Land of Tequila – México
This is our first guest post! We have been lucky to meet a lot of awesome people during our travels and have formed a number of friendships in the process. We wanted to start something new and give some of these individuals the opportunity to share with our readers.
I thought a great way to kick this off would be to write about something that is unmistakenly and unequivocally Mexican, tequila! I have to admit, Cree has been trying her best to get me to give tequila a try over the years, but after several misteps during my college days I wasn’t too keen on the spirit. It wasn’t until I met Paul Bryant, a man I can now call my friend that my education and appreciation of tequila got started. Sorry Cree! It was only fitting then that I asked Paul to impart some of his vast knowledge about tequila. Even if you are not a drinker of tequila, my hope is that you may learn something new about this famous Mexican spirit and perhaps have a few laughs. Enjoy!
Paul was born and raised in California. His career started in the military and he retired from service as an officer from the Air Force. He owned a professional engineering practice in Colorado until retirement in 2010. He and his lovely wife Robyn bought land and built a house in México in 2005. They are currently living the dream and split their time between Lake Chapala in Jalisco and the coast in Nayarit.
Paul has tasted at least a hundred different tequilas in his time, but admittedly it’s hard to get an exact estimate. He tries new labels whenever possible. He has visited and toured around 30 distilleries and has a great passion for the product. What is his favorite tequila you may wonder? That’s easy. The one that has been poured for him by a tequila maestro, made by his own hands, with the recipe handed down through generations, while he describes his passion for the art of tequila making.
WHAT IS IT?
Tequila is a wonderfully complex and broad group of distilled spirits that come to us from our friends in México. The name “tequila” derives from the town that is generally given credit as the founding location of the first tequila distilleries.
It’s one thing and many things.
Specifically, it’s a distilled alcohol beverage produced from single variety of agave in legally defined regions of México, under strict laws.
It’s also centuries of love, poetry, romance, adventure, fortune, poverty, pain, solace, fun, misery. It’s 250 million agave plants under cultivation, used by 200 different manufacturers to produce 80 million gallons yearly, sold under more than two-thousand different labels.
Tequila in roughly its present format is about 250 years old, with José Antonio Cuervo being given a land grant by the Spanish King, Ferdidnand IV to grow agave for the production of tequila in 1758. However, the actual process of distilling fermented agave juice started shortly after the arrival of the Spanish in 1521, and occurred near the area that eventually became the town of Tequila. The invading Spaniards quickly ran out of the brandy they’d brought with them, but they noticed the locals were drinking something called “pulque”, which is more or less agave beer. It didn’t take them long to knock together a still and figure out how to coax the sugar out of the agave plant. One can only imagine how utterly ferocious these early tequila-like products must have been! Fortunately, the Spaniards quickly discovered that aging the raw agave liquor in their empty brandy barrels improved the taste dramatically, and that basic process continues today. Some sources, however, place the approximate date of widespread acceptance of the practice of barrel aging as around 1800. To this author, it would not be a far stretch to use the empty brandy barrels to store the distilled agave beverages, so early adoption of the practice seems more likely than not.
The first distilleries were manned by slaves working in the most hellish of conditions. If you tour the Herradura facility just outside Tequilla, you will see, as part of the display, a portion of the original distillery from more than a hundred years ago. While fascinating, it does illustrate the utter disregard the conquering Spaniards had for the lives of the indigenous people of México.
In 1608, very early tequila production had reached the point where the colonial government decided it was popular and profitable enough to tax. Later, in about 1795, Carlos IV, King of Spain, granted the first license to produce and market tequila to the Cuervo family. Then, in 1884, Don Cenobio Sauza, founder of Sauza Tequila, was the first to actually use the name “Tequila” (prior to that, it was also known as mezcal wine and mezcal brandy) and to export the product to the U.S. As a side note, the use of “Don” in conjunction with a Spanish or Mexican name denotes a position of respect, similar to the English “Lord”. His grandson led the effort to concentrate and restrict tequila production primarily to the state of Jalisco, as well as regulate the means and methods of production, ostensibly to maintain a higher level of quality of the end product, but also to restrict the source of tequila exclusively to México. His great-great-grandson, Guillermo Sauza, produces Tequila Fortaleza (also known as Tequila Los Abuelos in the U.S.) today.
