La Reposada, a chocolate-brown mule, is pulling a two-ton volcanic stone wheel in a circle around a 20-foot-wide pit brimming with a dark, fibrous mass of agave hearts that gurgles with each pass. Bees are swarming around the 20-foot-high chamber of the Siete Leguas Centenario distillery on a hot May morning in Atotonilco El Alto, beckoned by the sweetness of the cooked agave. Two huge stone ovens sit open on one side of the cream-colored stucco walled room where more hearts, known as piñas, sit awaiting their fate of being crushed under the weight of the stone. They were steamed for 72 hours, and after a full day of exuding their heat, they have finally cooled, and are ready to be tossed into the pit.
Across on the other side of Atotonilco, at the sprawling rose-colored hacienda-style buildings of the Patrón distillery, much the same process is taking place. There’s no four-legged animal pulling the tahona here; instead a large motor in a yellow metal housing with two rubber wheels pulls a similar two-ton wheel around a pit brimming with the dark, caramelized agave hearts. Some of Patrón’s 30 stone ovens sit along one wall of the clean, industrial room. Patrón cooks its agave hearts for up to 79 hours—longer than most distilleries—before they are loaded into the pits.
Two distilleries. Two brands. One, Siete Leguas, is approaching nearly 75 years in operation and producing around 100,000 cases a year. The other, Patrón, founded in 1989 by Jean Paul DeJoria and Martin Crowley, has raced past 2.4 million cases a year, a fact reflected in the gigantic distillery grounds and buildings. Both rely on a traditional approach to making Tequila.
When examined closely, Tequila is among the most complicated liquors to bring to fruition. Far away from its somewhat sullied reputation in the United States, and other global markets, Tequila—in its finest 100 percent agave form—is an artisanal product that takes up to 10 years to produce. The planting, the care and protection of the fields and the harvesting are still all done by hand. When done properly, it’s a transformation of a plant that survives in one of the harshest growing areas in the world, without any irrigation, into a product that in its finest forms tastes of the land from which it has come.
The universe of Tequila production is vast, and highly regulated. To be called Tequila, the liquor must be derived from only one type of plant: agave tequilana var. Weber agave, also known as agave azul, or blue agave, can only be grown in five Mexican states. Blue agave is a spiky, succulent plant. When it reaches maturity at between eight to 10 years, its sweet heart can weigh as much as a man—150 to 200 pounds—although most are 60 to 100 pounds.
There is a Tequila boom going on, and in the United States, consumption of the spirit has been experiencing double-digit growth in recent years, particularly at the high end. In 18 years, the market for 100 percent blue agave Tequila has soared from a mere 8.6 percent of the market to more than 57 percent, according to Impact Databank. Nearly every major drinks company has made huge investments in Tequila.
In April 2018, Bacardi completed its acquisition of the massive Patrón brand—the biggest luxury Tequila brand in the U.S.—complementing its 2002 purchase of Cazadores. Brown-Forman imports El Jimador. Constellation brands has Casa Noble. LVMH bought Volcan de Mi Tierra, and relaunched it in 2018. And in 2017, Diageo put down $750 million for George Clooney’s Casamigos brand, with incentives that could push the deal to $1 billion. Casamigos, with 68.9 percent growth in 2018 alone, is the top-growing luxury Tequila brand in the U.S. market, according to Impact.
Diageo had already been a significant player in Tequila with Don Julio, one of the early premium brands originally under the Jose Cuervo umbrella. “We started with small, square brown bottles and everyone copied us. We started making more reposado and they copied us,” says Enrique de Colsa, general manager of the Don Julio distillery in Atotonilco. “So I’m not going to tell you all our secrets because soon everyone will copy us.” Depletions of Don Julio soared 38 percent in 2018, to 745,000 cases, making it No. 2 in the U.S. behind Patrón, according to Impact.
All this interest in Tequila is putting strains on the industry, starting right in the fields. To keep up with demand, producers are significantly stepping up their plantings.
On a drive to the State of Jalisco, which is to Tequila what Napa and Sonoma are to California wine, an entire field of agave comes into view. In the shadow of the sun, the leaves turn almost evergreen, but as the car passes the field and the sunlight hits them directly, their telltale bluish hue—some might say glacier green—hits the eye.
Making Tequila is a slow process, and it all begins here in the fields. The plants grow from shoots called hijuelos that are already at least one to two years old, and then they are replanted into the ground, left to grow for another five and a half to up to eight years, depending on the region. The agave plants are not harvested at the same time. In some fields, the harvest is extended over three seasons, because despite their best efforts to maintain a consistent size, there are inevitable differences in shade, water, even bigger plants that overshadow their smaller neighbors. Empty fields are plowed under, fertilized with compost and other nutrients and planted with corn or beans for one to two seasons in a crop rotation method that naturally restores the nutrient energy of the land.
