Want to make your own tequila? Good luck. While there are only three ingredients in pure tequila—Blue Weber agave, yeast, and water—the process is complicated. In fact, technically speaking, if you want to make “tequila,” you’ll need a Blue Weber agave farm in the Mexican state of Jalisco or another approved municipality in the states of Guanajuato, Michoacan, Nayarit, or Tamaulipas.
Tequila comes from Mexico, and there’s no getting around it.
This is serious business in Mexico. In 1974, “tequila” became the intellectual property of Mexico. That’s why you’ll never see an American-made tequila (or, a tequila from any of the other 193 countries in the world). Just like bourbon comes from the United States and cognac comes from France, tequila comes from Mexico. Period.
In short, Mexico has gone to great lengths via official treaties and agreements (NAFTA) to protect tequila with a Mexican Designation of Origin. Nonetheless, if you want to learn how to make tequila, we’ve put together a 7-step production primer.
Blue Weber (Weber Azul) agave takes anywhere from six to 14 years to grow. The agave is tended to by workers called jimadors. They routinely trim the agave’s leaves with a sharp curved tool called a coa. This prevents the agave from flowering and dying early. Only the agave’s heart, called a piña, is used to make tequila. Piñas can weigh anywhere from 80 to 300 pounds.
After harvesting, the piñas must be cooked to extract their fermentable sugars. Traditionally, piñas were baked in earthen pits lined with rocks, but now they are steam cooked in clay/brick ovens called hornos or stainless steel autoclaves. Cooking the piñas breaks down the complex carbohydrates into simple fructose and makes extraction easier.
The cooked piñas are crushed in order to release the fermentable juice called aguamiel. Traditionally, the piñas were crushed in a circular pit by a giant stone grinding wheel—called a tahona—that was powered by mules or oxen. However, nowadays most distilleries use a mechanical roller mill.
The aguamiel is diluted with water and pumped into large wooden vats or stainless steel tanks for several days, usually between 7-14 days. The aguamiel then ferments into a wort, called mosto, thanks to natural microorganisms or the addition of yeast. Traditionally, the natural yeast from the agave leaves was used during fermentation. However, now yeast is commonly added.
The low-alcohol mosto is distilled in pot stills or distillation columns to purify the liquid and concentrate the alcohol. The first distillation produces a cloudy liquid called ordinario, which is about 20-25 percent ABV. After a second distillation, the ordinario becomes blanco tequila, which must be between 35-55 percent ABV.
The distillate is then prepared into one of five expressions, as designated by the the Consejo Regulador de Tequila (Tequila Regulatory Council: TRC): blanco, joven, reposado, añejo, or extra añejo. Blanco tequila, the purest expression, is simply hydrated with water and bottled after a rest of less than two months. Reposado, añejo, and extra añejo are all examples of aged tequilas (typically in oak barrels), while joven is a combination of blanco and reposado.
To learn more about the five expressions, check out Outsider’s breakdown of the 5 Types of Tequila.
After aging (or not aging, in the case of blancos), the tequila is bottled with an Appelation of Origin status in the Mexican state of Jalisco or other approved municipalities in the states of Guanajuato, Michoacan, Nayarit, or Tamaulipas. In addition, the TRC monitors every part of the tequila-production process, from planting the agave to bottling. Each bottle carries a NOM (Norma Official Mexicana), which is a 4-digit code that represents the tequila’s distillery.