Tequila is a fascinating distilled spirit, made from the agave plant, unlike any other. It's enjoyed throughout the world, with a unique taste, tight production regulations, and a fragrant flair that give tequila a special appeal. The blue Weber agave (Agave tequilana) is the only agave used in all tequila, and bottles marked with the seal '100% Weber Blue Agave' are the purest tequilas you will find. Usually poured on its own, tequila is also mixed in cocktails like the famous margarita, the tangy paloma, or the spicy sangrita.
Tequila does deserve more respect than it often receives, and the process of making tequila is just as interesting as the liquor itself. It could make converts of non-believers. Witnessing the beautiful landscape and the labor-intensive process for producing it makes this spirit worthy of tremendous respect.
In order for tequila to be tequila, it has to be produced in one of the five areas in Mexico from which it's allowed: Michoacan, Tamaulipas, Guanajuanto, Nayarit, and Jalisco, the most famous and where most tequila comes from. Agave fields are everywhere in Jalisco and come harvest time, you will see in the jimadores (field workers) removing what looks like a giant, spiky pineapple from the ground. This is the piña (the term for pineapple in Spanish), or the heart of the plant from which the tequila is made, and it appears after the blue-grey spiky leaves are shed.
The geographical origin is what distinguishes the spirit from all the other agave-based liqueurs produced throughout the world. It also allows the Tequila Regulatory Council (CRT) to hold tight regulations over its production. Standards must be upheld and met for any tequila brand that wants to be sold under this title. Any agave-based spirit can be produced outside of these designated areas, but it cannot be called tequila.
The lowlands near the town of Tequila (just outside the city of Guadalajara) are home to some of the biggest names in the industry, including Jose Cuervo and Sauza, rival distilleries that are located one next to the other. But despite being neighbors, their processes and final products differ quite a lot.
Up in Los Altos, or the highlands of Jalisco around the towns of Arandas and Jesús María, you will find many of the lesser-known and what many consider more boutique brands of tequila. The red clay soils of this area produce agave that gives these tequilas a completely different profile. Here you will find distilleries making premium brands like Casamigos, Cazadores, Corazón, and Tezón.
The Agave Plant
The agave plant is the most intriguing part of the tequila production process. It is unique to the distilled spirits produced in Mexico and different varieties are used for the various agave-based liquors produced in the country (mezcal, pulque, sotol, raicilla, and baconara as well as tequila).
The agave plant is not a cactus, but a succulent in the lily family. Above ground, long spikes grow in rosettes. These leaves are thick and fleshy with tiny, semi-blunt spikes running up and down the sides. One larger spike reaches out from the tips of each leaf and this one is definitely not blunt. Below ground is the heart of the plant, or piña, the part that jimadores are after. Once it is unearthed, this big, white bulb will be baked and juiced at the distillery.
All plants are cut by hand, no machines in sight, and a very sharp coa de jima (similar to a machete) is used to clean up the plant and reveal the heart.
An agave plant can grow to a height of 5-7 feet and have a similar span. They are mature at 7 to 10 years of age. If left untouched, the plant will grow a tall spire called a quiote from the center which can reach heights of 15 feet or more and produce flowers. Most quiote are removed so the plant can concentrate its energy on producing the highest sugar concentration possible in the piña.
Baking the Agave
Once the agave hearts are harvested and transported back to their distillery, they begin the transformation into tequila. The goal is to convert the raw agave piña's carbohydrates and starches into fermentable sugars, much in the same way that grains are turned into a mash, which then ferments to become whiskey. Each piña can weigh anywhere from 50-150 pounds and is loaded into the oven when fresh.
The first step in this process is to bake the agave. Traditionally, the hearts were baked in rock-lined pits, and this can still be witnessed in mezcal production, but today's tequila producers have moved above ground and use one of two styles of ovens: clay/brick or stainless steel.
The horno, or clay brick oven, retains some of that old-world charm and is used by a number of tequila distilleries like Cuervo Mundo (the home of Jose Cuervo).
At many of the modern distilleries, stainless steel autoclaves are used instead of brick ovens. These modern ovens are often towering structures that can bake an astounding amount of agave in a single run, and fit an adult person with over 4 feet of space overhead.
In either oven, when the baking process is complete after 2 or 3 days of steam cooking, the agave piñas are reduced to a fraction of their original size. They become dark brown and look caramelized, like a sweet and mushy honeycomb.
Is One Oven Better Than the Other?
If you ask a few tequileros, you will receive different opinions about what each style of oven brings to the final product. It is a great debate; some people will compare the modern autoclave to a microwave and the brick oven to using a traditional oven in your kitchen. Do tequilas from an autoclave have a diminished flavor.
This single step does not consign one to a bad tequila. Instead, it is the culmination of every step in the tequila-making process, from the agave to the barrel, that will affect the final product's quality.
Extracting the Sweet Agave Juices
Those sweet juices found inside the baked agave now need to be extracted. Just like every other step in the process, tequila distilleries employ different methods.
The majority of the time, mechanical shredders are used to pulverize and separate the agave fibers, allowing the sweet juice, or mosto, to be collected for fermentation. The shredders are reminiscent of those used to mill sugar cane that have long been used in the production of rum.