Tequila today can be produced, that is, the manufacturing part of the process, only in the state of Jalisco, and very limited areas of four other Mexican states (Guanajuato, Michoacán, Nayarit, and Tamaulipas) that were in production when the laws were passed. Distilleries are licensed and given a number, or NOM (Norma Oficial Mexicana) to identify the corporation (which is abbreviated S.A. de C.V. in Mexican legal language). It is typical for medium to large distilleries to have several labels, each with several products, whereas smaller operations may have a single label with only the three or four standard types of tequila. Although the agave can be grown anywhere in México as long as it’s the right variety, generally, most tequila agave is grown in the regions known to have soil and climates conducive to the production of quality agave. Elsewhere, agave liquor is known by the more generic name of “mezcal”, of which “tequila” is a specific subset. Mezcal, as a legal beverage name, has its own rules and areas of production as well. Unlike mezcal, only a single species of agave can be used to produce tequila, the Weber Blue agave. Bacanora, a similar drink, is only from the state of Sonora, sotol, from another type of agave, is from Chihuahua, and raicilla is an offshoot of mezcal produced near Puerto Vallarta. “Distilado de Agave” includes all the other, more or less semi-regulated agave-based distilled alcohols produced in México. With this as background, we will focus solely on tequila for the remainder of the discussion.
There are two generally recognized environmental variations of the single species: lowlands and highlands. Lowlands agave is grown in and around the municipality of Tequila, about 40 miles west of Guadalajara. It matures, that is, reaches the stage where its internal conditions are optimal for the desired conversion of the natural starches into sugar, by cooking, in 7 to 10 years. Mature lowlands piñas, the interior core of the agave used for making tequila, weigh about 150 pounds.
Highlands agave is grown around the town of Arandas, which is about 100 miles east of Guadalajara. Its elevation is somewhat higher and the climate a little cooler than that of the lowlands, and as a result, the agave tends to mature in 10 to 14 years, resulting in a substantially larger piña of about 250 pounds. Highlands agave is thought to generally produce a somewhat sweeter product, whereas lowlands agaves seem to run towards a more earthy and organic flavor. Individual taste will lead a consumer towards which variety is preferred, although there are many other factors that can influence a person’s choice of tequila.
Regardless of the exact field from which the agave is derived, all tequilas go through nearly the same basic process, with minor mechanical and processing variations, as allowed by law and as chosen by the producer to reach the desired end product.
HOW TO MAKE IT
All agave piñas are harvested the same way, by hand, although there can be some variation in how a particular field is approached. Some smaller distilleries that own or contract-plant their own agave may have the harvesting personnel, called “jimadors” go through the field, row by row, day by day, and select the agave on a plant by plant basis, depending on the perceived “ripeness” of each individual plant. Far more common is for a field to be selected on the average ripeness and clear-cut, edge to edge.
Following harvest, plants are brought to a central processing area, where they are baked in some type of steam oven for 8 to 36 hours. Traditional methods of cooking the piñas involve the use of very low pressure steam (only a couple pounds per square inch) in a stone or brick oven, into which several tons of the piñas are packed. The agave is cooked for up to 24 hours, and left to cool for an additional 12-24 hours, completing the process. For higher production, sometimes giant autoclaves (pressure cookers) are used to cook the agave. Due to the use of higher pressure, the cooking temperature is increased and the cooking time can be reduced to as short as 8 hours, sometimes followed by mechanical ventilation to cool the piñas off quicker. Some ultra-premium and most boutique distilleries eschew the use of the autoclaves, thinking that cooking the plant too quickly affects the flavor of the final product in a negative way. Many of the largest producers, even those marketing ultra-premium tequilas use autoclaves for higher production rates. Interestingly, Cuervo, the largest producer, still uses stone ovens. Conversely, some of the smallest producers use autoclaves. Don’t let the type of oven affect your selection; let the flavor tell you what you like. Below are piñas that are ready to be loaded into a traditional stone oven.
Below are autoclaves with piñas ready to be loaded by skid-loader and by hand.
Then, following a period of cooling, the piñas are mashed with large mechanical shredders and the juice, which is now the original starches, converted by heat and time into sugar, extracted. The traditional method of extraction was through the use of a large round stone wheel on an axle, called a tahona. It was originally drawn by a donkey, but now, unless it’s for a tourist show (but not that kind of Mexican Donkey Show), it’s a motorized process, for efficiency and cleanliness. But, if when you’re drinking cheap tequila and you think, “Man, this tastes like donkey piss”, well, there might be a reason. Other methods of mashing are large mechanical presses and variations of the tahona, which are typically much more efficient at removing the juice from the pulp. A traditional tahona removes perhaps 70% of the liquid, whereas other methods can remove up to 95%.
Below is a traditional stone tahona, powered by electric motors, instead of a donkey. In operation, workers follow behind the stone with pitchforks, and pile the agave back up into a pile and pour water over it, to leach the sugars out of the material. The blue machine to the right is a mechanical shredder for the tahona, and stainless steel fermentation vats are in the background.
Far more common than tahona-style extractors are a variety of mechanical extractors that use some kind of squeezing, often between ribbed wheels of increasingly tight clearances, with continuous dilution water added, to remove up to about 95% of the available liquid.
