Tequila: A Native Mexican Beverage from the Jalisco Valley

Tequila is a Mexican beverage. It is a spirit of unmistakable flavor distilled from wild plants. Get to know more about the famous Jalisco drink.

Tequila: A Native Mexican Beverage from the Jalisco Valley
Two tequila shots with salta and lime. Photo by Alena Plotnikova / Unsplash

Tequila is a distilled beverage, obtained from the fermentation and distillation of blue agave juices. The cooking of pineapples or agave heads, which must have between 6-10 years of maturation, by traditional methods, gives rise to good tequila.

Tequila is also the name of the Jalisco valley where this drink has been produced for centuries. It is also the name of a hill and of the small town where several tequila factories are located. The Nahuatl origin (tequitl: work or trade; tlan: place) of the word speaks of a place of work. At the same time, of the specific work of cutting plants. The word tequio refers to the work of men in the fields.

History of Tequila

The maguey plant had a divine meaning for the Nahuatl natives. It represented Mayahuel, who was a goddess and had 400 breasts to feed her 400 children. Mayahuel married Petácatl, who represented certain plants that helped the fermentation of pulque, making the drink acquire magical powers. The inhabitants of that time considered the maguey to be the main nutrient plant.

Already at the time of the conquest, the Ticuila or Tiquilino indigenous people made liquor from the agave plant. This happened in the states of Jalisco, Colima, Nayarit, and Aguascalientes. They drank at festivals and religious ceremonies. When the Spaniards tasted it, they were taken over by Mayahuel. Thus, they acquired the custom of drinking it on the tip of a cow horn.

In the first decades after the Conquest, tequila was born as a mestizo creation. Its pre-Hispanic heritage was the American agave plant, which was already used to obtain fermented drinks. Its other heritage, Arab and Hispanic, was the distillation in alembic stills recently introduced to this continent. For many years, it was known as mezcal wine or mezcal tequila, as mezcal or mexcal was one of the names of the agave.

XVI Century

Motolinía describes the brewing of mezcal (heart of the maguey) "mexcalli". Mezcal wine is one of the first products that the European technique knew how to obtain from a natural American element.

1600: Pedro de Talle, Marquis of Altamira and Knight of the Order of Calatrava, settles in Tequila, Jalisco, establishing the first mezcal wine tavern in Galicia (version not confirmed).

1621: In the description of the Nueva Galicia by Domingo Lázaro de Arregui, roasted agave hearts are mentioned, which were squeezed "to extract a must passed through the still, obtaining a wine clearer than water, but strong as firewater". The above mentions refer to personal consumption, not mass consumption.

From 1688 to 1766: Great prohibitions, censures, and penalties were imposed on those who manufactured mezcal wine, traded with it, or consumed it in excess.

XVII Century

The audience of Guadalajara created a taboo to regulate the manufacture and trade of mezcal wine. This tobacco tax survived until it was abolished by the independent government.

XVIII Century

In the middle of this century, merchandise traffic to the Far East increased. The Port of San Blas is opened and the supply of Tequila to the new Spanish colonies in northwest Mexico begins. Tequila is known and accepted in Mexico City, over mezcals from nearby areas, but of inferior quality.

1758: José Antonio de Cuervo buys the Hacienda de la Cofradía de las Animas, rich in agave plantations.

1795: José Guadalupe Cuervo, son of José Antonio, receives from King Carlos IV of Spain the first official concession to commercialize mezcal wine. Maria Magdalena Ignacia Cuervo, daughter of Jose Guadalupe, inherits the tavern or mezcal wine factory and marries Vicente Albino Rojas, who manages the factory and later inherits it upon Maria Magdalena's death. According to the custom of the time, Vicente Albino baptizes the distillery with the name "La Rojeña".

XIX Century

At the beginning of the century there were 24 ranches and haciendas. 12 in Tequila and 12 in Amatitán. José María Castañeda founds, in Tequila, the distillery La Antigua Cruz. The Independence struggle begins. Mezcal wine production increases.

1813: New decline in production. Acapulco is reopened as the main port and San Blas becomes an alternate port.

1821: Tequila producers promote the authorization of free trade.

