When you see the word agave associated with both your favorite tequila at the bar and your go-to alternative sweetener at the local smoothie shop, it can be difficult to discern exactly what this mysterious substance is. So, what is agave? Is it liquor? Sugar? Syrup? Nectar?
Agave is all of the above, and also none—it’s the plant used to make various substances, like dark agave syrup or agave nectar with a similar flavor to honey.
Native to Mexico and the Caribbean,1 agave was originally believed to have medicinal properties and likely still carries its fair share of health benefits.2 However, the spiky desert plant is most widely recognized as the source of sweet agave syrup used as an alternative sweetener and, even more importantly, agave spirits.
Agave Spirits: The Full Breakdown
If you’ve ever downed a shot of tequila or enjoyed a fruity Tequila Sunrise, then you’ve had an agave spirit. Technically, you’ve also had a mezcal cocktail, even though many people think of tequila and mezcal as two different alcohols.
The simple truth is this:
- Mezcal, meaning “oven-cooked agave,” is a broad category that includes every distilled alcohol derived from the agave plant—any agave plant.3
- Tequila is a type of mezcal made specifically from agave tequilana Weber, or Weber blue agave.4
But with agave alcohol, more so than most other alcohol varieties, the origin state and type of agave species both matter. Mezcal must come from one of nine Mexican states, while tequila also known as agave tequilana has to be derived from either Jalisco or a few other specific municipalities to earn the esteemed title.5
When the producers of these spirits can’t legally label their drinks as “tequila,” for example, they’ll call it an “agave spirit” or “blue agave spirit”; however, if it’s made in the U.S. according to the same standards and practices as in Mexico, then the only difference is the name.
Agave Processing & Distillation
So, what do those standards and practices look like? Naturally, all agave spirit producers will have a slightly different way of doing things from the harvesting process of the blue agave plant to the final aging period.
However, the process of making most tequila, mezcal, and agave spirits (regardless of what you decide to call it) looks a little something like this:6,7,
- Harvest – After anywhere from eight to 30 years in soil, the agave plant—whether Weber blue agave for tequila or another variety for mezcal—is harvested by hand using a coa (like a machete). Farmers will cut the woody leaves away to get to the heart of the agave, the piña at the center.
- Cook – Distillers bake or roast the piña bulb to make mezcal and steam it for tequila. Traditionally, baking the agave core was similar to a pig roast with a fire pit, hot rocks, and soil covering the piñas for an earthy flavor. In modern production lines, distillers will cook the piñas in clay, brick, or high-powered stainless steel ovens.
- Juice – The piñas are then shredded and mashed in order to extract the sweet juice needed to make mezcal, called mosto. Distillers will either uphold traditional practices by crushing it with a large stone wheel called a tahona or embrace modern inventions by using an industrial shredder.
- Ferment – The mosto is fermented with yeast and water, often in open-air barrels or stainless steel tanks for several days. High-quality mezcals usually rely on wild yeast as part of their complex flavor profile.4
- Distill – The now-fermented mosto will be distilled, first into a cloudy mixture called ordinario, then a second time into silver tequila. Mezcal is also usually distilled twice, sometimes three times.
- Age – Agave spirits are aged anywhere from 14 days for silver tequila (which is not even considered aged) to several years for darker drinks, usually in oak barrels. There are three categories of aged tequila, including:
- Reposado – “Rested” tequila is aged for two to 12 months.
- Añejo – “Aged” tequila is aged for at least one year and as many as three.
- Extra añejo – This extra-aged tequila title applies to anything over three years.
Mezcal—the umbrella term—and tequila—the fan-favorite—are the two agave spirits that most people are familiar with, even though mezcal is technically a category, not an alcohol. Still, there’s more to the agave family than just these two spirits with name recognition:9
- Raicilla – Similar to both tequila and mezcal, raicilla is made the same way as mezcal—roasting the agave heart, the piña, instead of steaming it—but is produced in Jalisco, just like tequila. It’s usually only distilled once and often in copper pots.
- Bacanora – Made from the agave Pacifica in the state of Sonora,8 Bacanora is made by cooking piñas in below-ground, volcanic rock-lined ovens for two days, cooling them for another two days, then fermenting them in air-tight cement pits for a week or two. This twice-distilled beverage was only recently legalized and has a unique smoky flavor.
- Pulque – Pulque is made by extracting the sweet agave nectar from the piña rather than baking and smashing it to collect its juice. After it’s fermented, the low-alcohol beverage has a yeast-like flavor, best served either on its own or in a drink made with fruit or nuts.
SLIQ: Agave Spirits in a Delicious Frozen Form
Now that you know what agave is, you can appreciate the full extent of its arduous distillation process and delectable flavor profile. SLIQ Spirited Ice hard freeze pops are made with 100% Blue Agave—domestically produced—in three distinct flavors: Classic Margarita, Strawberry Margarita, and Mango Margarita.
No matter where the plants come from or what you call the alcohol inside, these premium frozen margarita ice pops are certifiably enjoyable. If you find yourself in the mood for a different alcoholic beverage, we also offer frozen vodka pops and rum ice pops.
- Britannica. Agave. https://www.britannica.com/plant/Agave
- Healthline. Agave Nectar: A Sweetener That’s Even Worse Than Sugar? https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/agave-nectar-is-even-worse-than-sugar
- List Wire. 8 things you need to know about Mezcal. https://thelistwire.usatoday.com/2020/09/24/8-things-you-need-to-know-about-mezcal/
- Wine Enthusiast. Breaking Down the Difference Between Mezcal and Tequila. https://www.winemag.com/2019/08/27/difference-mezcal-vs-tequila/
- Consejo Regulador del Tequila. Certification of Alcoholic Beverages Produced in a Foreign Country. https://www.crt.org.mx/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=175&Itemid=185&lang=en&option=com_content&view=article&id=175&Itemid=185&lang=en
- MasterClass. How Is Tequila Made? The 6 Steps of Making Tequila. https://www.masterclass.com/articles/how-is-tequila-made
- Serious Eats. The Spirit of Mexico: A Guide to Mezcal. https://www.seriouseats.com/2018/06/guide-to-mezcal.html
- Sunora Bacanora. Haw Bacanora is Different. https://www.sunorabacanora.com/what-is-bacanora/bacanora-mezcal-raicilla-sotol-tequila-differences/
- Eater. Beyond Tequila: Alternative Agave Spirits To Know. https://www.eater.com/2015/3/4/8126129/beyond-tequila-alternative-agave-spirits-to-know