What You Need to Know about Tequila, Mezcal, Sotol, and Raicilla

What You Need to Know about Tequila, Mezcal, Sotol, and Raicilla

Tequila and mezcal, agave-based spirits made in Mexico, are showing unprecedented growth in both sales and reputation across the world. A wider audience of spirits drinkers and cocktail aficionados is increasingly recognizing that agave-based spirits are terroir driven and can offer a robust array of flavors.

Just as high-quality grapes are crucial to fine wine, the source of agave and how the plant is grown are key to tequila and mezcal. And as with the process of making fine wine and other spirits, attention to detail at every step of planting, harvest, and fermentation affects quality, and aging protocols and use of oak impact flavor and structure.

Sotol and raicilla are sleepy cousins of tequila and mezcal. They can be challenging to find in the US market but are worth seeking out when possible.

Tequila: A Place and a Spirit

Tequila is made in five Mexican states where the agave plant, a succulent related to the lily, grows in abundance.

The town of Tequila is near the city of Guadalajara in the west-central state of Jalisco. The Tequila Denomination of Origin (DO) allows production in five states. Jalisco is the most prolific and well known. The other states with municipalities that are officially allowed to make tequila are Guanajuato, Michoacán, Nayarit, and Tamaulipas.

There are dozens of varieties of agave, but only Agave tequilana, also known as blue agave or Weber blue agave, may be used to make a spirit that can legally be called tequila. Blue agave is native to Jalisco, where volcanic soils dominate. It takes 10 to 12 years for a plant to fully mature and be harvested. Blue agave is high in sugar and moisture content, making the juice of the plant ideal for distilling into alcohol. When a tequila is not made from 100% blue agave, it is called a mixto, though even mixto must be made from 51% blue agave. Tequila must also be aged and bottled in Mexico.

Tequila’s History

The distillation of agave plants dates to the Aztecs, who fermented the sap of the plant and made a beer-like drink called pulque, which was served at religious celebrations and sacrifices. The goddess of the maguey, the Taíno name for agave, is Mayahuel. The leaves of the agave plant were used to build roofs and make needles, pins, nails, rope, and paper. The sap was used to heal wounds. People chewed the hearts of the agave plant to extract its sweetness.

Spanish settlers are credited with making the first agave distillate by cooking the hearts, or piñas, of the agave plant over fire. This cooking process breaks down the plants starches and encourages the sugars to develop. The hearts are then crushed, and the sugary juice remaining is fermented and distilled.

The village of Tequila is named for the Ticuila people and was founded in 1530. The first distillers license was granted by the Spanish government to José María Guadalupe de Cuervo in 1795.

Mexico gained independence in 1821, after which the country underwent a fluctuating period of expansion for tequila production. Barrels of Cuervo tequila were exported to the United States and Europe beginning in the 1870s.

The Sauza family, who founded Casa Sauza, started distilling in 1873. The second-generation distiller Don Eladio Sauza became the first global ambassador for the tequila industry, in 1946, after steering the family company through the Mexican Revolution of 1910–20 and emphasizing tequila as a symbol of national pride for the Mexican people.

As early as 1943, tequila producers sought to protect the name tequila as a distinctive product exclusive to Mexico. The Mexican government established Tequila DO in 1974. Tequila was the first internationally recognized DO outside Europe. In 1994, regulation was transferred from Mexicos commerce department to the newly formed nongovernmental body called the Consejo Regulador del Tequila (CRT), or Tequila Regulatory Council. The CRT certifies compliance with the Normas Oficiales Mexicanas (NOM), created by the Mexican government to regulate the tequila industry. The four-digit NOM identification number now appears on all tequila bottles to ensure production within Mexico and trace them to their distillers.

These more rigorous CRT quality standards contributed to growth in both quality and sales, with annual production of tequila tripling, and demand for high-end tequilas surpassing demand for mixtos, between 1995 and 2008.

Tequila broke into popular culture with the one-hit wonder “Tequila,” by The Champs, which went to number one on the Billboard charts in 1958 and won a Grammy award in 1959. It has been played in bars across the world millions of times since.

