Agave is an an exceptionally versatile plant. When cooked, fermented, and distilled, it can impart crisp vegetal notes to unaged blanco tequila, or a range of other flavors like caramel, vanilla, and dried fruit to oak-aged expressions such as reposado or añejo. These latter styles can bear more similarities to dark spirits like whiskey and cognac than what those more familiar with silver tequila offerings may expect.
All tequila starts in Mexico with the native blue Weber agave plant. The spirit can be made in parts of regions that include Michocoán, Nayarit, Guanajuato, and Tamaulipas, but a whopping 90% of the world’s supply is produced in Jalisco, home to the spirit’s namesake city, Tequila.
Jimadores harvest the agave plant, which takes about seven years to mature. After the spiky leaves are removed, the hearts, called piñas, are cut into pieces and steamed in above-ground ovens to transform the agave starches into simple sugars. Next, the pieces are crushed to extract juice from the piñas. This juice is left to ferment in large vats with water and yeast, then distilled at least twice, typically in copper alembic pots, to yield tequila. After this stage, the liquid is either bottled for distillation or barrel-aged to produce reposado, añejo, or extra añejo expressions.
By Mexican law, tequila must contain a minimum of just 51% blue agave. “Mixto” tequilas can be made with a mixture of the plant’s juices and artificial sweeteners such as cane sugar or high-fructose corn syrup. However, while these can still legally be classified as tequilas, they’re often of an inferior quality to tequila created with 100% blue agave.
Modern tequila production dates to the 1600s, and while the spirit is technically a type of mezcal, it differs from most traditional mezcals in the way the agave is cooked. Piñas today are most often steamed in brick ovens or industrial autoclaves, rather than roasted in earthen pits, although some tequilas such as Siembra Valles employ the ancestral method of roasting the agave in underground ovens. Most tequila also relies on commercial yeast during the fermentation stage, whereas traditional mezcal ferments naturally with airborne yeast.
What Are the Main Types of Tequila?
The Consejo Regulador del Tequila (CRT) classifies and regulates five main types of tequila: blanco (silver/white), joven (young/gold), reposado (aged), añejo (extra aged), and extra añejo (ultra aged). Generally, blanco tequilas have vegetal flavors of agave, citrus, grass, and pepper, while oak-aged expressions such as reposado or añejo will show toastier, deeper notes of vanilla, caramel, dried fruits, and warm baking spices. As with all spirits, however, specific expressions can vary according to many factors, including the terroir of the region, the types of barrels used, and how the tequila is produced.
This is what to know about the four main types of tequila, along with blends called joven and newcomer cristalino.
Also known as: plata or silver tequila
Aged: up to two months
If you’ve ever ordered a Margarita or Paloma, chances are you’ve tried blanco, or silver, tequila. It can be aged for up to two months, but is typically bottled immediately after distillation, producing a clear, agave-forward spirit with notes of citrus, grass, and pepper that blends seamlessly into citrusy cocktails.
Depending on the quality of the product, you might have previously relegated blanco tequilas to mixed drinks or pounded as shots. But there are plenty of bottles, such as Tequila Ocho Plata, that are prized for sipping. In fact, because blanco typically spends no time in contact with oak, many tequila enthusiasts consider it the purest expression of an agave spirit.
Also known as: gold or oro tequila
Aged: varies; a blend of unaged and aged tequilas
Joven, which means “young,” is a somewhat less-common blend of mostly blanco tequila and a small amount of aged tequila. Top-shelf joven tequilas can bear similarities to blended scotch.
Be sure, however, to double-check your label: Some tequilas labeled “gold” are in fact mixtos, or bottles made with less than 100% blue agave, which are cut with other non-agave ingredients, such as artificial caramel coloring or glycerin, to create a rounder mouthfeel.
Also known as: aged or rested tequila
Aged: between two months and one year
Reposado translates to “rested,” and this versatile expression indeed spends between two months and one year resting in oak or steel, most typically oak barrels that once held American whiskey. This time in the barrel imparts a light straw color and notes that reflect the type of wood used, such as vanilla and caramel.
Reposado is a bartender favorite thanks to the sweet spot it hits between the brightness of blanco tequila and oak-heavy añejo tequila. Ivy Mix, co-owner of Leyenda in Brooklyn, New York, has likened the versatility of reposado tequila to that of VSOP cognac: Spice and sweet aromatics render it complex enough for sipping, but it is also works well in cocktails such as the Distrito Federal (Tequila Manhattan) or a Cadillac Margarita, a richer version of the classic made with reposado instead of blanco tequila.
Also known as: extra aged tequila
Aged: one to three years
Some things are better with age, and añejo fans would add tequila to that list. Translating to “old,” añejo tequilas must be aged for one to three years in oak. The barrel size is limited to 600 liters to maximize interaction between the wood and the tequila.
The result of this aging is a dark amber colored tequila with a smooth mouthfeel and complex flavor. Añejo tequilas often offer oak-forward notes of vanilla, caramel, baking spices, and dried fruit. Due to its richer profile, añejo is typically consumed as a sipping tequila, but it also makes a good stand-in for whiskey in cocktails such as the Añejo Old Fashioned.
Also known as: ultra aged tequila
Aged: minimum of three years
This category, which translates to “extra old,” is a relatively new tequila classification that was officially codified by the CRT in 2006. A spirit with this label must be aged for a minimum of three years in oak barrels that are no larger than 600 liters, though many expressions are aged for more than 10 years.
The additional barrel time for extra añejo tequilas yields even more intense notes of caramel, vanilla, and baking spices. While aging, more tequila is lost to evaporation than with younger offerings, meaning extra añejo is significantly more expensive for distilleries to produce and bottles are often higher-priced. As such, tequilas aged this long are usually reserved for solo sipping.
Similar in spirit (and price) to aged rums, cognacs, and whiskeys, extra añejo tequila is often a favorite of collectors. Still, some agave aficionados may prefer the purer agave elements of younger tequila offerings, which haven’t been as adulterated by the influence of oak.
Appearances can be deceiving, as is the case with clear, aged spirit. Cristalino tequilas are matured in oak before going through a charcoal-filtering process to remove naturally occurring colors and some of the oakier notes from the barreling process, not unlike the process used to create many white rums. The base tequila can range anywhere from a reposado to an extra añejo, and the filtering process aims to offer the complexity and character of an aged expression paired with with the crisp, bright notes that define a blanco.
Cristalino is a relatively new category that isn’t standardized by the CRT. Producer Don Julio created the first bottle in 2011 to celebrate its 70th birthday, and since then other cristalino tequilas have competed for market space.