Authentic Mexican Tequila: Discovering the Differences That Matter

While tequila ranks as one of the fastest-growing spirits globally, many consumers don’t know much about Mexico’s national drink. In the U.S., whiskey, Bourbon, and the occasional cognac carry the reputation as the spirit sophisticated connoisseurs sip, while tequila is still considered a party beverage best taken in shots. Perhaps that’s due to national pride or the effect of popular music, but aficionados know that authentic Mexican tequila isn’t meant to be slammed and chased. Genuine, authentic tequila carries the proud tradition of hundreds of years of honed artisanship and deserves to be savored.

Continue reading to discover what separates authentic Mexican tequila from many of the most popular brands on the market, how authentic tequila differs from other popular spirits, and why tequila holds a special place in the heart of Mexico.

The Origin and Cultural Significance of Tequila

Tequila didn’t start out as the popular party drink most think of today. Archeological evidence shows that the Aztecs started producing a fermented beverage from the sap of the agave plant called pulque around 200 A.D. The drink was of such great importance to Aztec culture that they worshiped a deity — Patecatl — known as the god of pulque. However, it wasn’t until over 1500 years later that a drink more closely resembling modern tequila was developed thanks to some uninvited European visitors.

After Spanish conquistadors first invaded the Yucatan Peninsula and the surrounding region in the early 16th century, they began to create a fermented beverage from the agave plant that we now know as mezcal. (Keep in mind that all tequilas are technically mezcals, but not all mezcals are tequila.) Over the next 200 years, villages across the Jalisco region started growing agave and producing different mezcals. However, one village was known for producing the sweetest, best-tasting mezcal of them all — a town called Tequila.

Tequila Authenticity and Regulations

The commercial production of tequila started in 1758 and has grown steadily ever since. In 1974, the Mexican government sought to claim the intellectual property rights of tequila by taking ownership of the name. Just as Bourbon can only be produced in the U.S. and Champaign only produced in France, to be called tequila, a spirit must be made and aged in certain regions of Mexico. Later, the Consejo Regulador del Tequila (Tequila Regulatory Council) was created to maintain a quality standard that ensured tequila production adhered to some basic rules that continue to govern how the spirit is made today.

To be considered authentic, tequila must come from specific regions in Mexico, as regulated by the government. These regions include:

  • Jalisco: The entire state of Jalisco, including the town of Tequila, is the heartland of tequila production.
  • Guanajuato, Michoacán, Nayarit, and Tamaulipas: Only designated areas within these states can produce tequila.

Any tequila that doesn’t adhere to these geographical restrictions and the stringent production criteria set by the Tequila Regulatory Council isn’t considered authentic tequila from Mexico.

The Impact of Terroir on Agave

Terroir is a French term that refers to various natural factors — including climate, elevation, temperature, soil type, etc. — that play a role in determining how a crop is grown and the characteristics it presents when produced into a beverage. For example, the terroir plays a significant role in determining how wine is produced, and the flavors the wine presents when consumed.

The same principle applies to how agave is grown and the type of agave allowed in tequila production. While there are over 200 species of agave native to Mexico, only blue agave is permitted for authentic tequila production. This specification ensures a consistent flavor profile and adheres to the strict regulations set by the Mexican government. The sugars extracted from the heart (piña) of the blue agave are what gives tequila its distinct taste and characteristics.

The two primary tequila-producing regions in Jalisco, the highlands (Los Altos) and the lowlands, offer differing terroirs that impact the flavor profiles of the agave and the tequila each region produces.

Highland agave tends to grow in mineral-rich red clay soil at higher altitudes. This environment produces a sweeter, fruitier flavor profile, with red fruit, citrus, and sometimes floral undertones. In contrast, lowland agave grows at lower elevations in volcanic soil. This setting produces earthier, herbaceous, and sometimes spicier flavors in the tequila. The distinction between highland and lowland agave adds complexity and choice for tequila aficionados.

Highland-grown agave takes longer to mature than lowland agave, yielding a smaller piña when harvested. As a result, less than 10% of the world’s tequila is made from highland agave.