Below is a converted steel roller wheel used to extract agave juice from pulp. A clever variation of the stone tahona, requiring no redistribution of the crushed material during the process and using only a one-horsepower motor.
Following extraction, the juice is placed into large, sometimes open-top, tanks to ferment. Sometimes, the fermentation process is allowed to occur naturally from yeasts present in the air; more often, in order to control batch quality and uniformity, a specific mix of yeast is added by the distillation maestro, who is called a tequilero.
Below is a wooden fermentation vessel, kept full of water to reduce leakage between batches, and to promote sanitary conditions.
Below is fermentation in an open-top stainless steel vat. Fermentation continues for between 5 days and 2 weeks, depending on temperature and yeast activity. Active fermentation is the vat that is frothy and the other one is finished.
Fermentation theory and practice varies widely in the industry. Some producers leave the tanks open and allow whatever spores are in the air to start the fermentation process, as was done in the old days. The tanks are often left in well-ventilated sheds so the fermentation can proceed at a “natural” rate. At the other end of the spectrum are those producers who provide full environmental control over the fermentation process and inoculate each batch with a specific quantity of a proprietary yeast blend, thus ensuring, in their opinions, the greatest uniformity of the end product. Most distilleries operate somewhere in the middle, perhaps adding a little yeast in the winter, to get the process started, or cooling the exterior of the tank with water to keep the temperature of fermentation from getting too high in the summer. Remember, each producer probably believes that their way is the best, and if there were a better or more authentic way to produce tequila, they’d be doing it, setting aside those producers whose only goal is to produce a great quantity of mass-market tequila at the cheapest price.
Following a week or two of fermenting, depending on ambient or environmentally controlled conditions, the natural fermentation process concludes and the resulting “mosto”, equivalent to the “wort” of beer production, is sent to the distillation stage.
All tequilas must be distilled at least twice: the first removes most of the nasty crap that is poisonous, vile and noxious; the result is called “ordinario.” The second is designed to further cleanse the liquor and to increase the alcohol content up to as high as 140 proof, although usually about 110 to 115 proof is the distillation target. Sometimes, a third distillation occurs, but this is not nearly as common as double distillation. Tower distillation, as apart from the so-called pot distillation above, occurs in a single pass through the distillation tower. In theory, tower distillation can render alcohol levels above 90% (180 proof), but in practice, distilleries aim for for the 115 to 120 proof range. Regardless, this resulting product can now legally be called tequila, and can, in fact, be consumed. However, at this point, it’s more like liquid fire with a bad attitude.
Below are traditional copper alembic (pot) stills. Stainless steel pot stills are widely used, as well. Two passes through alembic stills are required to achieve complete removal of the undesirable components (wood alcohol, acetones, and so on). Much of these removed products are ultimately returned to the next round of distillation to continue to remove the ethanol residing within those vapors.
Below is a tower still. A single pass through a tower or column still can produce alcohol up to 190 proof. A maximum of 140 proof is used for tequila, with 110 proof being by far the most common distillation target. Tequila is not sold at a retail level higher than 110 proof, with 70 to 90 proof being 99% of the market. Tequila is always stored and aged at its highest produced proof, for purposes of volumetric efficiency.
The tequila is then sent into storage tanks configured to match the final end product: blanco or silver, reposado, añejo or extra añejo. All tequilas are stored at their maximum produced proofage, to reduce storage requirements; the alcohol content is adjusted at bottling using purified water.
TYPES OF TEQUILA
Blanco is unaged tequila which is stored in stainless steel vats of any size for any period of time, subject to the bottling and production requirements of the producer. Regardless of storage time, all blancos are considered “unaged”, as “aging” is legally and culturally defined as time spent in wooden vessels.
Reposado, or “rested”, tequila is stored in wooden, exclusively oak, barrels of various sizes, ranging from 200 liters up to 20,000 liters for a period of at least two months up to one year. It is then removed from the aging vessel and stored in stainless steel tanks until bottled.
Añejo (“aged”) tequilas are stored a minimum of one year, up to 3 years, in wood barrels of 600 liters or less, with 200 liters in size being typical.
A new category of tequila was designated in 2006, extra añejo. This tequila is an añejo that has been aged a minimum of three years in small, 200 liter barrels. There appears to be a practical upper limit of 7 to 9 years of aging for commercial purposes. Aging almost always results in evaporation of the tequila through the wood, even when steps are taken to reduce this. Sometimes, up to 50% loss occurs with older añejos. Also, the longer time spent in the barrel can render flavor profiles that some people don’t associate with tequilas, but more like scotches and whiskeys, possibly limiting the commercial viability of these ultra-aged products.
