When is Tequila Not Tequila?

Editor’s note: This post was verified and updated on July 24, 2021 — National Tequila Day!

What do you know about Tequila?

How good does this look? Exhibiting perfect form, Sweeney samples tequila while in Mazatlan.

"Sampling tequila at Los Osuna tequila factory in Sinaloa, Mexico"

Sweeney Sampling the Tequila at Los Osuna

By Mr. TWS — It’s really a rare thing to see since Sweeney’s preferred beverage is wine. However, when in Rome… The occasion was a tour and sampling at the Los Osuna distillery in the Mexican state of Sinaloa near Mazatlan. I like the amusement on the face of the onlooker on the left.

Although tequila certainly comes to mind when I think of Mexico, I would probably not have sought out a tour. Fortunately, it was included it as part of a day of inland activities and cultural exploration planned for us by Mazatlan tourism. Arriving by bus after zip-lining at nearby Huana Coa Canopy Adventure my first impression was of the beauty of the grounds combining tropical and desert vegetation and brightly painted buildings.

"Palm trees and flowers on the grounds of Los Osuna tequila factory in Sinaloa, Mexico"

On the Grounds of Los Osuna

The tour was brief but fun and informative. It turns out that there’s a lot about tequila I didn’t know. For example, I thought it ws made from cactus, but the source is typically blue agave shown in the picture below. They are cultivated from 5 to 10 years and determining harvest readiness is an art. Harvesting too soon or too late renders the agave useless for tequila. The window of readiness is only about a month, so each plant is checked monthly. The blue agave requires regular trimming and the small plants that grow from each plant need to be removed (often replanted elsewhere).

"Our guide, Rodolfo Osuna, showing us a blue agave plant"

Our Guide, Rodolfo, Describing the Blue Agave

From the large central stem of the plant is harvest the core called a piña (pineapple) below. Harvesting involves a careful, skilled manual process of extracting the piñas from the rest of the stem and the removing the leaves.

"The Pineapple Core of the Blue Agave Plant"

The “Pineapple” Core of the Blue Agave Plant

The pinas are baked in an oven, then smashed to extract the liquid and the liquid is fermented then distilled. There are several steps in the process that include reducing the alcohol from 70% to 40% and aging much the way many spirits are aged in oak barrels. Most of the processing is done with modern machinery but some of the older methods were on display.

"Oak barrels used for aging the tequila at Los Osuna"

Oak Barrels at Los Osuna

The final step, of course, is bottling.

"Colorful doorway of bottling room at Los Osuna tequila factory in Sinaloa, Mexico"

Bottling Room at Los Osuna

There are a number of varying techniques and we were provided much more detail on the tour. But let’s get down to what was really the most fun – sampling the tequila. The salt, the limes, the tall thin shape of the glasses. There’s a fun ritual around tequila shots, but I’d approached this with a plan. I’d be the photographer and chronicler while encouraging Sweeney to roll with it. I’ve had some experience with tequila (prompting my habitual correction of people’s pronunciation: “I believe that’s pronounced ‘ta-kill-ya’”). My plan was to have one polite taste and then report on the activities of Sweeney and the rest of our group. But that one shot sure tasted good! Sweeney’s reaction was the same. We all noted that there were many subtle flavors, which was surprising based on my recollection of my last tequila shot years before. So we decided to have another shot to identify the flavors. Everyone started making guesses about what they detected — similar to playing wine connoisseur at a wine tasting.

Another shot? I thought: “Why not? It’s only 80 proof!” The bartender was amazingly adept reaching across the bar, filling the narrow glasses from a height of at least 10 inches above the glass from a bottle with no spout — and never spilling a drop. Every time we set the glass down he filled it up.

