After being cooked, the piñas are grated to produce a juice called mosto. It goes in a tank with yeast and water. When yeast meets sugar, it’s amore. The combination creates ethyl alcohol.

Most spirits are distilled at least twice using a column or pot still, and tequila is no different. This concentrates and purifies the alcohol so you can drink it without going blind.

Meanwhile, in Oaxaca, mezcaleros do most of this labor-intensive work by hand. Their stills are made from locally sourced materials like clay and copper, and are much smaller, often mobile, so they can be taken to wherever they are needed. There’s even a legal term called “ancestral,” a designation for 100% handmade mezcals.

Step 3: Aging

We have arrived at the final stage of the production process: maturation: All spirits, including tequila, are crystal clear when they come out of a still. Brown spirits – think whiskey and rum – develop their dark color by sitting in a wooden container such as a cask (or cask). This process softens the finish by removing tannins and imparts barrel notes often associated with baking spices like vanilla, caramel and brown sugar.

Aging is not a traditional Mexican process, so mezcals, at least those that aren’t Americanized, never see the inside of a barrel. They are stored in jugs made of glass, clay or non-soluble plastic. This is why mezcals are clear.

Side Step: Regulations and Addenda

The Mexican government does the same thing as Japan, Scotland and the United States with their indigenous spirits: they regulate them so that everyone is clear about what makes a tequila a tequila and a mezcal a mezcal . Without turning this into a legal briefing, any tequila or mezcal worth drinking should have “100% (of) Agave” written on the label. If you don’t see this, it means it is a liqueur (sometimes called tequila mixto) and may contain any manner of additives, including grain alcohol.

By law, a blanco cannot contain additives; however, aged tequila may contain up to 1% undisclosed additives and still be considered 100% agave.

The process of incorporating additives, called “softening” or “rectifying,” allows for four types: caramel color, wood extract, glycerin, and sugar-based syrup. The coloring gives it a darker look, the wood extract gives it an older smell, the glycerin gives it a thicker mouthfeel, and the syrup adds flavors and sweetness. Agave has a natural sweetness that doesn’t taste like sugar, vanilla, caramel, coffee, or maple syrup, so if you taste familiar flavors that remind you of processed candies and confections, chances are your tequila contains additives.

Photo by Chelsie Craig

What are the main types of tequila (and mezcal)?

Enough distilling nerdiness, let’s finally talk about pounded tequila shots! In fact, that’s not how it is outside of Daytona Pledge Weekend and Spring Break. Likewise, that thing your friend who took a year of Spanish in high school told you about worms in tequila bottles… That’s not a thing either. If someone offers you tequila with a bug in it, know that it’s inauthentic and unsanitary. There are no world-class spirits, of which tequila is one, with bugs in the bottle. It’s a difficult pass, the houses.