Everything You Need to Know About Tequila

Tequila is a unique and versatile Mexican liquor found in tons of popular cocktails. But it’s more than just the main ingredient in your favorite mixed drinks – there are so many different ways it can be used in the kitchen!

A shot glass full of tequila next to a second shot glass full of jalapeño brine with two jalapeño slices as garnish.

What Is Tequila?

Tequila is a spirit double-distilled from the agave plant. But in order for a drink to be considered tequila, it can’t just come from any old agave plant – it needs to come from the blue agave plant in particular. It also must come from one of 5 specific locations in Mexico in order to earn its name.

What Does It Taste Like?

Tequila’s flavor depends a lot on how long it’s aged. The more time it spends in an oak barrel, the more oaky flavor it takes on. Tequilas that spend less time aging, or that never see the inside of a barrel at all, will keep more of the pure agave flavor, which is earthy, semi-sweet and sometimes a bit fruity.

How Tequila Is Made

A member of the lily family, the agave plant looks kind of like a supersized aloe vera plant with hooked spines along the edges of its leaves. Tequila is made from the heart of the agave plant, or the piña, which looks a bit like a giant pinecone or pineapple.

Harvesters remove the leaves, then bake the piña in a brick oven to break the starches down into sugars. Once baked, the core of the agave plant gets crushed up so that the juice can be extracted. Yeast is added to ferment the juice and turn the sugars into alcohol.

tequila being poured into a blood orange mimosa

Different Types of Tequila

The way tequila is labeled mostly has to do with how long it’s been aged. Here’s a quick rundown of the varieties you might come across at the bar or liquor store.

  • Blanco: The name for this kind of tequila literally means “white” in Spanish. It gets its name from the fact that it is aged for 60 days or fewer. In fact, it’s sometimes not aged at all. Because of this, it makes a good option for mixed drinks, where the flavor of the liquor itself is not the focus.
  • Joven: This type of tequila gets its name from the Spanish word for “young.” It’s usually made by mixing a blanco with an aged variety.
  • Reposado: The reposado variety is aged in oak barrels for anywhere between 2 and 12 months. Its name means “rested” in Spanish, and it usually has a lightly oaky flavor and a pale yellow color. Bottles with this label tend to be a bit more expensive, and you can find them used in high-end cocktails.
  • Añejo: Named after the Spanish word for “old,” this kind of tequila needs to be aged for at least a year. It has a dark color and a strong oaky flavor. Often, it spends its time in barrels that previously held bourbon, adding a whole new layer to the flavor profile. Many people can pick out butterscotch or caramel undertones.
  • Extra-Añejo: This oldest and most expensive kind of tequila was only added to the market recently, within the last 20 years. You won’t find anything with this label, also known as “muy añejo,” unless it’s been aged at least 3 years.

How Is Tequila Different From Other Kinds of Alcohol?

A few things make tequila unique among other alcohols. First of all, the strict rules for its distillation make it different from other agave liquors. Plus, unlike many other distilled spirits, it tends not to contain very many impurities. But maybe most importantly, it contains a special kind of sugar called agavin, which has no known health risks and won’t raise your blood sugar levels.

Is It the Healthiest Spirit?

While tequila can’t claim a spot as the healthiest spirit, it has one advantage over other similar liquors – its calorie count. With only 64 calories in every fluid ounce, it’s one of the lowest calorie spirits. This makes it great for mixed drinks, since many of the added ingredients in cocktails come with their own sugars. Basically, that means the same drink will have fewer calories if you make it using tequila over a higher-calorie alcohol like vodka or rum.

This Spicy Pineapple Cilantro Margarita has fresh cilantro mixed in!

Comparing Common Brands

The best brands of tequila are made with 100% blue agave. These offer the fewest impurities and fewest calories, making them healthier than brands that mix in other ingredients. Avoid anything labeled as a mixto, which has other sugars mixed in that add impurities and calories to the liquor.

Jose Cuervo’s standard label is a mixto, but some of their more expensive labels use 100% blue agave. Higher-end brands like Patrón and Don Julio are more likely to offer 100% blue agave in all their products.

How to Store Tequila

Though some people like to keep their spirits in the fridge or even the freezer, this liquor does best kept at room temperature in a cool, dark place. The pantry makes a good spot, as does the back of a cupboard. This keeps it from evaporating and helps maintain its flavor.

Classic Tequila Cocktails to Try

Tequila is a great spirit to use in mixed drinks. Here are some classic cocktails you can throw together with this versatile liquor.

Other Ways to Use Tequila

Tequila isn’t just for cocktails! Try one of these recipes if you want to see the unique flavor of this spirit in action outside of a mixed drink.

Bratwurst With Pineapple Salsa

Add a fun, boozy flair to your next cookout with this sweet and spicy salsa recipe. Get your hands on some fresh pineapple and fire up the grill so you can enjoy this tasty summer treat.

Tequila Lime Chicken Legs

Another recipe that takes advantage of your backyard grill and the perfect marriage between pineapple and tequila, this tender chicken makes a great summertime supper. The marinade really locks in both the juices and the flavors.

Tequila Shrimp Quesadillas

These fresh, cheesy and easy-to-make quesadillas bring together two Mexican classics. The salty, savory cheese and tender grilled shrimp help to soften the bite of the liquor.

Cowboy Caviar

Despite its name, cowboy caviar actually contains only beans, vegetables and seasonings, with no fish eggs to be found. The tequila adds a kick to the fresh, tangy dressing on this creative Tex-Mex dip.

Fried Tequila Cornbread

Super easy 3-ingredient cornbread gets dipped in tequila and fried to golden perfection in this sweet and tender cornbread recipe. A dusting of powdered sugar makes it the perfect boozy treat to satisfy your sweet tooth.

Watermelon Truffles

These chocolate-covered watermelon balls are a surprising little treat. With fresh fruit, smooth chocolate and a little kick of tequila, they make a great summer dessert when you’re craving something small but refreshing.

Tequila Lime Crush Bars

What’s a more perfect combination than tequila and lime? A buttery vanilla wafer crust comes together with a tart and boozy lime custard to make dessert bars that taste just like a cocktail!

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