"Sampling the tequila at Los Osuna in Sinaloa, Mexico"

Sweeney and Friends at Los Osuna

The guide had informed us that the record was 26 shots (in an hour or so). Astonishingly, he said the guy walked out on his own and fell asleep on the bus but never got rowdy or sloppy. Someone (I think it was Sweeney) suggested going for the record. But after 5 shots we realized that the rest of our group had headed back to the bus, so we followed. I’m sure the record would have been safe anyway. There was no dancing on the bar, but another 5 shots — who knows? Although we were certainly feeling happy, I think the claims of the Los Osuna team and our guide seemed to ring true — that symptoms are muted due to the purity of this 100% blue agave tequila. The mid-day celebration had no impact on the rest of our day or night.

"Sign showing the three grades of tequila at Los Osuna in Sinaloa, Mexico near Mazatlan"

Three Grades of Blue Agave Spirits at Los Osuna

So when is tequila not tequila?

The Los Osuna team is very proud of their 130 year tradition and also their award winning products. They have primarily 3 grades of tequila: blanco (non-aged), anejo (the grade that we sampled is aged at least a year), and maduro (aged at least 3 years). So why can’t you find the word “tequila” on the Los Osuna labels? Isn’t it tequila? Tequila is highly regulated in Mexico and only spirits made from the blue agave from the Mexican state of Jalisco and near the town of Tequila where the blue agave originates can bear the name “tequila”.

Have you ever visited a tequila distillery? Have any tequila stories you’d like to share?

Disclosure: We were guests of the Mazatlan tourism, but the perspectives and opinions in this article are totally our own — as always!

Note: This post may contain affiliate links. If you make a purchase through these links, I will earn a commission at no extra cost to you. Thanks!

66 thoughts on “When is Tequila Not Tequila?

  1. Steve

    Fascinating process to make the tequila. I would never have thought that it was that much work to make it, although I was well aware of how little work it is to drink it. I still think you guys should go back and go for the record. I volunteer to come be the photographer if Mr. TWS wants to join in the fun.

    1. Mr. TWS Post author

      Though convinced that the 100% agave makes a big difference, I can’t imagine it either. Apparently he was a normal sized guy and I think the women’s record was 23 or so.

  2. Gaelyn

    Not sure I could drink a while shot anymore. Seems I’ve become a light weight.

    While in Oaxaca years ago I got hooked on the Honey-orange Mescal. Smooth.

    An interesting tour with a steady pour.

    1. Mr. TWS Post author

      That was sort of the way I felt about it but it was quite a step up from the tequila I’d had. The mescal sounds good. I’ve never had any.

  3. jenny@atasteoftravel

    This looks like fun tour…and I learnt about tequila making. I’m sure I’d have been asleep after five tequilas… a good reason only to drink pure tequila!

    1. Mr. TWS Post author

      What really made it nice was it was relatively short, very informative and ft nicely in the other activities. I felt like the day of activities was sort of hidden Mazatlan.

  4. Mary @ The World Is A Book

    This was so interesting to know about the “tequila” making process. My husband wanted to do a tour when we were in Mexico but really not something to be done with two kids in tow. Looks like a fun tour, though. 80 proof and 26 shots..wow for the recordholder.

    1. Mr. TWS Post author

      I noticed on the their website that they seem to have longer tours that include watching the workers in the field. This seemed just the right length of time and even the tasting was pretty quick, especially for those who had 1.

  5. Jennifer

    Looks like good fun and I love the colors of the bottling room door! Interesting facts about tequila. My only experience with it is from my college days and I don’t think I really liked it.

    1. Mr. TWS Post author

      That green was used in a number of buildings at other sites and it really provided a festive feeling and I liked the way it fit with more traditional adobe colors.

  6. Vera

    Informative post with happy looking people! …My sister does not approve when I brag how she drank a guy under the table with Tequila (“Sssh – shut it! I was just lucky, don’t make anyone challenge me!”), but I don’t think she could take 26 shots and walk away – the poor liver of that guy! I never had a tequila phase, really, but I always thought I underestimated its flavour, so doing a tour like that would be interesting. Maybe together with my sister… Ta-kill-ya!

