Tequila is a distilled spirit made from the agave plant, a cactus-like succulent with spiny leaves. The agave is native to Jalisco, Mexico, and tequila production is based there, around the town of Tequila. The proscribed area where it's legal to make tequila also encompasses parts of the states of Tamaulipas, Michoacan, Nayarit, and Guanajuato.
The history of fermentation of the agave plant stretches back to the pulque of the Aztec, but it was the 16th century before the Spanish conquistadores arrived and began to distill the native plant when they ran out of their stocks of brandy. Tequila began to be exported into the United States under the guidance of Don Cenobio Sauza in the late 19th century. His grandson, Don Francisco Javier, was a guiding force behind the regulation of tequila and its protection under Mexican law.
In 1974, tequila was given protected status and production methods, aging requirements, and geographic limitations were given legal status. Today, the Tequila Regulatory Council regulates the Norma Oficial Mexicana (or NOM) program by which every authentic tequila has a NOM certificate. This is the best way to ensure that you're buying tequila.
Tequila is made for the most part in the same way it's been made for hundreds of years. Ripe piñas -- the heart of the avage plant that looks like a pineapple, piña in Spanish -- are picked, then shredded and cooked using steam. The sweet, lightly caramelized juices are squeezed out, then naturally fermented, then distilled into a cloudy, low proof spirit called ordinario. This liquid undergoes a second distillation into Blanco (White) tequila.
There are two types of tequila -- 100% de agave, and mixto. Mixto tequila must be 51% agave, but the other 49% can be neutral spirits. Mixto tequilas are typically very inexpensive and of lower quality. 100% de agave tequila can be further categorized into one of five styles, based on the aging it receives.
- Blanco (White) or Plata (Silver) - aged less than two months in steel of used barrels. These taste salty, sweet, and herbal.
- Joven (Young) or Oro (Gold) - Blanco tequila with additives to color, flavor, or smooth the spirit.
- Reposado (Rested) - Tequila aged at least two months, but less than one year, in oak barrels of any size.
- Añejo (Aged) Aged at least one year, but less than three in small oak barrels of less than 600 liters.
- Extra Añejo (Aged) - Aged for more than three years in small oak barrels of less than 600 liters. This is a new category introduced in March of 2006.