Tequila is made by distilling a fermented liquid made from pressed agave piñas that have been roasted or steamed. The plants are harvested from the ground. The leaves are hacked off. The hearts are cooked and the sweet juices that escape during this process are captured (called the mieles dulces). Once the sugars are concentrated, the agave is shredded and pressed and the liquid captured is added to the tank where it is fermented. This is called the mosto. The rest of the process is just like single malt whisky. The mosto (or wort) is distilled twice on a pot still and the resulting spirit is tequila.
Agave is a plant that is native to the southwest United States and Central America. There are over 200 species of agave, but only the blue agave (agave azul) can be used in tequila production. Its high sugar content makes it a natural candidate for the fermentation of alcohol.
By law, tequila must be comprised of at least 51% agave spirit. A tequila that is distilled from 100% blue agave can claim this on its label. Any tequila not distilled from 100% blue agave is a mixto or blend. Much like blended whisky and single malt whisky differ, blended mixtos use both agave and sugar spirits, while 100% agave uses only the pure agave distillate. Currently there are no mixtos sold at K&L.
No one really knew there was such a thing as 100% agave tequila until 1983 when Chinaco hit the American market. Bob Denton and Marilyn Smith were the importers in Texas. Chinaco was twice as expensive as many of its competitors at the time, but the taste was enough to convince people of the difference. It was clean, pure, smooth, and nuanced. By the late 1980s, the "premium" tequila market began to take shape, comprised of other 100% agave tequilas.
The CRT (tequila regulatory council) was founded in 1994 by the Mexican government to help protect and foster the high-standards concerning premium tequila production. It is a board of farmers, distillers, bottlers, and merchants who work together on behalf of the industry. The CRT enforces the tequila NOM (Norma Oficial Mexicana) which is the set of guidelines and rules concerning tequila distillation: all distilleries must have a four-digit NOM number to designate the tequila's origin (yet there are some complications with this system as distilleries were allowed to use different NOM numbers to designate different brands). The CRT not only polices the industry, it also works to improve it with scientific studies and research on behalf of better production.
Tequila can be sold as blanco (unaged), reposado (aged two months to a year), añejo (aged one to three years), and extra añejo (aged more than three years).
Tequila is one of the few spirits that tastes distinctly like the product from which it is distilled (some others being fruit eau de vies, Calvados, and agricole rum). Like pear brandy or kirschwasser, the goal is to translate the flavor of the produce into the spirit itself -- hence, why better agave can result in a better tequila.
Some people think the fructans in cooked agave and ultimately tequila are much easier on the body than the sugars in other distilled spirits, creating a healthier buzz that's easier on our metabolism. That's why 100% pure agave tequilas are said to be better for hangovers, while mixto tequilas with their pure sugar distillates blended in can cause terrible symptoms the next day.
Just a few things to get your minds ready for the onslaught of information to come.