1835: Decree of October 3 determines a greater dependence of the entities on the capital. Throughout the time following this decree, tequila production was inconsistent and poorly regulated. When the Republic was restored, artisanal production was transformed into a true industry, without degrading the quality of the product.

1860: Jesús Flores, the owner of the taverns La Floreña and La del Puente (later La Constancia), acquires La Rojeña, being the first to bottle tequila in glass jars and demijohns.

1870: La Herradura is founded in Amatitán.

1872: The town of Tequila hosts the twelfth Canton instituted by the state government. Two years later, Tequila would receive the title of city.

1873: Cenobio Sauza, former manager of José Gómez Cuervo's distillery in San Martín, acquires La Antigua Cruz distillery. He had previously leased La Gallardeña, which he later bought.

1888: La Antigua Cruz tavern changes its name to La Perseverancia, a name that prevails to this day.

20th Century

Tequila faced a decline, as the elitist population preferred everything, French. Tequila was a drink for the "populace".

1900: Ana González Rubio (second wife of Jesús Flores) inherits La Constancia and marries José Cuervo Labastida. He renames the distillery La Rojeña, a name it retains to this day.

1911: Porfirio Díaz is overthrown. The consummation of the Revolution causes Mexicans to become more nationalistic and turn their eyes to tequila. The government encourages tequila production. Cinema promotes the knowledge and diffusion of the drink, which became Mexico's most popular beverage.

1930: An epidemic of Spanish influenza strikes the north of the country and tequila becomes the best medicine to fight it (it is said that this is the origin of the custom of drinking tequila with lemon and salt, as this was the prescription of the doctors of that time).

To avoid the difficult handling of shipments from Tequila, Jalisco, in uncomfortable barrels, practical half-liter cylindrical bottles were manufactured in the city of Monterrey, thus establishing the bottling of tequila. The oil boom led to a considerable increase in tequila sales and consumption in the 1930s.

1934: On the death of Ana González Rubio, the estate passes to her niece Guadalupe Gallardo. Later she inherits Virginia Gallardo who marries Juan Beckmann, German consul in Guadalajara. At present his grandson, Juan Beckmann Vidal is the president of the José Cuervo company.

1940: Due to the Second World War, tequila increased its export to the United States of America, whose inhabitants consumed it instead of whiskey. With the armistice it was necessary to make a great effort to sustain the export and even increase it, looking for consumption in Europe and South America.

1943: La Perseverancia was taken over by Francisco Javier Sauza, son of Eladio Bauza and grandson of Cenobio Sauza, its founder.

1950: The tequila industry improves its production techniques. The fields of cultivation for the Agave tequilana Weber Azul variety are increased. Tequilas are produced that are more accessible to all tastes and palates.

Tequila Today

The efforts of many have placed tequila in the mouths of many national and foreign consumers. Today the agave fields, with their characteristic physiognomy, comprise a large central strip of the Jalisco landscape.

Directly or indirectly, the industry involves some 200,000 people, all proud to participate in the manufacture of a product deeply imbricated with the life of the western region of Mexico, and satisfied to offer the world a purely Mexican beverage.

Recognized today throughout the world, tequila owes its purity of origin to the acceptance it has gained even among the most demanding consumers. Some people even attribute healing qualities to it, and it is not difficult to find someone who drinks it as a tonic every day before sitting at the table.

You can try many tequila brands, even those that have emerged with new labels since tequila is now the drink of choice for the most refined tastes.

It is necessary to know some data to decide on a tequila. It can be one from the Tequila region or one from Los Altos de Jalisco. It can be produced from 100% agave or with sugars of different origins. Blanco or reposado; artisanal or factory made. Also of limited or industrial production; renowned or unknown, smooth or rough, and so on.

Tequila is as Mexican as the mariachi, the charro, the toast, and ranchera songs. José Alfredo Jiménez is the singer par excellence of tequila. Although even before, in the voice of Lucha Reyes, we had already heard that the performer of "Borrachita de tequila", was baptized with a shot of mezcal. Tequila, fashion or tradition, is backed by 500 years of history.