When agave plants are mature, they are harvested by workers known as jimadores, who toil with only the aid of a heavy, long-handled pole with a sharp blade like a rounded spade, known as a coa. It’s an arduous, labor-intensive process that’s not for the meek.
A visitor watches as Memo, the oldest of a group of jimadores in a field that’s part of Tequila Tapatio’s lands, shows off his skills learned after 40 years in the fields. Memo raises and lowers the blade of his coa with precision, his moves disguising the 20-pound weight of the tool. He slices off the spiky leaves known as pencas with swift swipes—there can be 160 leaves on one agave alone—having already cut under the plant to release it from its root system. By the time he is done, the heavy piña is a checkerboard of white and small green strips. After being shaved, most will be hacked in half, then carried to the oven to be steamed.
Tasting pieces of the cooked agave is like sucking on a caramel lollipop. The caramelized juices begin to show the esters associated with better Tequilas…orange, chocolate, even cinnamon. The cooking has transformed the sugary liquid into a substance that can be fermented after the piñas are crushed.
Then, it’s off to the fermentation tanks. The ideal is around 30 degrees centigrade, or 86 degrees Farenheit. Much hotter, and you kill the yeast. Much cooler, and the yeast won’t work. From there, the juice is pumped into stills. After filtering, it comes out of the still clear at about 55 percent alcohol. It will be diluted down to the standard of 40 percent alcohol (80 proof), depending upon the type of product it is destined to become.
Mexico’s Tequila Regulatory Council (CRT) monitors every agave field in the country with a DNA record and a soil registry database, and CRT inspectors visit every one of the 155 certified distilleries that produce Tequila every day to take samples. Random samples are also taken in retail outlets in Mexico and around the world to ensure that the Tequila in the bottle matches the samples.
Despite the scrutiny, there is no requirement to use tahonas, or open wooden fermentation tanks or copper stills, the crux of traditional methods. And for makers like Patrón and Siete Leguas, both use the old-fashioned tahona for a portion of their production, and each also has mechanical mills to grind and extract the sugar liquid from the agave. Nearly all of their products are a mix of the two processes. After the crush, each producer relies on an exclusive combination of techniques for fermentation with proprietary yeasts and a specific selection of copper-pot-still distillations to produce a unique flavor profile associated with their respective brands.
Carlos Camarena is the owner of La Alteña distillery in Jalisco’s Los Altos region, renowned for high-quality agave. He is pouring shot glasses of three different Tequilas from his distillery. It’s about 11 a.m., and the first truckloads of the daily harvest of piñas are arriving in the large concrete courtyard of the brick walled distillery. A CRT car is already parked outside, and the inspector is inside talking with the men who are running the stills. It’s the third generation of the same family of distillers, and the fourth generation is in training.
Camarena produces El Tesoro de Don Felipe, a 100 percent tahona-crushed Tequila; Tequila Tapatio, a traditional milled Tequila from wooden fermentation vats and copper stills; as well as Tequila Ocho, made with agave from single fields relying on terroir for some of its character. Each year, agave from one or two of the fields is distilled and bottled, and since it takes at least eight years for agave to mature, consumers won’t see the same bottling again for that many years. Each of his Tequilas represent different variations on how the spirit can be produced: tahona, milled, and terroir specific, the latter the most unusual category in the Tequila world.
As we taste the two Tequila Ochos, a 2016 Los Patos and 2016 Potrero Grande, the blancos destroy the myth that distillates cannot taste differently. The Los Patos has a more tropical fruit note while the Portrero Grande smacks of dry raspberry. Both have long finishes. Alongside them, the Tapatio blanco is peppery, with a more restrained aroma. Each one different. Each one unmistakably from agave with that telltale vegetal and earthy character.
Tequila is divided into five different types that reflect the amount of aging. Blanco (also called silver or plata) is bottled within 60 days, although it can remain longer if stored in stainless steel tanks. Reposado is aged in oak for at least 60 days, but not more than a year. Joven is a combination of blancos and resposados. Añejo must be oak-aged for at least one year and not more than three, and Extra Añejo is aged for three years or longer in oak. Some producers blend categories, but any blend must bear the designation of its youngest liquid.
Juan Fernando Gonzalez de Anda, one of seven brothers who oversee Siete Leguas, the home of the mule, La Reposada, has just led a visitor through the Centenario distillery and is sitting at a long wooden table in a room with 20-foot-high, wood-beamed ceilings with his production manager, Arturo Valle. He pours out several Tequilas to taste.