In the 1980s, 100% blue agave tequilas, as opposed to mixtos, rose in both demand and supply, thanks to the success of single-malt Scotch whiskies and Cognacs, which emphasized purity of place.

The Paisaje Agavero, or Agave Landscape and Ancient Industrial Facilities of Tequila, was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2006, honoring the regions centuries of tradition and ancestral knowledge in its production of tequila. This area encompasses 85,642 acres (34,658 hectares) between the foothills of the Tequila Volcano and the deep valley of the Rio Grande, an expansive landscape where blue agave has been used for more than 2,000 years to make fermented beverages. UNESCO states, “The property is also a testimony to the Teuchitlan cultures which shaped the Tequila area from AD 200–900.”

How Tequila Is Made

The hearts of the agave plant, piñas, are hand-harvested by jimadores, who use a sharp machete-like knife with a rounded edge, called a coa, cutting off the leaves of the plant to its base to keep only the heart. The tequila industry employs around 300,000 people.

Agave is typically ripe at six to eight years old, and the piñas are heavy, averaging between 130 and 150 pounds (60 and 70 kilograms). Before cooking, some producers use a “double jima” technique of shaving the piña twice to yield a more refined product. The hearts are full of sweet juices often referred to as honey water. They are cooked slowly for several days to soften. The length of cooking time and the type of heat influence the quality of the end product, with sufficient time required to cook out the bitter elements of the plant, caramelize the sugars, and achieve finer flavors. Steaming and roasting in brick or concrete are the most common cooking methods.

Once softened, the piñas are ground, shredded, and fermented with yeast and water in open vats for 3 to 10 days, to an ABV of around 5%. Producers then distill the agave liquid at least twice in copper pot or column-style stills, where it ultimately achieves 40% ABV (80 proof) and becomes clear in color.

Main Tequila Classifications

There are four main classifications of tequila, each based on whether the spirit has spent time in oak and for how long. The Tequila Regulatory Council inspects, certifies, and analyzes all tequila production to guarantee its genuineness to consumers.

Blanco: This clear, fresh style of tequila is bottled soon after distillation and aged a maximum of two months; the term silver is sometimes used on the label.

Reposado: Meaning “rested,” reposado tequila is aged for a minimum of two months and up to one year in oak, either French or American casks or barrels that were typically already used to age bourbon, wine, or brandy.

Añejo: An añejo is aged for a minimum of one year and often up to three years, the oak adding more flavor and color compared with a reposado.

Extra añejo: Aged more than three years, this tequila often develops a stronger oak imprint, with heavy spice, vanilla, and toasty tones. Some think this oak influence detracts from the essence of tequila, which is to express as purely as possible the natural flavor of agave.

Cristalino: Sometimes labeled “Añejo Claro,” this is añejo tequila that has been filtered through charcoal to remove any color or flavor from time in barrel.

Tequila’s Rocket Ship Rise

As reported in a 2023 Market Watch story, tequila ranks third by volume among all spirits in the United States, having surpassed American whiskeys in dollar terms in 2022 and 2023. Its starting to catch up to the number-one spirit, vodka, a once-unthinkable possibility. For the first time ever, four tequila brands—Patrón, Jose Cuervo, Don Julio, and Casamigos—hit the billion-dollar mark in US retail sales. In 2022, each of those brands sold more than two million nine-liter cases in the US alone.

Tequila consumption in the US grew by more than 30% between 2015 and 2020, with premium-and-above products up by 60% and an almost equal split between men and women and a balanced age range, according to data by IWSR.

There are many reasons for this, but key factors are tequila’s quality and craftsmanship, aligning with modern consumerspreference for higher-quality food and beverage products. The categorys popularity has also been influenced by several high-profile celebrities putting their names on tequila brands, including Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson (Teremana), Kevin Hart (Gran Coramino), Kendall Jenner (818), and, most successfully, George Clooney, who, with his partners, sold Casamigos to Diageo in 2017 for $1 billion. Mark Wahlberg is an investor in Flecha Azul.

