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Virginia ABC > Products > Discovery > Product Knowledge > Tequila Guide

Buying Guide for Tequila

Tequila label

Tequila is distilled from the juice of the blue agave plant. A geographically protected spirit, tequila can only come from the state of Jalisco or other specially designated areas in Mexico. Like cognac or brandy, tequila is aged and is available in a range of types. Tequilas can be paired with citrus juices and also serve as the basis for essential cocktails, such as the Margarita and the Paloma. Premium tequilas are best consumed neat.

Know the Label

These terms commonly appear on tequila labels. For more information, please ask the staff at your Virginia ABC store.

Tequila añejo ("mature") has been aged in oak barrels for a minimum of one year, up to three years. Due to the aging process, it has an amber color. Tequila añejo is ideal for sipping neat.
Agave worm
An agave worm in the bottle is characteristic of mezcal, not tequila. It is a popular misconception that worms are placed in tequila bottles. In fact, the worm has never been in tequilas and is in only a small minority of mezcals, due to its historic past as street food in Oaxaca. The worm’s bacon-like flavor complements the smokiness of mezcal.
For tequilas, as for cognacs and scotches, longer aging achieves a smoother, mellower taste, adding subtle overtones of wood and spice to the spirit. It also imparts a darker color.
Tequila blanco is unaged or (for a slightly smoother taste) aged for less than two months. No coloring is added. This is the most traditional type of tequila. If made from 100 percent blue agave, it exhibits a distinctive agave taste, and is consumed straight by some drinkers.
Blue agave
Agave azul
The blue agave (Agave tequilana) plant is the only source for making tequila. The plant resembles a cactus and is known in the United States as the century plant. It is native to the desert areas of Mexico and the southwestern United States and has grown wild for thousands of years. On labels, you may also see it referred to as Weber agave, which is a specific variety of blue agave.
Estate grown
Estate bottled
Estate grown and bottled tequila implies greater control over the quality of agave and a more handcrafted distillation process. While produced on an industrial scale, blue agave is also grown and harvested on smaller estates, which may distill and bottle the spirit themselves.
Extra añejo
Tequila extra añejo is aged in oak barrels for more than three years. Like other premium aged spirits, extra añejo is sipped neat. The additional aging imparts a deep amber color and diminishes the agave taste; it also concentrates the alcohol content, so distilled water is added to achieve the correct proof. This is a relatively new tequila designation.
Highland agave
Agave grown in the highlands of Jalisco imparts different flavor characteristics than agave grown in the lowlands, due to differences in soil, rainfall and climate. Some tequila connoisseurs describe these characteristics as being floral or fruity, whereas lowland tones are spicier, drier and more woody.
Hecho en Mexico
Tequila is a geographically protected category of spirit, and can only be made ("hecho") in Jalisco, a state in southwest Mexico, or in one of a handful of small towns outside Jalisco that are granted permission by the Mexican government to call their distilled spirits "tequila." This is the general region where the agave plant grows best; the spirit is in fact named after the small town of Tequila, near Guadalajara, the capital of Jalisco.
Tequila joven is the same as tequila blanco but with added ingredients to mimic the color and flavor of aging. Joven is the tequila of choice for margaritas and mixing. These tequilas may be called "mixtos," since they are not 100 percent agave.
While made from agave plants, like tequila, mezcal is not required to be made solely from blue agave and is not required to be produced in the state of Jalisco. Mezcal is smoky in flavor and aroma due to the baking of agave hearts in charcoal ovens, rather than the steam ovens used in making tequila. Most mezcal is made in Oaxaca, Mexico.
Mixtos are tequilas that are not distilled from 100 percent agave. Typically, these are joven or gold tequilas and are popular for mixing cocktails.
Platinum designations for tequila either refer to a high-quality tequila blanco or to a premium aged tequila that has been filtered to remove the coloring produced through aging.
Tequila reposado is "rested" or aged in oak barrels for two months up to a year, giving it a pale color. Tequila reposado achieves a smoother taste than blanco, but retains a distinctive agave taste, making it the tequila of choice in Mexico.
Reserve brands are generally high-quality tequila reposado or añejo produced in relatively small quantities, giving them limited availability.
Single estate
Single-estate tequilas are produced from agave harvested from a single field or estate, imparting the unique flavor characteristics of that particular soil and climate. These differences in taste are best appreciated in tequila blanco and reposado.

Cocktail Conversation

The flowers of the blue agave plant are pollinated by the Mexican long-nosed bat (Leptonycteris nivalis). Agave sap is derived from the heart (piña) of the plant; fermented, it becomes a milky drink, known as "pulque," and was enjoyed by the Aztecs.

The traditional way to enjoy straight tequila is to partner the shot with a shot of sangrita, a nonalcoholic drink that clears the palate between sips and complements the agave flavors. There are two basic sangrita variations: The first uses 3 parts tomato juice, 1–3 parts orange juice, 1 part lime juice. The second uses 1 part grenadine, 2 parts orange juice, and 1–2 parts lime juice. For either recipe, chill the sangrita and add a few splashes of hot sauce or a sprinkle of cayenne pepper to taste.

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