A handful of tequila distilleries choose to do it the old-school way, with a tahona, a large wheel often made from volcanic rock that rolls around a stone pit, crushing the agave and extracting the juice as it goes. Using the tahona wheel is a very traditional method and it was originally pulled by horses, mules, or oxen. Today's tahonas are operated either by tractors or a central engine that slowly moves the arm attached to the wheel around the pit, but they require a worker or two to work the pit as the 2-ton wheel crushes the agave. Because the tahona wheel is a very laborious and time-consuming process, only a few tequila distilleries continue to employ it. Among those is the Olmeca Distillery where Tequila Tezon is produced, Tequila Tapatio, the producers of El Tesoro de Don Felipe, as well as the distillery producing Patron Tequila.
Fermenting the Juices
In the fermentation room, the process of making tequila mirrors every other distilled spirit. The sugary mosto is added to fermentation tanks with water and yeast. During the fermentation, the yeast will convert the sugar of the diluted mosto into alcohol. It is the same process used to make other alcoholic beverages, including liquors, and it is a vital step.
Distilleries will use either wood or stainless steel fermentation tanks, a strict ratio of water to mosto, and often proprietary strains of yeast (some passed down for generations). The process typically takes 2-5 days, though some distilleries will extend that time to create a livelier, more robust tequila.
Keeping the yeast "happy" is key. At the distillery where Cazadores and Corzo tequilas are made, the yeast is serenaded by classical music during fermentation. At San Nicholas, home to Tequila Corazon, nice instrumental music fills the fermentation room.
In the Stills
It is in the still room where tequila becomes tequila. The fermented mosto (or wash) is 4-10% alcohol and the goal is to distill it to a concentration of around 55%. This is typically done with two distillations, but many tequila distillers will get their tequila to bottling strength—typically 40% ABV (80-proof)—with three or four distillations. Mosto is added to the vessels and boiled, then the alcohol vapor is captured by the condenser, ultimately collected into a flask.
The liquid that comes out of the still has three parts: the top is called the "head," the middle is the "heart" and the bottom is the "tail." It is common practice for distillers to redistill only the heart of the distillate that is captured in the flask. Most distillers throw away the heads and tails because these hold the majority of the impurities. The heart holds the best liquor.
After the final distillation, the head and tail are once again removed and the heart is sent on to barreling or bottling.
Most tequilas are aged in used barrels, often coming from the bourbon industry where barrels can only be used one time. Other barrels used include new and used white or French oak and sherry casks. Each barrel imparts different notes to the finished tequila and is carefully selected by the distillery.
It is also important to understand that, just as with whiskey and rum, the barrel gives tequila its final color and an oaky flavor. That is why blanco tequilas are crystal clear (they do not touch wood), reposado tequilas have a golden color, and añejo tequilas get an amber hue.
Classifications of Tequila
Where a batch of tequila goes after the still room is determined by the final product it is destined to be. These are the two essential tequila classifications:
- 100% Agave: Tequila produced only from Weber blue agave with no other additives. The majority of tequila sold in the market today falls under this classification and it must include at least the words "100% Agave" on the label (many include the words blue or blue Weber as well).
- Tequila: Other sugars and enhancements can be blended with the Weber blue agave musto prior to fermentation. However, 51% of the sugars need to come from the Weber blue agave plant. Often called mixtos, these tequilas can have any number of additives and may even be colored to a golden hue, which often gives them the designation as a "gold" type of tequila.
The regulations enforced by the Tequila Regulatory Council are quite detailed and complex because this tight control ensures that every tequila leaving Mexico meets certain standards. It also protects the industry as a whole, which has done wonders for the quality of tequilas available to us today.
Types of Tequila
- Blanco, Silver, or White Tequila (Tipo 1): Blanco tequila is a clear spirit that can be either 100% agave or mixto. These tequilas are "aged" no more 60 days in stainless steel tanks if they are aged at all (rested is actually a better word).
- Joven or Gold Tequila (Tipo 2): Joven (young) or oro (gold) tequilas are often unaged tequilas that are typically mixtos and have been colored and flavored with caramel, oak extract, glycerin, syrup or other additives.
- Reposado Tequila (Tipo 3): Reposado, or rested, tequilas are aged in wood casks for a minimum of 2 months and many are aged from 3-9 months.
- Añejo Tequila (Tipo 4): Añejo tequila is "old" tequila. These tequilas are aged for a minimum of 1 year to produce a dark, very robust spirit. Some of the best añejos spend between 18 months and 4 years in the barrel.
- Extra-Añejo Tequila (Tipo 5): Extra-añejo or muy añejo tequilas spend over 4 years in barrels. They are rare and expensive.
After each tequila has spent the appropriate amount of time resting, it is time for bottling. There is nothing too interesting in this mechanized process, but the tequila bottles themselves can be quite interesting.
Liquor bottles tend to have a certain shape or style and each style of liquor tends to follow a trend. Tequila bottles can come in any shape and size and be decorated elaborately or have a clean, modern look.
Many tequila brands have a story behind their bottle design. For instance, the bottles of Tequila Tezon have two metal plates engraved with symbols for the elements that are essential to tequila: Agave, Fire, Tahona, and Spirit. Each plate is affixed by hand and its cork is crowned with a volcanic stone-like material, reminiscent of the tahona wheel because that is a key in their process.
Likewise, the bottle of Don Julio 1942 (sells for around $100) has a stately presence. This bottle is tall and skinny, giving off a very regal flair that dwarfs every other bottle on the shelf.