Tequila, like champagne, is a location specific product that is actively protected by taking legal action on any and all who try and infringe upon this, Mexico’s national brand. Originally, certified production was limited to Jalisco state, but through the 1970’s lobbying extended the regions allowed to cover a much larger area. To be labeled tequila, the Agave tequilana, or blue agave must be cultivated in this region and the processes must conform to strict guidelines.
Despite this increased legal spread, the very best product come from the Valles region of Jalisco state, an area now enshrined as a World Heritage site and including the three settlements of Tequila, Arenal and Amatitan. The valley lies in the shadow of the Tequila volcano, which erupted around 200,000 years ago and covered the region with a layer of rich volcanic soils and drainage perfectly suited to the culitivation of the Agave tequilana.
It is not all sweetness and light however. The blue agave is known as the century plant, as it takes a long time to flower, sometimes up to a century but more often around the halfway mark. All agave are monocarpic, meaning they take a long time to grow, flower once and die. Suckers at the base of the flower mast (pictured above) can be used to propagate new planting, but the long growth cycle and the early harvesting of the plant for tequila production has meant the genetic material of the blue agave lacks somewhat in diversity and has become susceptible to a number of fungal and pest threats in recent years.
After planting the Jimadores, the specialist farmers of agave will remove the bud of the flower stalk, causing the piña or heart of the plant to swell. If the plant does not succumb to these threats and diseases, between its 8th and 12th year the concentration of sugars will reach a level sufficient (around 24 Brix) to support fermentation and the production of the mash that will be distilled into the final product. The agave plant can only be harvested by hand. Jimadores will walk the rows and select the plants ripe enough for harvest. They then remove the spiny fronds of the plant until only the piña remains, it is then transported back to the hacienda to become tequila.
The skill is a lot harder than it looks, and to many unhardened hands, the plant causes contact dermatitis, due to the presence of raphides, essentially microscopic slivers of calcinate that have evolved as a defence against herbivore attacks. After the initial painful redness, they can remain lodged in your skin and causes itching bouts for up to a year after exposure.
These two elements help explain the cost of a bottle of premium tequila. Unilke, say, a single malt, whose grows up thick and strong every year, a 12 year wait to claim the fruits of horticulture means a significant investment in cultivation and the artisanal nature of the harvest must up the rates, even at Mexican wage prices.
The piña are halved and baked at low temperatures for up to three days to further concentrate the sugars and free them from the pulpy prison. The size of the ovens changes depending on the size of the distillery and it’s particular method. The large one above is at the Tapatio distillery, which is probably better known as El Tresoro de Don Felipe to those outside of Mexico.
The syrupy piña are then pressed to release the juices. The rotary stone is considered by many to be the traditional method, and donkey power is still used at some small production products, rather than the Deere power on show above. Cuervo use a device more akin to an olive press and Olmeca swears by a particular type of volcanic wheel. The differences in production are subtle, but I would encourage you to work out what they are, I’m still learning but I’ll get there someday, after a few more bottles.
The juice is fermented, the mash distilled. A couple of times is pretty common. It’s then bottled, or aged and shipped across the world to unleash a potent spirit that bears an element of terrior, that would impress a French wine snob. You can, quite literally, taste the earth in the product. The skill of distillation in preserving that, and the subtle addition of spice and chocolate to the mix makes for a truly indulgent drop.
More on aging statements, 100% Agave vs Mixto and NOM numbers later in the month…