The Mexican state of Jalisco is synonymous with one thing: tequila. The town of Tequila, about 40 km northwest of Guadalajara, lays much the same claim on the beverage that the french region of Champagne does on their sparkling wines or that Kentuckians do one bourbon: “99% of the world’s tequila is made here in the region and the other 1% is counterfeit.”
On a two-day tromp through tequila country, we visited four very different distilleries:
- Jose Cuervo – the big boy in Tequila and still locally-owned, Cuervo’s La
Rojeña distillery is the oldest in the region. (Tour/Tasting from M$220)
- Sauza – known mostly to budget-conscious college students in the US, Sauza is located just a few blocks down from Cuervo and is now managed by Beam Suntory, parent of Beam Bourbon and Makers Mark. (Tour/Tasting from M$120)
- Herradura – The original gangster, Herradura’s immense headquarters is the oldest in the region and still harbors the original distillery and processing machinery for exhibition. Herradura was recently acquired by Louisville-based Brown-Forman, which has widely expanded the brand’s distribution. (Tour/Tasting from M$220)
- Tres Mujeres – The local upstart, Tres Mujeres makes a completely organic product in their headquarters along Highway 200, connecting Guadalajara with Tequila. Unlike the others, Tres Mujeres provides their tours and tastings completely free of charge.
The majority of the information below was gleaned from tours provided at the first three distilleries above. More to come on that later.
The planting, tending and harvesting of the agave plant remains an arduous manual effort that relies on centuries-old know how that has been passed down from generation to generation. Blue agave plants grow in neat rows for six to ten years and are meticulously tended until they are ripe and ready to harvest.
Tequila’s journey starts in the field where the jimadors remove the agave leaves with a sharp curved tool called a Coa. The jimador trims the 200 plus leaves that protect the heart or piña of the agave until the whole heart is extracted from the ground. Only the heart, or “piña,” of the agave plant is used to make tequila. Mature piñas weigh in between eighty and three hundred pounds, however, the size of the agave heart is not nearly as important as its sugar content. The older the agave, the longer the piña will have to accumulate the starches that will convert into fermentable sugars. Approximately, 15 pounds of agave piñas are required to produce one liter of tequila.
During the cooking process, steam injection within traditional brick ovens or stainless steel autoclaves is used to activate a chemical process within the piña that converts complex carbohydrates into simple fermentable sugars. Cooking also softens the piña, making the process of sugar extraction easier.
Once cooked, the “piñas” are transported to a milling area for sugar extraction. The cooked piñas are crushed in order to release the juice, or “aguamiel,” that will be fermented. The traditional method is to crush the piñas with a “tahona,” a giant grinding wheel operated by mules, oxen or tractors within a circular pit. Herradura has preserved their original crusher, which was known to have killed or crushed the legs of hundreds of distillery employees.
Modern distilleries now use a mechanical crusher to separate the fiber from the juices. Once the piñas are minced, they are washed with water and strained to remove the juices for fermentation.
During the fermentation process the sugars are transformed into alcohol within large wooden vats or stainless steel tanks. Yeast may be added to accelerate and control the fermentation. Traditionally, the yeast that grows naturally on the agave leaves is used; however, today many distilleries use a cultivated form of wild yeast. Herradura uses yeasts from the air around their fermentation tanks, while Sauza has taken to using a lab-cultivated yeast. Fermentation typically takes seven to twelve days, depending on the method used.
The fermentation process is also where the tasters first come in. Those of us in bourbon country often laud the job as one of the best in the world; however, Herradura displays the dangerous history of tasters in the fermentation process. Before fermentation was scientifically driven and controlled, tasters would often die within their first weeks on the job from infections derived from dangerous yeasts or molds that appeared in the fermented juices. They assured us that taster mortality has dropped sharply since then.
During distillation, the ferments are separated by heat and steam pressure within stainless steel or copper pot stills or distillation towers. The first distillation, also known as “deztrozamiento” or “smashing,” takes a couple hours and yields a liquid with an alcohol level of about 20% known as “ordinario.” The second distillation, known as “rectification,” takes three to four hours and yields a liquid with an alcohol level near 55%. After the second distillat
ion the tequila is considered silver, or “blanco,” tequila.
Some high-end lines of tequila, like Sauza’s Tres Generaciones say that they distill their tequila a third time, but tequila experts like Bob Denton dispute this claim and the idea that it improves upon the product: “You cannot go to a any distillery and watch a third distillation being done. Not a single one. Nobody using pot stills does a triple distillation. However, many distilleries who make tequila for export (“private” label) will put nearly anything you want on the label.”
Denton argues that, like triple-distilled vodka, a third distillation only serves to remove any agave flavors from the beverage. Other agave beverages, like Mezcal, are only distilled once to leave a stronger agave flavor profile.
Almost all containers used in tequila aging are American white oak barrels that have previously been used to age bourbon. However, like bourbon, the finer tequilas use only new barrels.
There are three types of aged tequilas:
- Reposados are aged between two and twelve months
- Añejos are aged between one and three years
- Extra Añejos are aged for over three years
The longer the tequila ages, the more color and tannins the final product will have. The condition of the barrels (such as their age, previous use and if their interiors have been burnt or toasted) can also affect the tequila’s taste and character.
After venturing through each of these processes at the distillery, you get what you came for: the tequila tasting. Each distillery would bring forth their blanco, reposed, and añejo for visitors to try – that is, all except one.
Tres Mujeres is cool. They’re organic, a local favorite, and their tours and tastings are free. After visiting Herradura in Amatitán, Noah and I were unable to find a bus or taxi to take us down the road six kilometers to visit Tres Mujeres. With time wasting, we did what anyone would and stuck out our thumbs. 15 minutes and a bumpy ride in a pick-up truck bed later, we were standing in front of their roadside distillery, just minutes after the last tour has ended. Devastating.
A group about our age from Chiapas was just finishing up their tasting when we arrived and in truly Mexican fashion said, “They can’t drink alone. Let’s have another tasting!”
Tres Mujeres makes all-organic blanco, reposado, añejo, and extra añejo tequilas in colorful glass bottles and the young woman doing the tasting poured generously from all four – a sharp departure from the closely-monitored tastings at the other distilleries. After we and the group from Chiapas traded saying “uno más” at least 10 times, we finally made our way out the front door.
No sooner had our thumbs gone up that another pick-up offered us a ride all the way back to Tequila. We leaned back in the truck bed and a hand reached out the window with a five liter jug of some golden liquid. “Tequila?” We passed but rode the next 15 kilometers with blue agave fields whizzing by on either side.
A Note on Tequila vs. Mixto vs. Mezcal
Like champagne, tequila is assigned an Appelation of Origin status, which limits production to five Mexican states: Guanajuato, Jalisco, Michoacán, Nayarit, and Tamaulipas.
The state of Jalisco is considered to be the center of Tequila production. It is the only state that as a whole has the status of Appellation of Origin. It is considered the place where tequila was first made and where the standards are defined. The other states are only permitted to grow Blue Agave in small and defined regions. All 100% agave tequilas must be bottled in the designated Mexican regions and must bear on their labels “Hecho en Mexico / Made in Mexico.”
Mixto, which is made with blue agave not grown in the region, along with other alcohols from sugar or corn, can be sold anywhere but cannot be marketed as tequila.
Mezcal, which has become extremely popular as of late and has seen the proliferation of Mezcal bars in Mexico City and the Southwestern United States, is also made from agave but not necessarily the blue agave required in tequila. Tequila is always a mezcal, but mezcal is not always tequila (think bourbon and whisky). When you’re drinking mezcal, you’ll know by it’s smoky flavor and stronger agave taste.