Agave tequilana Weber blue variety

Contrary to what some people believe, the agave is not a cactus, the agave is a plant that belongs to the Amaryllidaceae family, it has long, fibrous, lance-shaped, bluish-green leaves, whose usable part for the production of tequila is the pineapple or head.

The agave has been used, among other things, like paper, and fences to keep the estates. Also, the leaves or stalks as roofing tiles, stems or quiotes as beams, and the fibers of the leaves in yarns for fabrics. The tips of the stalks are sometimes used as nails, awls, needles, and even as juice or liquor from which wine, vinegar, honey, and sugar are made.

Maguey is a word that comes from the Antilles. In the region and in different cultures, it was recognized by several names: Metl in Nahuatl, Tocamba in Purépecha, and Guada in Otomí. Although the maguey is not only Mexican, nowhere else in the world are they identified with the culture, the landscape, and the people as in Mexico.

The blue agave plant beautifies the Mexican landscape with its pointed leaves. In different parts of Mexico, different strong drinks are obtained that receive the generic name of mezcal and take the surname of the town where they are born. The most famous of all is Tequila mezcal.

There are several species of agave, whose juice can be fermented and distilled for the production of alcoholic beverages, however, only the blue variety of agave tequilana Weber is the only one authorized for the production of tequila. The cultivation of this plant requires a combination of numerous factors such as altitude, preferably at 1,500 meters above sea level.

The soil conditions are favorably volcanic soil, clayey, permeable, and abundant in elements derived from basalt and rich in iron. Rainfall is about one meter per year. A constant temperature of semi-dry climate that oscillates between 20 Celsius degrees. Important the sun exposure, since it is considered favorable that there are cloudy between 65 and 100 days of the year.

Only one region of approximately 209 km2 in the state of Jalisco has the best conditions for the best reproduction of the blue agave tequilana Weber: the famous Tequila region.

The agave tequilana Weber blue variety has certain characteristics that make it different from other agaves since it is a fleshy plant in the form of a rosette, fibrous, blue, or gray-green color originated by a high content of waxes that prevent the plant from losing water. Its leaves are rigid, with marginal and apical spines. It stores inulin in the stem and is a producer of fructose.

Blue agave tequilana Weber can be propagated by seed or bulblet, which are not used for industrial production. In these cases, the method used is the rhizome method, which consists of transplanting the offshoots that sprout from the root of the plant.

When they reach a height of 50 cm and when the heart is the size of a grapefruit, they are detached from the mother plant by cutting them with a barreé. The optimum age for agave to reproduce is between three and five years. A mother plant produces between one and two offspring per year.

Once the offspring are separated from the mother, planting is done just before the rainy season, the new plant must be settled and buried in 75% of its volume, tamping the soil to secure the plant.

When the soil is tamped, the long process of evolution of the agave begins, which will take eight to ten years to reach maturity, during which time it must be maintained; cleaning of the soil, fertilization, growth control, and disease prevention.

To obtain a high level of quality, during the process there must always be a meticulous selection of the mother plants as well as the offspring. During the growth of the plant, some tasks are carried out to help the plant produce and conserve the maximum level of starches in the heart.

At six years of age, to favor its maturity, the pineapple is trimmed with a lowered broom, which consists of making horizontal cuts on the upper part of the leaves, leaving the surface flat. Almost at maturity, the pruning is made stricter, until the pineapple is almost devoid of stalks. This process is called barbeo castigado (punished shaving).

Once it reaches maturity and in the dry months, the agave begins to reduce the size of its leaves in the bud or center, becoming smaller and more numerous due to the growth of an inflorescence called quiote. This quiote grows rapidly and consumes all the sugars that have accumulated over the years, so it is cut. This operation is called desquiote.

After the agave has reached full maturity, the harvest is carried out and during this, the Jima is carried out, since only the central part (heart, pineapple, or head) of the plant, where the greatest amount of sugars is concentrated, is used in the production of tequila.

A farmworker is seen pruning a blue agave plant on the field in Jalisco.
A farmworker is seen pruning a blue agave plant on the field in Jalisco. Photo by Rudy Prather / Unsplash

Production of Tequila

In the distilling companies that pride themselves on maintaining high and strict standards in the process, attached to achieving premium products. It is practically in the Jima where tequila production begins since the agaves are selected at their optimum point of maturity from the harvest.

