National Tequila Day: What Is Tequila Made From & How Do I Use It?

Like with many other spirits and cocktails we’ve covered so far, there’s a national holiday for almost every popular cocktail or spirit you can think of! And, tequila is certainly no exception. This potent, unique-tasting spirit shines through in some of America’s most beloved cocktails, and there’s a very good reason for it. Today, we’re going to chat about the world of tequila, covering everything from “what is tequila made from?” to how to make all the classic tequila cocktails you know and love (and maybe regret sometimes!). Let’s dive right in and get started!

When Is National Tequila Day?

National Tequila Day is celebrated on July 24th each year. This special day honors the renowned Mexican spirit, tequila, and provides enthusiasts worldwide with an opportunity to raise their glasses in celebration of its rich cultural heritage and exceptional taste! In honor of National Tequila Day, let’s learn a bit more about this amazing spirit.

What Is Tequila?

Ah, tequila. The clear (or gold-colored) spirit that has different effects on everyone! This unique spirit is incredibly popular in mixed drinks because, like gin, it is high-proof, usually clear, and it has a “special” flavor that – once you know what it is – you can pinpoint anywhere. That flavor, that je ne sais quoi , comes from the main ingredient used in the production of tequila. But, what is tequila made from? Let’s find out.

What Is Tequila Made From?

Tequila is distilled from fermented agave nectar. And, if you’ve ever tried agave, you’ll know that it’s got a “something” that’s just different from regular cane sugar. Let’s take a look at the difference between cane sugar and agave:

Cane Sugar

Generally used in the production of rum, cane sugar has a relatively neutral and straightforward sweet taste. This makes it a versatile sweetener used in various culinary applications. Its flavor is simple, sugary, and often described as “clean” or “pure.”

Cane sugar is derived from sugarcane, a tall tropical grass belonging to the Saccharum genus. The sweetener is obtained by extracting the juice from the sugarcane stalks and then refining and crystallizing it to produce the familiar white granulated sugar. When making rum, the process usually involves fermenting the juice from the stalks themselves.


Agave, on the other hand, is derived from the agave plant, specifically the Agave tequilana or Agave americana species. These plants are native to Mexico and are known for their succulent, spiky appearance. Agave nectar, or syrup, is produced by extracting the sweet sap from the core of the agave plant’s piña (the thick, pineapple-like heart) and then filtering and heating it to create the sweet syrup.

Agave nectar has a distinct taste that sets it apart from cane sugar. It is known for its mild, delicate sweetness with subtle caramel and honey-like undertones. Some people find agave nectar to be less cloying than cane sugar, and it has become popular as an alternative sweetener, particularly in beverages and baking. However, others find agave too “earthy” and may not like tequila, as a result.

How Is Tequila Made?

Producing tequila is a multi-step process that requires a great deal of effort. For this reason, good tequila tends to run quite pricey. And, the difference between great tequila and cheap tequila is very apparent. Here is a run-down on how tequila is crafted:

Step 1: Harvesting the Agave Plant

Tequila production starts with the harvesting of mature blue agave plants, which typically take 7 to 10 years to reach maturity (another reason why tequila can run you some hefty pocket change). The agave plants are cultivated in the region designated as the “Tequila region” in Mexico, encompassing certain states like Jalisco, Nayarit, Guanajuato, Michoacán, and Tamaulipas. Agave needs hot, dry weather to grow, so it can’t be grown here in America.

Step 2: Trimming & Cooking

Once the agave plants are ready for harvest, the agave hearts, known as “piñas” (because they resemble oversized pineapples), are removed from the leaves using a sharp tool called a “coa.” The piñas are then trimmed of excess leaves and taken to the processing facility.

To convert the starches in the piñas into fermentable sugars, the piñas are traditionally slow-cooked in large, stone ovens called “hornos” for several days. Some, more modern, distillers will use autoclaves to speed up this process.

Step 3: Crushing & Extracting Sugars

After cooking, the softened piñas are crushed to extract the sugary juice known as “aguamiel” (honey water). Traditional methods involve using a large stone wheel called a “tahona” drawn by mules or tractors to crush the piñas.

The extracted aguamiel is collected and transferred to fermentation tanks for the next step.

Step 4: Fermentation

The aguamiel is left to ferment in large wooden or stainless steel tanks. During fermentation, natural airborne yeasts convert the sugars into alcohol over a period of several days to weeks. The resulting liquid is called “pulque.”

Step 5: Distillation

Next comes our favorite step in the process! The fermented pulque is then distilled at least twice in copper or stainless steel pot stills. The distillation process separates the alcohol from the impurities and concentrates the flavors, resulting in “blanco” tequila.

Some tequilas go through additional distillation processes to create “reposado” (aged for a few months), “añejo” (aged for at least one year), or “extra añejo” (aged for at least three years) tequilas.

After all of this, the tequila is either bottled straight, diluted, or mixed with other tequila (to maintain consistent quality).

Mexican Regulations Surrounding Tequila

It’s worth noting that authentic tequila production is highly regulated by Mexican law, and tequila must meet specific requirements to be designated as such. The Tequila Regulatory Council (CRT) oversees the process and ensures that all tequila labeled as such meets these necessary standards:


Tequila must be produced in specific regions of Mexico, primarily in the state of Jalisco and some areas in the states of Nayarit, Guanajuato, Michoacán, and Tamaulipas. This designated area is known as the “Tequila Region.”

Agave Variety

Tequila must be made from at least 51% blue agave (Agave tequilana Weber, blue variety). If the product is labeled “100% Agave,” it means it is made entirely from blue agave without any additional sugars.


