We all know the different liquors, at least most of us know the main ones. You’ve got whiskey, rum, vodka, tequila. But it’s not really that simple, and what actually separates these? What are the differences between something like tequila from say whiskey?
In this article, we’ll discuss the legal differences between whiskey and tequila, such as geographical regions, to standard practices like aging. This article is focused on differences in the production between the two spirits.
As a certified bourbon professional and someone who’s drunken over 150+ different liquors in the last 18 months, I have plenty of first hand experience with both whiskey and tequila.
What is Whiskey? What is Tequila?
Comparing whiskey and tequila is quite tricky because they aren’t actually equivalent. Whiskey is a broad term for a general spirit. Tequila, on the other hand, is a very specific type of spirit. Let me explain.
I’m not going to get too specific here, but let’s take a general overview of whiskey.
Whiskey is made by distilling a fermented mash of grain. Corn, wheat, rye, barley, oat, sorghum, quinoa, rice are all types of grains; therefore, they can all be distilled into whiskey. However, just distilling these grains doesn’t automatically make whiskey. They must be also be distilled at less than 190 proof, bottled at 40% abv or more, and then, typically, some aging is required.
This is a very general, legal description of whiskey because whiskey is a very general term. There are a whole bunch of different types of whiskey. There’s bourbon, rye whiskey, wheat whiskey, scotch, single malt, blended whiskey, grain whiskey, Irish whiskey, pot still, Japanese whisky, Canadian, corn whiskey, straight whiskey, etc.
All of these different terms have very specific regulations. For instance, bourbon must be made in the United States. It must contain a minimum 51% corn in the mashbill. It must be stored in new charred oak containers at less than 125 proof.
We often think of tequila in a similar way as vodka or whiskey – a broad category of liquor, but it’s not quite accurate. Tequila is a type of mezcal, much like bourbon is a type of whiskey.
Let me repeat that. Tequila is a type of mezcal, not the other way around.
(We think of mezcal as a smoky tequila, but that’s only because standard practices. Most mezcal that can’t be classified as tequila is made to be smoky).
Whiskey is distilled from grain. Mezcal is distilled from agave. Agave is a plant native to the tropical regions of South, Central, and North America as well as the Caribbean.
Tequila, a specific type of mezcal, has it’s own specific rules, much like bourbon has its own rules.
Tequila must be made in a specific region of Mexico, the state of Jalisco (and some other smaller areas outside this region, but primarily, Jalisco). Furthermore, tequila must be distilled from 51% or more Blue Agave.
Whiskey Laws vs Tequila Laws
Whiskey has very broad laws – distilled from any grain at less than 190 proof, bottled at minimum 80 proof.
Tequila has to use a specific type of agave and be distilled in a specific region of Mexico.
However, these are the base requirements and don’t take into account standard practices.
Standard Practice – Aged vs Unaged
We’re talking about standard aging practices here, so these are generally true but not always.
Whiskey is aged in wood barrels. Scotch, Irish, and Japanese whisky all require (not standard practice, just legally here) a minimum of 3 years spent in wood barrels. These are often aged in ex-sherry casks, but other times they’re aged in ex-bourbon barrels.
Bourbon is required to be stored in virgin charred oak casks, meaning the charred oak cask couldn’t have held any liquid prior other than water. There’s no age requirement, just that it be stored in new charred oak. The vast majority of bourbon is aged 2+ years, with a large portion of it being aged 4 or more years.
The aging process accounts for over 50% of a whiskeys flavor and all of it’s color – minus the bottlings that use caramel coloring. Some whiskey is even aged 30+ years before bottling.
Tequila is both aged and unaged. When we think of tequila, we likely think of unaged tequila. Silver, clear, fresh. If you’re in college, you may think of unaged tequila that is gold from added colors.
Take Casamigos Blanco or Patron Silver. These are unaged tequilas. They are distilled and then stored in stainless steel tanks.
However, you may also see tequila be referred to as Reposado, Añejo, or Extra Añejo. These are age statements for tequila.
Reposado means the tequila has been aged in wood for up to one year. Añejo is between one and three years. Extra Añejo is 3+ years. Usually, tequila is aged in American or European White Oak. Sometimes it can be aged in ex-whiskey barrels, too.
Straight Whiskey vs 100% Agave
You can get some pretty low-quality and cheap tequila and whiskey. Think Kentucky Deluxe and Jose Cuervo.
Kentucky Deluxe is 51% straight bourbon – aged 2 years, no additives, 51%+ corn mashbill – and 49% neutral grain spirit – unaged spirit distilled from grain at or above 190 proof, vodka. This is a blended whiskey (very different from a blend of straight whiskey or a blended bourbon).
Jose Cuervo uses 51% agave. The other 49% comes from sugar cane. This is a mixto tequila, and other additives such as coloring, glycerin, or sugar syrups, and oak extract may be added. (Jose Cuervo Silver and Reposado are 100% agave, this is Jose Cuervo Especial).
This term “straight” only applies to American whiskey. A straight whiskey means that the whiskey is aged 2 or more years, and there are no additives such as caramel coloring, natural flavors, etc.
Bourbon, by legal definition, cannot contain any additives. A straight bourbon, then, just means that the bourbon whiskey is aged 2 or more years.
If a whiskey uses any additives, it must be disclosed.
100% agave, 100% de agave, 100% puro agave are all labels you may see on a bottle of tequila that is made from 100% agave. These are much higher quality than your mixto tequila, and I’d recommend looking for these labels on any tequila you may buy (you can still find plenty of cheap 100% agave options).
Tequila, even if it’s 100% de agave, can use oak extract, glycerin, sugar based syrups, and caramel coloring. The difference between tequila and whiskey is that tequila does not have to tell you whether or not any additives are used so long as it accounts for less than 1% of the total liquid.
I’m a certified bourbon profession, not a dietitian. I drink a lot of whiskey, and plenty of other alcohol including tequila. But I also eat healthy and get plenty of exercise.
Plenty of people will say that tequila is healthier for you than whiskey. That may be true. I know if you have gout, you should stay away from beer and whiskey, but that’s about it.
Saying tequila is healthier for you is like saying it feels better to get punched in the face than in the balls. It may be true, but it still doesn’t feel good. Tequila and whiskey have alcohol. The majority of the calories in each comes from alcohol. Alcohol, especially in large quantities, is bad for your health.
Whether it’s tequila or whiskey, if you drink a lot, be prepared to feel like crap the next morning. If you drink often, make sure you exercise and eat healthy, regardless of whether or not its tequila or whiskey.
Whiskey and tequila may seem like completely different spirits, but if you don’t know the exact laws, regulations, or standard practices, then you have no way of knowing the true differences between the two – outside of course your immediate experience with each.
The laws and regulations can be confusing, they vary from spirit to spirit and country to country, so let me break it down for you.
- First, whiskey is a broad category containing different types such as bourbon, scotch, Irish, rye, etc. Tequila is a specific type of mezcal.
- Second, whiskey is made by distilling grain. Any grain can be used to distill whiskey. Tequila can only be distilled from blue agave.
- Another difference is regional. Whiskey can be made anywhere in the world. Tequila must be made in a specific region of Mexico (typically the state of Jalisco).
- Lastly, whiskey is almost always aged, and it’s almost always aged a minimum of 2 years with a majority being 4+ years. All scotch, Japanese, and Irish whisky is aged 3+ years. Some expressions, especially scotch, get into the 15, 20, 30 year age range. Tequila is oftentimes unaged. When it is aged, it’s usually around 1 to 2 years.
If you have any questions regarding the differences between tequila and whiskey, just ask in the comments, and I’ll answers as best I can!