In Napa Valley, two prominent vintners have recently started ultra-premium tequila brands. Loco Tequila is a partnership between Juan-Pablo Torres-Padilla, the managing partner of Sullivan Rutherford Estate Winery, and the maestro tequilero Alberto Navarro; while Casa Obsidiana is a partnership between Jean-Charles Boisset, the owner of Raymond Vineyards, and the Beckmann Gonzalez family, who has been growing agave and making tequila in Jalisco for eight generations.

Consumers are trading up to more premium bottles and willing to pay higher prices, and they are paying more attention to where and how their tequilas are made. Those marketed and confirmed as additive-free are becoming more popular, as are those using traditional production practices. Sustainability and transparency around agave sourcing and maturation, and even agave and wastewater recycling, are increasingly of interest to tequila drinkers.

Popular Cocktails

In popular culture, tequila has long been associated with two main cocktails: the margarita and the paloma. Bartenders are finding that tequila is a versatile starting point for many spirit-forward drinks. It can be sweet, earthy, fruity, or vegetal, and it works well with floral, bitter, herbal, and fruity flavors. Theres also been an embrace of the “what grows together, goes together” philosophy, with agave-based cocktails incorporating ingredients native to where agave grows, from prickly pear and mango to chili peppers, citrus, and tamarind.

An American-based bar manager told Market Watch in May 2023, “Tequila is a more trustworthy spirit in consumerseyes—for years most people associated tequila with shots and getting wild, but today Im seeing more and more people trusting a tequila-based cocktail rather than shying away from it.”

The margarita is traditionally made from blanco tequila, Cointreau, fresh lime juice, and, optionally, agave or simple syrup, served over ice and garnished with lime and a ring of coarse salt. It has numerous variations, from frozen to slushy to different fruit bases, such as mango. One of the most famous versions is Tommys Margarita, named for the San Francisco Mexican restaurant of the same name; it mixes reposado tequila, fresh lime juice, and agave syrup. The American singer Jimmy Buffett helped further the rise of the margarita with his hit 1977 song “Margaritaville.” 

The paloma, the national drink of Mexico, is a delicious highball commingling of blanco tequila, lime juice, and grapefruit soda, topped by salt and lime. Some opt for fresh grapefruit juice and unflavored sparkling water in place of grapefruit soda. A tequila sunrise, highlighted by a 1973 Eagles song of the same name, mixes blanco tequila, orange juice, and grenadine or crème de cassis.

Mezcal: A Spirit Made from Dozens of Agave Types

Mezcal is a catchall term used for an agave-based spirit native to Mexico, and the category includes tequila. But Mezcal DO, established in 1994, is for only 10 Mexican states: Durango, Guanajuato, Guerrero, Michoacán, Oaxaca, Puebla, San Luis Potosí, Sinaloa, Tamaulipas, and Zacatecas. (Both tequila and mezcal can be produced in Tamaulipas, Michoacán, and Guanajuato.)

Most mezcal is produced in the state of Oaxaca. Like tequila, it is made from agave, though mezcal is not limited to blue agave; it may be sourced from dozens of different varieties (there are more than 200 types of agaves in Mexico). Mezcals are sometimes named for the town where they are made.

The agave harvested for mezcal used to grow mostly wild, and thus many varieties of agave would be in the mix. Increasingly, single-varietal mezcals can be found.

Agave is a succulent that, as Mezcal author Emma Janzen wrote, “struggles to live and lives to struggle—this rugged individualism is one of the main reasons why mezcal tastes so special.” Through struggling, the plant produces the ideal botanical elements that provide taste.

Mezcal is also a spirit that acquires the environmental factors of the place in which its grown, capturing terroir, as is much discussed in wine. Janzen comments on the plants long life span, writing, “Everything from soil, water, elevation, climate and other ecosystems can make a difference.” 

Many mezcal distillers use traditional production methods that date back centuries. These include roasting the agave hearts underground in deep pits covered in earth and stone that are then covered by wood charcoal and agave leaves. The wood charcoal is the source of mezcals often smoky character. Even today, roasted agaves are frequently crushed into a juicy mash for fermentation by donkeys or mules, who pull a tahona (a giant, heavy concrete stone) around in a circle.