The blue agave used for tequila production must be mature, usually taking around 7 to 10 years to reach this stage. Harvesting must be done by hand, using traditional methods to ensure quality.

Processing & Distillation

The agave piñas must be cooked, crushed, and fermented to extract the sugars, and the resulting liquid must be distilled at least twice in copper or stainless steel pot stills.

Alcohol Content

Tequila must have an alcohol content between 35% and 55% by volume (70 to 110 proof).

Additives & Aging

Only certain additives, like water and caramel coloring, are allowed in tequila production. For aged tequilas (reposado, añejo, and extra añejo), aging must occur in oak barrels, and the product’s age must be clearly stated on the label.

Bottling, Certification & NOM

Tequila must be bottled in Mexico, and each bottle must be certified by the CRT to ensure compliance with all regulations.

Each tequila brand must also have a unique registration number known as the “NOM” (Norma Oficial Mexicana). This number identifies the distillery where the tequila is produced and helps consumers identify the origin of the tequila.

Is Any Tequila Made in America?

Aside from the fact that the name “tequila” is quite literally monopolized by the CRT, making tequila-like spirits in the USA has a huge barrier to entry. The agave plants would need to be grown here (which could work with the Agave palmeri variety or its close cousin, Dasylirion wheeleri (which would make it “sotol”)). As you might expect, plots of land in the USA are far more expensive than in Mexico, so many USA producers tend to import what they need anyway.

So, if you’re looking for a local of USA-grown and distilled “tequila” there are some very real challenges – all of which are driving up the price significantly. As one of the few local agave spirit producers in America, Lance Winters (St. George Spirits), has said, “It’s a wall my head is not unfamiliar with beating against.”

Tequila-Like Spirits: Mezcal, Raicilla, Bacanora, & Sotol

“Tequila” has a whole list of rules and regulations that make it so. So, what are the differences among tequila, mezcal, raicilla, bacanora, and sotol? Well, to answer this, we need to look at what’s used to make them. Tequila, we already know, is made from blue Agave tequilana.

Mezcal vs Tequila

Mezcal can be made in any of these Mexican states: Oacaxa, Puebla, Durango, Zacatecas, Michoacan, Guerrero, Tamaulipas, San Luis Potosi, or Guanajuato. Mezcal must also be 100% agave with no other sugars used. The most popular variety used for mezcal is Agave angustifolia.

Raicilla vs Tequila

Raicilla is basically mezcal made in Jalisco. And, it’s generally made with Agave rhodacantha. The spirit is also often not distilled twice, but rather once, leaving it with a green-ish color and taste.

Bacanora vs Tequila

This type of agave spirit is only made with Agave angustifolia in the Sonora region. This type of distilled agave liquor is more like Mexico’s “moonshine” than true tequila. There’s a unique history surrounding bacanora, if you’d like to read up about it.

Sotol vs Tequila

Sotol is even more interesting because it’s not technically made with agave at all. It’s actually made with a plant that’s a distant cousin of agave, Dasylirion.

Top Three Classic Tequila Cocktails

But that’s enough about the spirit itself… Now it’s time to mix up a few cocktails! Today, we’ve listed just the most popular tequila cocktails. These drinks really let the bold flavor of tequila shine through. So, grab your cocktail shaker, some ice, and let’s get started!

The #1 Tequila Cocktail: The Classic Margarita (must make on National Margarita Day)

This drink needs no introduction. If you’ve never had a margarita, now’s your chance. 

  1. Rim a margarita glass with salt by running a lime wedge around the rim and dipping it into a plate of salt.
  2. Fill a cocktail shaker with 2 oz tequila, 1 oz triple sec, ¾ oz lime juice, and ½ oz simple syrup.
  3. Add ice cubes to the shaker and shake well until chilled.
  4. Strain the mixture into the prepared margarita glass filled with ice.
  5. Garnish with a lime wheel or wedge.
  6. Enjoy your classic Margarita!

#2: The Tequila Sunrise

This drink is just as tasty as it is visually pleasing. And, even though you’re working with grenadine, there’s no difficult layering involved. You’ll love this one.

  1. Fill a highball glass with ice cubes.
  2. Pour 2 oz tequila over the ice.
  3. Add 4 oz orange juice and stir gently.
  4. Slowly pour ½ oz grenadine syrup over the back of a spoon into the glass, allowing it to sink to the bottom.
  5. Garnish with an orange slice and a maraschino cherry.
  6. Serve with a straw and enjoy how the colors mix together!.

#3: The Paloma

If you like grapefruit, this cocktail is definitely for you. There’s a slight fizz from the soda, and all the citrusy booziness from the lime and tequila.

  1. Rim a highball glass with salt (optional) by running a lime wedge around the rim and dipping it into a plate of salt.
  2. Fill the glass with ice cubes.
  3. Pour 2 oz tequila and  ½ oz lime juice over the ice.
  4. Top off with 3 oz grapefruit soda.
  5. Stir gently to mix the ingredients.
  6. Garnish with a slice of grapefruit or a lime wedge.
  7. Sip, savor, and enjoy!

Distillery Nearby: Your Source for Local, Craft Cocktail Ingredients

Usually we like to drop a line here about finding local spirits for your delicious cocktails! However, since tequila technically can’t be made in the USA, we encourage you to try some “similar” spirits in your tequila cocktails for National Tequila Day. See if you like a local mezcal or sotol – it can be substituted for tequila in any cocktail recipe you come across.So, check out what distilleries are near you and stock up on delicious, craft cocktail ingredients today! Happy National Tequila Day!

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