How Is Tequila Made? 7 Steps to Producing Tequila

by Jim Casey

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.

1. Harvesting

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.

A jimador harvests Blue Weber agave pinas. (photo by Ricardo Beliel via Getty Images)

2. Cooking

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 pinas are loaded into brick ovens called hornos. (photo by Chip Hires via Getty Images)

3. Extraction

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.

A worker shovels cooked pinas crushed by a tahona. (photo by Refugio Ruiz via Getty Images)

4. Fermentation

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.

A worker stirs the fermenting mosto. (photo by Ricardo Beliel via Getty Images)

5. Distillation

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.

After fermentation, the juice is distilled in large stills. (photo by Marc DeVille via Getty Images)

6. Aging

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.

Tequila ages in oak barrels. (photo by Refugio Ruiz via Getty Images)

7. Bottling

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.

Tequila is bottled. (photo by Gabriel Trujillo via Getty Images)