The fermented mash is then distilled twice in a vessel, such as a clay pot or copper pot still. The majority of mezcals are bottled immediately joven (unaged), with many in the world of mezcal opposed to any oak imprint, though there are some reposado and añejo versions of mezcal.

The négociant Ron Cooper, who founded Del Maguey Mezcal, is roundly credited with helping raise the reputation of mezcal with American consumers. He began scouting and distributing artisanal mezcals from single-village distilleries throughout Oaxaca in 1995, just one year after the Mexican government created Mezcal DO.

A mezcal bottle must include the name of the agave variety or species, name of the maestro mezcalero, place of origin, and Norma Oficial Mexicana number, which links it to the distillery where it was made. Labels must state either “100% Maguey” or “100% Agave,” as well as “Made in Mexico.”

Mezcal Classifications

In 2017, three formal classifications were defined for mezcal: 

Mezcal Ancestral: For this category, the most rustic, agaves must be cooked in underground earthen pits; milled by wooden mallets, tahona, or mills; fermented in rock pits, wood, clay, animal hide, or tree trunks; and include the fibers from crushed agave, with distillation occurring in clay pots that must also include the agave fibers. 

Mezcal Artesanal: These agaves can be cooked in stone ovens or earthen pits and milled by mechanical shredders. The fermentation requirements are the same as those for ancestral, without the inclusion of fibers, and distillation may occur in clay pots or copper stills with or without the fibers.

Mezcal: Agaves in this category are cooked using diffusers and autoclaves. Grinding by shredders is allowed; fermentation is in wood, concrete, or stainless-steel tanks; and column or continuous stills are used to distill.

Growing Popularity and Respect

The growth of mezcal has been astronomical. Janzen writes in her book that sales of mezcal in the United States “grew by nearly 48% between 2007 and 2011 and exploded from a $10 million industry in 2005 to $126 million in 2015.”

Traditionally, mezcal is enjoyed neat, without the addition of water or ice. But its increasingly becoming an interesting base for cocktails. As the renowned mixologist Dale DeGroff wrote in The New Craft of the Cocktail, “Mezcal is the Mexican spirit that was once bottled with the infamous worm, or gusano, in the bottom of the bottle. That was a marketing trick, but today these artisanal spirits and the mezcaleros who make them are getting the respect that they deserve.”

The Oaxaca old-fashioned is a famous drink created by Phil Ward, who helped open and run Death & Co, in New York City, combining agave nectar, bitters, reposado tequila, and mezcal.

Sotol: Similar Production but a Different Plant

Sotol is named for Dasylirion wheeleri, or the desert spoon plant, which grows wild in the Chihuahua desert. This succulent shrub is similar enough to agave to be made into a spirit using many of the same techniques used to make tequila and mezcal. Sotol is herbal and spicy in flavor and hard to find outside Mexico.

Under Mexican law, to be labeled sotol, the spirit must be made in the Mexican state of Chihuahua, Coahuila, or Durango. If not made in those places, a spirit based on Dasylirion wheeleri is called cucharilla. The sotol designation, however, was not part of the most recent NAFTA agreement that honors the designations of origins for tequila and mezcal. As a result, Desert Door Distillery, in Driftwood, Texas, makes sotols that it labels as such from plants wild-harvested on ranches across Texas.

Hacienda de Chihuahua is Mexico’s largest sotol producer, and the singer Lenny Kravitz launched Nocheluna Sotol in partnership with local distillers and Pernod Ricard. In 2019, Nocheluna began to establish the largest cultivation field of sotol in Chihuahua to preserve the plant and its long-term sustainability.

Raicilla: An Ancient yet Newly Recognized Spirit

Raicilla is made from several species of agave (though not blue) that grow in Jalisco and has a strong link to Puerto Vallarta, where many of the distilleries that make it are located. Raicilla, essentially a mezcal from Jalisco, was granted a DO in 2019. 

According to a story from the American Distilling Institute, however, there was controversy around the designation. A 2020 article notes, “Originating in southwestern Jalisco, traditionally raicilleros created and sold their product without government regulation as allowable DO production within Jalisco had previously been solely regulated to tequila. . . . In 1999 the Cuervo family lost its exclusive right of the name raicilla, which it had held since the 19th century.”

