Remember that time you had a really crazy night drinking tequila in college? The next morning wasn’t so good, and you’ve sworn off the stuff ever since. Well, that wasn’t tequila’s fault—you drank half a bottle of cheap booze. Much more than something you shoot with lime wedges and a shaker of salt in a country-and-western bar or in watered-down Margaritas at a cheap Mexican restaurant, tequila—or at least quality tequila—is a spirit worthy of more respect.
So I travelled to Mexico to pay my respect. Specifically to Amatitán, in the state of Jalisco, to see how a massive agave plant is turned into a bottle of tequila. While production varies from distillery to distillery, the overall process to make the spirit is very similar. Here’s how Casa Herradura—a distillery dating back to 1870, which produces the Herradura, Antiguo and El Jimador brands—makes its tequila.
All tequila starts with a very specific plant: Weber blue agave (Agave tequiliana), one of more than 100 varieties of agave native to Mexico and the southwestern US. And, by law, that agave must be grown in the Mexican state of Jalisco or specific areas of four other states in order for the liquor made from it to be called tequila. (About a dozen other varieties, mainly grown in the state of Oaxaca, are used to make tequila’s cousin, mezcal.)
The spiky-leaved agave plant takes 7-10 years to grow to full maturity, at which point a jimador harvests the heart of the plant, using a sharp, round tool called a coa to slice away the leaves. Tequila distilleries typically lease land from local farmers to grow their agave—Herradura alone has more than 20,000 acres planted at any given time, representing about 18 million individual plants.
The agave’s heart is called a piña, because it looks something like a giant pineapple. A typical piña weighs over a hundred pounds and yields nearly a full case (12 bottles) of tequila. The freshly harvested piña is pure white, starchy and crunchy, tasting something like jicama or a raw potato.
In order to turn the piñas into booze, they first have to be roasted, which converts the starch into fermentable sugar. Herradura has 15 ovens like this one, which each hold 40 tons of agave at a time. It’s roasted at around 200° F for 26 hours (some distilleries roast longer at lower temperatures, others shorter at higher temperatures), yielding tan-colored, softened piñas with a flavor somewhere between roasted sweet potato and molasses.
The roasted agave is crushed or shredded to release its sweet juice, which is pumped into large fermentation tanks. At Casa Herradura, the juice is wild-fermented, which means that yeasts and other microorganisms in the air colonize it on their own. (The distillery has 16 varieties of fruit trees planted around the area to harbor these wild yeasts.) Other distilleries add proprietary blends of yeasts, but either way, the result is the same: Two or three days later, the sugars are turned into alcohol, creating a sour, beer-like brew called mosto muerto that’s about 8 percent alcohol.
Next comes distillation. The mosto muerto goes into a still, where it’s heated to a temperature at which alcohol boils but not water. The vapor travels through long pipes and re-condenses as a higher proof liquid than before. The process is then repeated (a few distilleries distill three times, but most double-distill), creating a spirit that’s 50 to 60 percent alcohol. Herradura uses relatively small pot stills that hold only 2,500 liters at a time, but it has 57 of them!
At this point, you’ve got tequila. It could be bottled (typically watered down to between 40 and 45 percent alcohol) immediately, but the tequila universe doesn’t end there. Aging in barrels tames tequila’s rougher, spicier notes, smoothing them out with caramel-and-butterscotch oak flavors. There are four legal age categories: blanco, plata or silver tequila can be bottled straight from the still or after up to two months in barrels; reposado tequila ages for between two and 11 months; añejo tequila ages for between one and three years; and extra-añejo tequila ages for three years or more. (Gold or oro tequila isn’t aged—it has caramel coloring added to make it golden-brown, and most tequila connoisseurs avoid it.) Beyond that they be made of oak, there are no requirements for what kinds of barrels can be used, which means distilleries age tequila in everything from bourbon and rum barrels to sherry or wine casks, creating unique flavor combinations.
After aging (or not), it’s into the bottle and onto store shelves. With hundreds of brands out there at a wide range of prices, your tequila options can get confusing, but here are three pieces of advice that will steer you to a quality spirit every time:
- Look for “100 percent agave” on the label. Cheap, low-quality bottlings (like that one that made you black out at that frat party) are typically mixto tequilas, which means they are blended with up to 49 percent non-agave-based alcohol. Steer clear.
- Añejo isn’t always better. The longer a tequila ages, the more expensive it is, but that doesn’t mean it’ll taste better to you. Experiment with different bottlings in your favorite cocktails, and try sipping different tequilas neat. You may find you prefer blanco or reposado to extra-añejo.
- Think outside the Margarita. In Mexico, the most popular tequila cocktail by far is the Paloma, an ultra-refreshing mix of tequila, grapefruit soda, a squeeze of lime and a pinch of salt on ice. Once you’ve mastered that, get creative: A blanco can replace the gin in a Negroni, and a good reposado makes for an excellent Tequila Manhattan.