    1. Mr. TWS Post author

      The flavor really was a step up from any I’d had before. It’s the purity and also the aging that make the big difference. The proverbial drinking a guy under the table must have been a lot of fun. Your sister’s shyness about the retelling makes me think she was goaded to try which makes it even better she won. As I often say though (and did above), there are really no winners in drinking contests.

  7. santafetraveler

    Great photos! Sounds like a fun tour. For wine lovers, there is agave wine. Here in Santa Fe, where a lot of people want margaritas with their Mexican and New Mexican dinners, restaurants that only have a beer and wind license make them with the wine. They don’t compare to the tequila ones!

    1. Mr. TWS Post author

      Thanks for the comments. I think I heard that wine was one of the other uses for agave. I can imagine that the margaritas wouldn’t be better but wonder what the wine is like.

    1. Mr. TWS Post author

      I certainly had a few concerns. This was really tasty. Even with the quality the record holder probably thought that’s the right pronunciation.

    1. Mr. TWS Post author

      Sweeney did seem to take to it naturally. Though we were directed as shown in the photo of Sweeney, true tasting, I have now heard, involves a smaller drink and swishing around on the palate.

    1. Mr. TWS Post author

      It really was good for information without overdoing it. I’m sure you’d be surprised at how well you’d be able to handle a couple of shots of this quality tequila.

    1. Mr. TWS Post author

      Thanks. Good subject. Los Osuna was really nice. Pretty grounds, really nice people. Very proud of their heritage and products.

  8. Leigh

    Sounds like a fun & informative tour but I’m not sure about drinking in the mid-day sun – no headaches after the fact? I have been in the Guadalahara region & remember seeing field after field of blue agave plants – very pretty I thought – but I never did do a tour. And the last time a tequila shot passed my lips will forever remain a secret.

    1. Mr. TWS Post author

      It was not a particularly warm day and there were absolutely no after effects. No headache or even sleepiness. Very pleasant surprise.

  9. Debbie Beardsley @ European Travelista

    My stories with tequila will have to stay with me but I am amazed at how GOOD “real” tequila is! It is absolutely nothing like the swill I’ve drank in my past 🙂 Love to buy tequila in Mexico too since its much less expensive and they sell it in the gas stations. I love one stop shopping!

  10. budget jan

    Since reading this Ta-Kill-Ya post I am looking at my agave plants with increased appreciation. Do you think they bake the pinas to remove poison? It seems an odd thing to do before juicing.

    1. Mr. TWS Post author

      Good question. When they described this step, I was surprised as well, thinking liquid would be lost in the roasting. However, I didn’t ask the question because they moved quickly on with the narrative describing the roasting and I didn’t get back to the question. Or they may have answered it. I did a bit of research. The slow roasting turns the natural starches to sugars which then can be fermented. I assume the starches in the unroasted form wouldn’t ferment. With the many steps involved, I continue to wonder how someone discovered and perfected the process.

  11. Jackie Smith

    We owned homes in Mexico and spent time traveling between them and Guadalajara (through tequila country) to furnish and supply them. . .We do have tequila stories but non that are quite fit to print. . .perhaps when we meet sometime, we could sip a tequila or two and then I’d be likely to tell those tales. . .

  12. Christy

    I always have to take at least one shot of tequila every time I go to Mexico. I can’t believe I’ve never done one of these tours. They seem to be pretty popular in Mazatlan. Cathy, I love wine too. 🙂

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  14. Andrew Graeme Gould

    The background on tequila is very interesting. l haven’t been to Mexico, and therefore neither to a teqiila distillery. Here in Chile, pisco is the national spirit, and I’ve been to the production plants in the central valley several times.

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  16. Ross

    Sounds like a cool tour. I didnt know all the info about Tequila and Mezcla until I went to the Tequila museum in Mexico City. Your tour sounds waay more fun! We only got one shot

  17. Cassie

    Nice! I visited Los Osuna on a recent visit to Mazatlan. They told us about the pina-like core, but they weren’t harvesting so I didn’t get to see one. Happy Tequila Day, to you!

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