Tradition in Tequila Production

Traditional methods for producing tequila come from centuries-old techniques, often passed down from generation to generation, reflecting the heritage and culture of the drink in Mexico. Traditionally, the process of producing tequila requires a few basic steps:

  • Harvesting: Jimadors, skilled laborers, harvest the blue agave plants by hand, removing the leaves to reveal the piña.
  • Cooking: The piñas are traditionally baked in large brick or stone ovens (hornos) for several days. This slow-cooking process caramelizes the agave, creating a fermentable sugar and imparting a characteristic flavor.
  • Milling: After cooking, the softened piñas are crushed using a “tahona,” a large stone wheel, extracting the agave juice.
  • Fermentation: The juice is left to ferment in open-air wooden vats, allowing wild yeasts to convert the sugars into alcohol naturally.
  • Distillation: Copper pot stills are typically used, which retain certain flavor compounds, creating a robust and nuanced spirit.
  • Aging. Some types of tequila are then aged, often in oak barrels, for anywhere between several months and years.

While modern technology has helped to streamline some of these production methods, the process of producing tequila today remains essentially the same as it has for over 200 years.

100% Agave Tequila vs. Mixto

When it comes to tequila classifications based on the content of agave sugars, there are two primary distinctions: 100% agave tequila and mixto tequila.

As the name suggests, 100% agave tequila is made entirely from the fermented sugars of the blue agave plant. No other sugars are added during the fermentation process. Bottles of this type of tequila will typically boast “100% agave” on the label, and many tequila aficionados believe that 100% agave tequila is of superior quality due to its purity. It tends to have a cleaner, more distinct agave flavor profile and a smoother finish. All categories of tequila (blanco, reposado, añejo, and extra añejo) can be 100% agave. Premium tequila is only made using 100% agave.

In contrast, mixto tequila is made from at least 51% blue agave sugars. The remaining 49% can come from other sugars, typically cane sugar. If a bottle is labeled “tequila” without the “100% agave” declaration, it’s likely a mixto. Mixtos can also include additives such as caramel coloring, oak extract flavoring, glycerin, and sugar-based syrup, which can alter the taste and appearance of the tequila. Lower-shelf mixto tequilas tend to cost less than their premium counterparts, and consumers often get what they pay for in terms of quality.

Alcohol Content in the U.S. vs. Mexico

Unlike American whiskey and Bourbon, which can feature an alcohol content of 50 to 60% (100 to 120 proof), authentic Mexican tequila traditionally features a much lower alcohol content of 35% (70 proof). American consumers are so conditioned to see spirits of at least 40% (80 proof) alcohol that they mistakenly believe a lower alcohol content means a less superior product. In truth, the 80 proof standard met by most spirits produced in the U.S. is somewhat arbitrary.

The Federal Alcohol Administration Act of 1936 was created three years after the end of Prohibition and sought to apply federal standards to the production of alcohol now that liquor was no longer being produced in bathtubs and basements by bootleggers. The Feds decided that certain types of spirits made in the U.S., such as vodka, gin, whiskey, and Bourbon, needed to be at least 80 proof to receive designation as that type of spirit. However, since authentic tequila can only be made in Mexico, it doesn’t have to meet the same standard.

However, many major tequila brands have increased the amount of alcohol traditionally found in authentic tequila from 70 proof to 80 proof to meet the expectations of American consumers that a spirit should be 80 proof or higher. In Mexico, most regional tequilas not exported to the U.S. often still meet the 70 proof standard. The lower alcohol content creates a smoother, easier drinking spirit with a far more nuanced flavor than a high-octane hooch that burns when going down.

Suavecito is the Representation of Authentic Mexican Tequila

Over tequila’s long and illustrious history, authenticity remains one of the most prized qualities among the spirit’s connoisseurs and enthusiasts. This authenticity isn’t merely about following regulations but involves a deep reverence for tradition. Suavecito exemplifies this commitment.

Made from blue agave nurtured in the Jalisco highlands, Suavecito embodies the quintessential characteristics associated with the region. Using time-honored techniques, its production honors the meticulous craftsmanship passed down through generations.

At 70 proof, Suavecito aligns with the standards of many authentic tequilas, but what truly sets it apart is its robust flavor—a vivid reminder of tequila’s storied past. For those who’ve enjoyed journeying through the history of tequila we’ve covered, Suavecito offers a chance to experience them firsthand.

If you’re intrigued, click here to find where to buy Suavecito near you and taste for yourself the authenticity.

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