Quality control begins upon arrival at the factory since upon receipt of the raw material, a sample of pineapples from each batch is randomly selected and analyzed in the laboratory to determine the appropriate levels of sugars and maturity and to establish the cooking times.


Before being introduced into the ovens, the pineapples are split into two or four parts according to their size, to favor perfect cooking and optimal use. Inside the ovens, the agaves are manually arranged. Once this operation is completed in the oven, the cooking process begins and continues for an average of 48 hours, injecting steam into the oven.

The purpose of this cooking is to achieve solubility and hydrolyze the agave sugars since inulin is not very soluble in water and cannot be fermented directly. In the traditional cooking process, masonry ovens are used, although currently, some tequila producers cook the agave in automatic retorts. After cooking, the agave pineapples allow the sugars to be broken down and the juices or musts are ready for fermentation.


After perfect cooking, the ovens are unloaded and the cooked pineapples are transferred to the milling area. Milling is divided into several stages and its purpose is to extract the sugars found in the agave fiber. This is carried out in mills ranging in structure from stone to crushers and stainless steel mills, depending on the manufacturer.

The milling stages begin with the tearing of the piñas, which consists of passing the cooked agave through a machine that shreds it and then takes it to a section where cane presses squeeze the juices, and once the fibrous material is squeezed, it passes through a section where water is applied for maximum extraction of the sugars.

As a result of this process, agave juice containing 12% sugars is obtained. This raw material is used to formulate the must or broth for fermentation.


Once the must is prepared for fermentation, it is inoculated with a microbial culture, which can be a pure wax of saccharomyces cerevisiae yeast or some other species.

When the must is ready, fermentation begins, one of the most important but least studied steps, since it is during this phase that the alcohol and other organoleptic components that makeup tequila are produced. This fermentation is carried out in stainless steel tanks of variable volume, covering and controlling the temperature, which ranges between 30 and 42 degrees Celsius.

This fermentation process can last between 12 and 72 hours, depending on the desired alcohol content, which can be 6% for mixed tequila and 45% for 100% tequila. Once the fermentation stage is finished, the must is left to rest to promote the generation of important aromatic compounds in the product.


There are two ways of distillation. By using alembic or column stills, the former being the more usual. In the first case, a tandem of two copper stills is regularly used, a material that helps to eliminate undesirable sulfur compounds.

In the first still, the dead wort is heated with steam and distilled to an ordinary intermediate product, with an alcohol concentration between 25 and 30%, from which the solids, part of the water, and the heads and tails have been removed. The former contains volatile components that distill before ethanol, below 80 degrees Celsius, such as methanol, isopropanol, and ethyl acetate, and the latter contains less volatile alcohols such as amyl and some esters.

In the second still, the ordinary tequila is distilled again to enrich the alcohol content to 55%, as well as considerably refining the product. This 55% tequila is considered a final product, as it is the one that is marketed in bulk. Before bottling, this distillate is diluted with deionized water to achieve a final product of 38 to 43%.

When using columns, up to three are used in tandem. In this case, the must flows into the column at the top, countercurrent with steam, which evaporates the volatile compounds that condense on the different plates of the column. Normally when columns are used instead of stills, the product is more neutral because the distillation is more selective.


Once distilled, the final product is concentrated in vats where it is diluted to pass it to the pipones or barrels where it will be aged, depending on the tequila to be obtained. In the maturation of tequilas, the last stage is carried out in oak or white oak barrels, woods that give the final product very peculiar aromas, colors, and flavors, which depend on several factors such as age, the thickness of the stave, alcohol content and conditions of rest or aging.

Humidity and ventilation conditions are very important since the aging process involves oxidative reactions. Finally, before bottling it is necessary to remove some solids conferred by the wood. This is done through filtration with cellulose or activated carbon.