The agave for raicilla is often harvested wild. It grows largely in pine forests and on mountain slopes. The spirit is distilled like tequila and mezcal.

Looking Ahead

Dismissed in the past by many, thanks to bad memories of overindulgence and subpar selections, tequila and mezcal are rightfully being celebrated and appreciated today for the sublime quality, unique expression, versatility, and sense of place they offer.

The growth and interest in agave-based products appears poised to continue rising exponentially. The agave spirits market was valued at $9.6 billion in 2022 and is expected to grow to $18.8 billion by 2030, according to Fortune Business Insights. Appealing to a wide diversity of consumers, these high-quality products offer a rich sense of place and story in addition to an impressive range of flavors and cocktail options. 

You Might Also Like


Bell, Emily. “The History of the Tequila Song.” VinePair, April 18, 2016. https://vinepair.com/wine-blog/the-history-of-the-tequila-song/

DeGroff, Dale. The New Craft of the Cocktail. New York: Clarkson Potter, 2020.

Furer, David. “Raicilla: Spirit of Jalisco.” Distiller, American Distilling Institute, November 20, 2020. https://distilling.com/distillermagazine/racilla/.

Harrison, Joel, and Neil Ridley. Distilled. London: Mitchell Beazley, 2014.

IWSR (The International Wine and Spirit Research). “Tequila volume overtakes bourbon and rum in the U.S. – why?” Drinks Market Analysis. Accessed January 19, 2024. https://www.theiwsr.com/tequila-volume-overtakes-bourbon-and-rum-in-the-us-why/.

Janzen, Emma. Mezcal: The History, Craft & Cocktails of the Worlds Most Ultimate Artisanal Spirit. Minneapolis: Voyageur Press (The Quarto Group), 2017.

Kral, Sally. “Full Steam Ahead: Tequila is an Unstoppable Force on the U.S. Market.” Market Watch, July/August 2023.

Kral, Sally. “Tequila’s Takeover.” Mixology, Market Watch, May 8, 2023. https://www.marketwatchmag.com/tequilas-takeover/.

Liquor.com. “Tequila Sunrise: This 3-Ingredient 70s Classic Has Rock & Roll Roots.” April 2023. https://www.liquor.com/recipes/tequila-sunrise/.

Monroe, Rachel. “Sotol and the Making of the Next Big Drink.” The New Yorker, July 11, 2023. https://www.newyorker.com/news/letter-from-the-southwest/sotol-and-the-making-of-the-next-big-drink.

Owens, Bill, and Alan Dikty. The Art of Distilling Whiskey and Other Spirits. Beverly, MA: Quarry Books, 2009.

Rose, Prairie. “Paloma: This simple and refreshing grapefruit highball is beloved for a reason.” Liquor.com, Tequila Cocktails, October 2023. https://www.liquor.com/recipes/paloma/.

UNESCO World Heritage Convention. “Agave Landscape and Ancient Industrial Facilities of Tequila,” 2006. https://whc.unesco.org/es/list/1209.

  • I noticed Virginie notes, "Mezcal Artesanal: These agaves can be cooked in stone ovens or earthen pits and milled by mechanical shredders. The fermentation requirements are the same as those for ancestral, without the inclusion of fibers" while the Mezcal DO compendium page indicates that Mezcal Artesanal can include fibers. I am going to assume the Compendium is correct?

  • Great article. Here to drop the necessary mention for Destilado/licor de agave. There's many families whose original recipes did not comply with regulation when Tequila DO was first established, so they had to downgrade their product from tequila to destilado if they wanted to keep the recipes they'd inherited. See for example Agavero,

  • I think the original orange liqueur for the margarita is Licor de Naranja produced by La Madrilena S.A. de C.V. in Mexico City. I could be wrong about that, but it makes sense to me that the first margaritas were made with spirits distilled in Mexico. 

  • Good catch on gusano! That was a typo and has been corrected. "Original" cocktail recipes are always highly debated, but you're correct that many call agave (or simple) syrup an optional ingredient. This is also the way it is framed in our Compendium. I've addressed this in the text.