What Is Tequila Made From? What to Know About Tequila’s Ingredients

by Jim Casey

Tequila is made from Blue Weber agave. Done. Shortest article ever. Well, actually, there’s a little more to it. But that’s the short answer. All “tequila”—from your $23 bottle of Jose Cuervo Gold to your $250 bottle of Tears of Llorona Extra Ańejo—gets its foundation from Blue Weber agave. Now, the process behind how the Blue Weber agave makes its way into the aforementioned bottles—and if anything else is added—is a different story. Learn more about the 7 Steps to Producing Tequila.

Technically speaking, to be designated a “tequila,” the spirit must be made from Blue Weber (Weber Azul) agave in the Mexican state of Jalisco or in approved municipalities in the states of Guanajuato, Michoacan, Nayarit, or Tamaulipas. This is serious business in 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 champagne comes from France and bourbon comes from the United States, tequila comes from Mexico. Period.

In fact, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) signed in 1994 by the United States and Canada, recognizes “tequila” as a distinctive beverage of Mexico. Likewise, tequila is protected as a Mexican entity by the European Union via a 1997 agreement. In short, Mexico has gone to great lengths via official treaties and agreements to protect tequila with a Mexican Designation of Origin.

A Blue Weber agave farm in the city of Tequila, Jalisco, Mexico. (photo by Arturo Pena Romano Medina via Getty)

Blue Agave, Yeast, Water

Tequila falls into two classifications: “100 percent agave” or “mixto,” where a minimum of 51 percent blue agave is mixed with additional sugars (a process known as abocado). Now, just to confuse you even more, even bottles labeled “100 percent agave” are allowed to have less than 1 percent additives. Yes, tequila can be a tricky space to navigate. So it helps to understand the lingo.

At its very core, you need three ingredients to make “100 percent agave” tequila: blue agave, water, and yeast. Traditionally, the yeast grows naturally on the agave leaves, but nowadays a cultivated form is commonly added). Mixtos, on the other hand, can contain up to 49 percent additives. Those additives can include cane, beet, or high fructose corn sugars, to name a few. In addition, mixtos routinely contain coloring, flavorings, and thickeners.

A worker prepares the Blue Weber agave piñas for cooking in a brick oven. (photo by HECTOR GUERRERO/AFP via Getty Images)

Farm to Bar

Blue Weber agave is usually harvested between seven and 14 years. It’s core, the piña, is steamed in brick ovens or earthen pits. The piña is then crushed and juiced, which is then fermented in wooden or steel vats for several days to produce a wort called mosto. The mosto ferments thanks to natural microorganisms or the addition of yeast. The resulting mosto is distilled at least twice.

The distillate is then prepared into one of five expressions, as designated by the Consejo Regulador de Tequila (Tequila Regulatory Council: TRC): blanco, joven, reposado, añejo, or extra añejo. To learn more about the five expressions, check out Outsider’s breakdown of the 5 Types of Tequila.

Blanco tequila is simply hydrated with water and bottled after a rest of less than two months. And if you want a guide to the Best Blancos, Outsider has you covered. Reposado, añejo, and extra añejo are all examples of aged tequilas (typically in oak barrels). Joven is a combination of blanco and reposado.

A classic margarita on the rocks made. (photo by Eye Ubiquitous/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)