Tequila and Mezcal : A Primer : How to read a tequila or mezcal label.

All tequila is mezcal but not all mezcal is tequila.

Tequila and mezcal are both spirits created by the distillation of the juice that has been sourced from the heart of an agave. This heart (or piña) is roasted (in the case of mezcal) or steamed (in the case of tequila) (1) then crushed to obtain the juice. This juice is then fermented and distilled (2) to obtain a clear alcoholic spirit. Neither drink is made by the distillation of aguamiel (the fresh juice of the living agave plant) or of pulque (the fermented aguamiel – which is a drink in its own right).

  1. this is a generalisation, it can be done either way for either drink although the larger the production run (as is the case with tequilas) the more often it is steamed (in huge autoclaves) due to the amount of material that needs to be cooked.
  2. Tequila, by Law, must be double distilled. Some are triple distilled and many mezcals are double distilled (although this is not specifically required)

Tequila is a fairly rigidly controlled drink. It must contain nothing less than a minimum of 51% agave sugars (the best are 100% agave). The other sugars added are usually cane sugar (or perhaps of another agave). These types of tequila are called “Oro” or “Gold” (sometimes Joven – “young”) tequilas. Gold tequilas can also be made by blending reposados and younger tequilas. Gold tequilas are generally thought of as good only for mixing in cocktails. A cocktail is the quickest way to ruin a good tequila.

This is the most common Gold Tequila I know.
  1. This shows that the tequila was produced in Jalisco. For an agave spirit to be able to be called Tequila it must be produced in one of five specific regions. Jalisco, Michoacán, Guanajuato, Nayarit and Tamaulipas can carry the Denomination of Origin “Tequila” (DOT)
  2. Tequila can be produced between 35 and 55% alcohol content (70 and 110 U.S. proof). Per U.S. law, tequila must contain at least 40% alcohol (80 U.S. proof) to be sold in the United States.
  3. The NOM is the Norma Oficial Mexicana or, in English, the Normative Number.  It is a seal guaranteeing that this tequila or mezcal is made to government standards. The number after NOM is the distillery registration number as assigned by the government. NOM does not indicate the location of the distillery, merely the parent company or – in the case where a company leases space in a plant – the physical plant where the tequila was manufactured.
  4. The Tequila Regulatory Council (Consejo Regulado de Tequila) or CRT maintains the rules as outlined by the NOM
  5. Hecho en Mexico – Made in Mexico. If its not made in Mexico (in the previously specified regions – see point 1) then it cannot be called Tequila.
  6. 100% agave. This is the most important signifier for Tequila aficionados. It means that the tequila was made with 100% agave sugars. Tequila must, by Law, be a minimum of 51% agave sugars. If it doesn’t say 100% agave then it is called a “mixto” (sometimes “Gold” or “Oro”) and the added sugars are usually cane sugar (sometimes caramel colouring is added to give it a golden “wood aged” appearance or a reposado is blended with a younger – blanco – tequila). These are considered a lower quality tequila, good for Margaritas but not for savouring.
  7. Age categories. Tequila has several age categories. The bottle above is a Blanco. Blanco (or plata or silver) is a clear white spirit, unaged and bottled or stored immediately after distillation, or (less commonly) aged less than two months in stainless steel or neutral oak barrels. It is said that this type of tequila is more indicative of the true nature of the drink as (much like a fine wine) la tierra (or the land) can be tasted as aged tequilas tend to take on the flavour of the wooden barrel that it is aged in. Reposado: aged a minimum of two months, but less than a year in oak barrels of any size. Añejo (“aged” or “vintage”): aged a minimum of one year, but less than three years in small oak barrel. Extra Añejo (“extra aged” or “ultra aged”): aged a minimum of three years in oak barrels; this category was established in March 2006.
  1. This tequila has been aged for 5 months. This makes it a “Reposado” (more than two, but less than 12 months in wood)
  2. Reposado “reposed” – a type of tequila which has been aged in oak for between two months and a year. This is a mid-range (as far as age is concerned) tequila.
  3. This is the location of the distillery
  4. NOM 1493 Tequila Los Abuelos
  5. Product of Mexico. Indicates that this product is a Tequila as it was produced in Mexico (in one of the assigned regions of course). A little further down the label you will find the name of the (American) importer.
  6. Lot or batch: each bottle must be engraved or stamped with the coded identification of the lot to which it belongs.

This tequila is unusual in that it contains an ingredient not normally found in tequilas. Cochineal. Cochineal is a dye produced by crushing a small bug that lives on the nopal cactus. It is claimed to be the first pink tequila produced in the World. It was my understanding that tequila cold not have any additives (other than those previously discussed for mixto or oro tequilas) so this is an unusal variety. It does carry all the other hallmarks though (NOM, 100% agave, Made in Mexico). It certainly surprised my Mexican friends. It is produced under the NOM 1529, the Distillery Agaveros y Tequileros Unidos de Los Altos, S.A. de C.V. Tequila. This distillery also produces such tequilas as Casino Azul, Comisario, De Los Altos, El Mante, Hacienda de Los Diaz and Hotel California.

