01. Standardization of the Tequila Category

Without rules and regulations, tequila wouldn’t be the specific national treasure it is today. Here’s what you need to know about the history of tequila regulation and the organizations that oversee the laws.

The first attempts to regulate the emerging tequila industry began in earnest in 1949, when the Mexican government established the norma de calidad de tequila in order to help ensure consistent quality in a time of increased manipulation of the spirit. At this time, the rules detailed that tequila had to be made from 100% Weber Blue agave grown in Jalisco. It required alcohol content to be between 45 and 50 percent, and required distilleries to sell tequila in bottles instead of barrels. At this time, there were two classifications: natural and añejo (aged 2 years minimum).

As demand started to grow, quality began to decline. By 1964 the norma was amended to require a minimum of only 70% agave sugars, allowing up to 30% of the fermentable sugar in tequila to come from other sources like sugarcane, corn or other grains. This shift happened in part because of the increased popularity of tequila in America, aided in no small part by the spread of smart new cocktails like the Margarita and the Tequila Sunrise. Due to the long growing cycles of the agave plant, production of tequila lags significantly behind sharp increases in demand – lowering the agave quotient in tequila allowed producers to stretch the available agave to make more tequila, albeit of a less traditional type.

In 1968, producers were allowed to add flavorings and colorings, and permitted the use of agave from outside of Jalisco. This amendment also expanded the classifications to include blanco (or joven), reposado and añejo (aged one year minimum). By 1970, the standard was modified again to state that only 51% of the formulation had to be composed of agave sugars, where the rule stands today. Amendments to the norma in 1976 established two categories of tequila: 100% de agave tequila, which must use only agave as its source of fermentable sugars, and tequila” which allows the addition of non-agave sugars in the recipe. In 2006, the newest class of aged tequilas, extra añejo’’ was introduced, to identify tequilas aged in wood for 36 months or longer.

MARGARITA — Tequila’s rise in popularity in America was aided by cocktails like the Margarita and the Tequila Sunrise.

credit: Chloe Harrison-Ach

Production techniques changed during this time as well. In the 1950s, the mechanical shredder was introduced; in the 1960s some producers began using autoclaves to cook the agave, a method of pressure cooking that cut the average cook time from several days to as little as 12 hours. Producers in Japan and Spain started making agave spirits they called tequila” during this time period and many foreign investors started to get involved in tequila production within Mexico, starting new companies until the country entered a period of debt in 1982. Due to this economic decline, paired with a subsequent agave shortage, many tequila companies could not survive and almost half closed between 1984 and 1986.