The appellation of Origin TEQUILA

Mexican Official Standard (NOM) refers to the Appellation of Origin TEQUILA, whose ownership corresponds to the Mexican State under the terms of the Industrial Property Law. The issuance of this NOM is necessary, under point 2 of the General Declaration of Protection to the Appellation of Origin "TEQUILA", published in the Official Gazette of the Federation on October 13, 1977 (hereinafter referred to as "the Declaration") and with section XV of article 40 of the Federal Law on Metrology and Standardization.


This NOM establishes the characteristics and specifications that must be met by authorized users to produce, bottle, and/or market tequila, according to the process described below.

Scope of application

This NOM applies to the alcoholic beverage subject to the process detailed below, with agaves of the Tequilana Weber species, Azul variety, grown in the states and municipalities indicated in the Declaration. For this NOM, the following definitions are established in alphabetical order.


Procedure to soften the flavor of tequila by adding one or more of the following ingredients: caramel color, natural oak or oak extract, glycerin, and sugar-based syrup. The use of any of these ingredients should not exceed 1% of the total weight of the tequila before bottling. The coloration resulting from this process should be yellowish.


A plant of the Amaryllidaceae family, with long, fibrous, lanceolate leaves, a bluish-green odor, whose usable part for tequila production is the pineapple or head. The only species admitted for the effects of this NOM, is the Tequilana Weber, a blue variety, which has been cultivated within the zone indicated in the Declaration.

Good manufacturing practices

A set of interrelated standards and activities designed to ensure that products have and maintain the specifications required for consumption.

Tequila aging

A slow transformation that allows the product to acquire the desired organoleptic characteristics, by physicochemical processes that in the natural form take place during its permanence in oak or oak wood containers.

Unit operations

These are the stages of the tequila production process, in which the raw materials undergo chemical, biochemical, and physical changes until a specific product is obtained in each one of them. There are the following basic stages of this process Jima, Hydrolysis, Extraction, Fermentation, Distillation, Aging, if applicable, and bottling.


Regional alcoholic beverage obtained by distillation and rectification of musts, prepared directly and originally from the extracted material, within the factory facilities, derived from the milling of ripe agave heads, previously or subsequently hydrolyzed or cooked, and subjected to alcoholic fermentation with yeast.

Cultivated or not, is susceptible to be enriched by other sugars up to a proportion of no more than 49%, in the understanding that cold blends are not allowed. Tequila is a liquid that, according to its type, is colorless or yellowish when matured in oak or oak wood containers, or when it is bottled without aging.

When this NOM refers to the term "Tequila", it is understood that it applies to the two categories indicated in chapter "classification", unless there is a specific mention of "100% agave tequila" or "100% pure agave tequila".

Tequila blanco (White tequila)

Product whose commercial alcoholic graduation must be adjusted with dilution water.

Tequila joven y oro (Young and gold tequila)

Product susceptible to be flavored, whose commercial alcoholic strength must, if necessary, be adjusted with dilution water. The result of blends of tequila blanco with reposados and/or añejos tequilas are considered young and gold tequila.

Tequila reposado (Rested tequila)

Product susceptible to being flavored, which is left for at least two months in oak or oak wood containers, and whose commercial alcoholic graduation must, if necessary, be adjusted with dilution water. In blends of different reposado tequilas, the age for the resulting tequila is the weighted average of the ages and volumes of its components.

Tequila añejo (Aged tequila)

Product susceptible to be flavored, subject to an aging process of at least one year in oak or oak wood containers, with a maximum capacity of 600 liters, and with commercial alcoholic graduation that must, if necessary, be adjusted with dilution water. In blends of different añejo tequilas, the age for the resulting tequila is the weighted average of the ages and volumes of its components.


Categories. The percentage of sugars coming from the Agave used in the elaboration of Tequila can be classified into one of the following categories:

"100% Agave Tequila" or "100% Pure Agave Tequila"

The product obtained from the distillation and rectification of musts, directly and originally prepared from the extracted material, within the factory facilities, derived from the grinding of mature agave heads, previously or subsequently hydrolyzed cooked, and submitted to alcoholic fermentation with yeast, cultivated or not. For this product to be considered as "100% agave tequila" or "100% pure agave tequila", it must be bottled in the bottling plant controlled by the manufacturer, which must be located within the appellation of origin zone.