plata (less than two months in neutral barrels), reposado (two months to a year), joven (a mix of blanco and aged), añejo (one to three years), and extra añejo (a minimum of three years).