The barrels can vary widely in source. They are commonly recycled U.S. whisky or bourbon barrels, but they can be recycled wine barrels from California or France, or they can be new. American, Canadian or French oaks are about the only woods used, and new barrels may be left as-is, or they may be charred to a certain degree, as selected by the tequilero. Sometimes, used barrels will be reworked prior to being placed into service, and most distilleries follow a certain program for how long they use their barrels, with 10 to 15 years total time aging tequila before they are removed from service and perhaps recycled to lower-end distilleries or re-purposed into other uses. Some barrels are actually rebuilt into small (1 to 50 liter size) barrels for consumers to have for home tequila storage. Regardless of the possible variations, all barrels are selected by the individual producer to attempt to meet the characteristics of their desired end product.
Additionally, there is a new variation of tequila called “cristalina”, which is a reposado, añejo or extra-añejo tequila filtered through proprietary filtration systems to remove the color and change the flavor profile. It’s gaining in popularity across all market sectors due to its smoothness.
One thing to look for on a bottle of tequila’s label are the words “100% agave.” While this alone does not assure a quality tequila that you are sure to love, it does ensure the tequila was made only from sugars derived from agaves processed according the law. If it does not say this, then, by default, it is a “Mixto” and up to 49% of the sugar for fermentation can be provided from sources other than agave, which could be cane, beet, high fructose corn syrup or whatever. It’s often artificially colored and can be flavored to make it more appealing to the target consumer. These products are typically meant for very low end markets, such as the tequilas you might see on the bottom shelf of liquor stores, in the recycled 5 liter Fabuloso bottles, selling for 200 pesos or less. Extremely cheap and utterly awful. Don’t drink them. Jose Cuervo Especial, widely consumed at college parties and trailer parks in the U.S. is a famous example of this swill.
Another thing you’ll see on a bottle of 100% agave tequila are the letters NOM and a four-digit number. NOM stands for “Norma Oficial Mexicana” and it is the law that regulates all facets of tequila production. The number is the unique manufacturer designation. Regardless of the label, if the NOM is the same, the tequila comes from the same place. If you see a house brand of tequila, such as the Kirkland brand at Costco, if you research the NOM, you can find out who made the tequila.
When looking for new tequilas, you might find, from time to time, the words “Organic” or “100% Organic” displayed on the label. What does that mean? It might seem simple, but it may not be quite so. In order for a tequila to be called organic, there are a number of requirements that have to be met, with certification by a government agency being one of them. However, it’s important to remember that given the long lifespan of the agave plant prior to harvesting, guaranteeing that a field of agave was never subjected to any type of what we’d generally think of as prohibited chemical spraying or treatment may be a long shot. Plagues or fungal infections have been a recurring issue in agave fields, and weeds are a chronic problem, as they pull needed water from the agave, a dry-crop plant. Farmers may choose to treat or pre-treat their crops for infections or may use herbicides. It’s very difficult to determine accurately whether any particular agave, especially when it’s been purchased through agave wholesalers, has been clean throughout its entire lifecycle.
Many producers will maintain “organic” processes once they get the agave within their facilities, but most will admit that unless they themselves own their own fields and are truly honest about their processes, it’s hard to know for sure. There’s a joke about organic products: “The difference between an organic farmer and the others is that the organic farmer sprays only at night.” So, if the organic designator is important to you, you still should take the classification with a grain of salt. Also remember, the distillation process is going to remove a great deal of whatever bad stuff is in the fermented mash being distilled. Virtually all the nasty stuff has a higher boiling point than alcohol, so the alcohol will be evaporated and collected before the undesirable materials can join in. So, even if some sprays were used on the agave, it’s not likely that much will survive the distillation process.
HOW TO DRINK IT
Tequila should be enjoyed any way you want to enjoy it. However, the belief that tequila should be shot, with lime and salt, is probably based on the fact that that’s the only way the really rot-gut tequilas can be imbibed, as they are so harsh and nasty, you just have to put them down any way you can, and then kill the taste with lime.
Good tequilas, on the other hand, can be sipped and savored, exactly as you would a good scotch or bourbon. But, and this is important, if you’re going to drink tequila, then drink only 100% agave products. Mixtos are for frat parties and fools (sorry if I am being redundant). Sip it, don’t shoot it, and savor the taste. Margaritas made with ultra-premium tequilas are a waste of money, as the flavorings contained within the sweet-and-sour, etc. that make up a margarita completely mask the complex flavors of good tequilas. That having been said, margaritas made with crappy tequila will taste like crappy margaritas, as the harsh bite will come right through all the flavorings.
Putting ice in straight tequila is a way to cool it off and cut the bite a bit. Neat, or straight-up, is my preferred method for añejos, and with a little ice for reposados and blancos.
Now, go out right now and buy yourself a new bottle of tequila, armed with your new-found knowledge, and reflect on how what you’ve learned has increased your ability not only to enjoy tequila, but to impress your friends with your worldliness!
*Image Sources: feature image from Chilled Magazine and all other images courtesy of Paul Bryant
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