  1. Mezcal can reach an alcohol content of 55%. Like tequila, mezcal can be distilled twice. The first distillation is known as ordinario, and comes out at around 75 proof (37.5% alcohol by volume). The liquid must then be distilled a second time to raise the alcohol percentage.
  2. 100% agave. Like tequilas, mezcal must be produced from the agave. Unlike tequila, which can only use use one variety (Agave tequilana Weber), mezcal can use many varieties (although typically there are several varieties normally used- espadín “smallsword” (Agave angustifolia), arroqueño (Agave americana var. oaxacensis, cirial (Agave karwinskii), barril (Agave rodacantha), mexicano (Agave macroacantha or Agave rhodacantha var. mexicano, also called dobadaan) and cincoañero (Agave canatala). The most famous wild agave is tobalá (Agave potatorum). There are as many as 40 or 50 varieties of agave used to produce mezcals.
  3. the local names of the agave varieties used to produce this mezcal
  4. Poblacion – the area this mezcal was produced. In this case – Miahuatlán – a town and municipality in Oaxaca in south-eastern Mexico
  5. the Latin names identifying which agaves were used. This mezcal was produced from more than one type of agave.
  6. this indicates that “wild yeasts” were used to ferment the must before distillation.
  7. this indicates the production size of this particular batch. Only 157 litres of this mezcal was made, making a truly unique product.
  8. Lot or batch. As with tequila each bottle must be engraved or stamped with the coded identification of the lot to which it belongs.
  9. As with tequila mezcal has age categories. Joven, or “young,” mezcal, is clear and unaged. Reposado is “rested” in oak for more than two months but less than a year and Añejo is aged for one to three years.
  10. this indicates that it is a genuine “Mezcal” produced under and protected by a Denomination of Origin.
  11. The NOM guaranteeing it was made according to the standards set out for mezcals and the number indicates the registration of the distiller
  1. This mezcal (from the same producer as the one above) has a slightly higher alcohol content.
  2. The agave used and an additional ingredient. Unlike tequila (whose only ingredients can be the agave and perhaps other sugars) mezcal can contain other ingredients, in this case it is cacao. Some mezcals (called Pechugas) are distilled with chicken or turkey (hence the name pechuga – which means “breast”) other meats such as rabbit, Iberico ham or even iguana are used. Some mezcals are flavoured with such things as almonds, banana, apple, raisins, pineapple, guava, rice, cinnamon (and more).
  3. The agave species used
  4. The additional ingredient, Theobroma cacao, the cacao bean, which is the key ingredient in the manufacture of chocolate.
  5. Bottled at the source of production
  6. indicates that only agave sugars were used (despite the addition of cacao)
  7. the NOM indicating authenticity

Products that are made with agave (even if it’s 100% Blue agave – Tequilana weber) that are made outside of the designated NOM areas cannot be called Tequila. They must be called agave spirits or aguardiente (1) de agave (even if they are made in Mexico – see picture below)

  1. “burning water” or more literally “water with teeth (bite)” (agua – water / diente – tooth)

There are however exceptions to this rule.


In the northern Mexican state of Sonora there is another drink produced from the agave. This drink is called Bacanora. Bacanora is another type of mezcal (read agave distillate) and its production mirrors that of mezcal. The Mexican government granted Bacanora with a Denomination Of Origin in 2005. Its production is regulated by Consejo Sonorense Promotor de la Regulacion del Bacanora. Bacanora is like tequila in that it can only be produced from one type of agave, Agave angustifolia var. Pacifica.

Raicilla (literal translation – little / root)

Raicilla is produce in the home state of tequila, Jalisco, but as it is not produced from the “right” agave it cannot be called tequila and as it is not produced in the “right” areas it cannot be called mezcal. More than one variety of agave can be used to produce raicilla. A.maximiliana, A.rhodocantha, A.inaequidens and A.angustifolia are all acceptable varieties to produce raicilla. This drink is closer in nature to mezcal than tequila in that it tends to be produced artisanally and in smaller batches. It is required that it be distilled twice though (as is tequila). Raicilla is in the process of acquiring its own NOM. The municipalities of Atengo, Ayutla, Cabo Corrientes, Chiquilistlan, Juchitlan, Puerto Vallarta, Tecolotlan, Tenamaxtlan, Tomatlan, Atenguillo, Cuautla, Guachinango, Mascota, Mixtlan, San Sebastian del Oeste and Talpa are vying for the NOM rights to produce raicilla.

Like its more well known cousins raicilla can be aged in oak. Raicilla blanco is the liquor fresh out of the still (probably diluted with water though). It can then be aged in oak barrels. Raicilla joven has been aged for less than a year, reposado for between one and two years, and añejo for more than two years.


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