I heard of a case of the Mexican government protecting the Tequila name. From that It made me wonder what exactly is tequila. Just like Champagne is sparkling white wine when not from a specific region in France. What is Tequila?

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What is Tequila when its not from Mexico?

Tequila is a regional distilled beverage and type of alcoholic drink made from the blue agave plant, primarily in the area surrounding the city of Tequila, 65 km (40 mi) northwest of Guadalajara, and in the highlands (Los Altos) of the central western Mexican state of Jalisco. Aside from differences in region of origin, tequila is a type of mescal (and the regions of production of the two drinks are overlapping). The distinction is that tequila must use only blue agave plants rather than any type of agave. Tequila is commonly served neat in Mexico and as a shot with salt and lime across the rest of the world. - Tequila (Wikipedia)

Within Mexico tequila terms are somewhat varied as follows:

What’s The Difference: Tequila, Mezcal, Bacanora, Raicilla, Sotol?

A wide range of spirits can be distilled from agaves. Here’s a quick rundown of that spectrum and a look at what defines each different category of agave spirits [from Mexico]:

Tequila

Tequila is a type of mezcal produced under strict regulations as to how and where it can be made. Tequila is fermented and distilled from a single type of agave plant, Agave tequilana Weber blue. Tequila is not smoky because the agave hearts are steamed or kilned during production; it can only be produced in Jalisco, and designated areas in four other Mexican states.

The best tequilas are 100% blue agave, which is noted on the label. Distinctions are often made between tequila made from blue agave grown in highland regions, which tend to be fruitier, and from lowlands, which are earthier.

Mezcal

Mezcal is the over-arching category of Mexican spirits fermented and distilled from several varieties of the agave plant. It is produced all over Mexico under various names and designations, including tequila.

Bottles labeled “mezcal” are usually from the state of Oaxaca and often have a smoky flavor because during production the agave hearts are roasted in rock-lined pits fired by mesquite.

Bacanora

Named for the eponymous town in Sonora, this mezcal variant is made from wild plants of agave Pacifica. Bacanora is often lighter and less smoky than most mezcals, even though the agaves are also pit roasted.

Raicilla

Like tequila, raicilla is made in Jalisco state; unlike tequila, it is made from two varieties of agave—lechuguilla and puta de mula. Raicilla tends to be sweeter and fruitier than most other mezcals.

Sotol

Although a gringo might mistake it for agave, sotol is made from another succulent plant called Desert Spoon. Produced mainly in the Mexican states of Chihuahua, Durango and Coahuila, the process is similar to mezcal, with roasting of the hearts of Desert Spoon in volcanic rock-lined pits. Flavor varies according to the terroir, say aficionados; predominately herbal notes, as well as eucalyptus, pepper and cocoa, with lighter smoke accents.

Outside of Mexico Tequila and Mezcal are known as Agava in South Africa.

Agava was also available in bottled form. Agave Distillers claimed to be moving between 12,000 and 15,000 cases a month at its peak. The bottled form has been sold in the LCBO, in Canada.

Agava is labeled an agave product and not a tequila product.

It should be noted that all Tequilas are agave spirits, but like Champagne or Port there is a protection of the Appellation of Origin in order to call it “Tequila”, so South African producers are forced to label their drink as Agave Spirit and not Tequila. - Tequila industry taking shape in South Africa

Agava

In California, some are trying to name their agave product “El Ladron,"which means “the thief”. This too is not to be known as a tequila product, but as an agave spirit product.

Before closing my answer, I would to mention that the first agave beverage that was ever fermented is known as Pulque.

This sweet beverage has a long history in Mexico. Before mezcal or tequila, there was pulque, the first fermented agave beverage. Murals that date as far back as 200 A.D. in Cholula, Mexico show villagers drinking pulque. While it’s relatively low in alcohol and more like an agave beer, it was the agave beverage that started it all.

Pulque is a product of the sap of the heart of agave. Rather than being distilled like mezcal or tequila, it’s fermented from the "honey water" of the plant. This sacred beverage has milky like appearance and is sweet in flavor. If you want a taste of Mexico, then try the fermented agave beverage that started it all. - From Tequila to Sotol, Your Guide to the Agave Spirits of Mexico

  • Awesome in depth answer! One thing is not clear to me though- is(/was) Agava a brand name, or a name that multiple distillers use for tequila-like spirits? – Ben Jones Aug 7 at 20:03
  • @BenJones Agava is a brand name for agave spirits. – Ken Graham Aug 7 at 23:57

According to this CNBC article:

Tequila is only produced inside the Mexican state of Jalisco and in some municipalities in Guanajuato, Michoacan, Nayarit, and Tamaulipas. Any agave-based distilled spirit outside those regions are called "mezcal." Other subtypes of mezcal you might see are Bacanora, Sotol and Raicilla. In other words, all tequilas are mezcals, but not all mezcals are tequila. (Just like all bourbons are whiskeys but not all whiskeys are bourbons. )

  • 1
    This doesn’t strictly answer the question about tequila from outside of Mexico. – Eric Shain Jul 30 at 23:59
  • It doesn't? "Tequila is only produced inside the Mexican state... Any agave-based distilled spirit outside those region are..." – Oliver Jul 31 at 0:14
  • 1
    Perhaps you’re right. I’ve never heard of a mezcal from outside of Mexico anyway. – Eric Shain Jul 31 at 2:34
  • I don't think this is the right answer as Mezcal is also regulated according to geography. – Ben Jones Aug 3 at 16:52
  • Also there are differences outside of geography such as the type of Agave plant and the production process, so Mezcal is not exactly Tequila made outside of Jalisco. – Ben Jones Aug 3 at 17:00

According to the article "Tequila industry taking shape in South Africa" when sold in South Africa its called "Agave Spirit"

all Tequilas are agave spirits, but like Champagne or Port there is a protection of the Appellation of Origin in order to call it “Tequila”, so South African producers are forced to label their drink as Agave Spirit and not Tequila.

Thanks, @farmersteve for the comment.

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