For most of us, tequila drags up memories from our university days of downing shots and horrendous hangovers. I have always had a love hate relationship with tequila, from shots to Margaritas I have gone through life never quite fully appreciating this spirit, that was until I visited the home of its production; Santiago de Tequila.
On a hot August day we made our way from the capital of Jalisco, Guadalajara, to Tequila. Tequila is a town of around 50,000 inhabitants in the Jalisco region of Mexico and is about 37 miles from the city of Guadalajara on the road to Tepic and Puerto Vallarta. We were invited by Mundo Cuervo to come and experience tequila from the oldest recognised producer in Mexico, as in the 17th Century Spain’s King Carlos IV granted the Cuervo family the first license to commercially make tequila. After checking in to the Solar de las Animas, a hotel owned and run by Mundo Cuervo, we made out way to the agave fields on Jose Cuervo.
The name Tequila comes from the Nahuatl word Tecuilan or Tequillan, meaning a place of work or a place of cutting. The ancient indigenous peoples who lived in the area were called Tecuilas. Planting, tending, and harvesting the agave plant remains a manual effort, largely unchanged by modern farm machinery and relying on centuries-old know-how. The men who harvest it, the jimadores, have intimate knowledge of how the plants should be cultivated. This knowledge is passed down from generation to generation. Entering the agave fields of Jose Cuervo was a real eye opener as to the vast effort it takes to produce a bottle of tequila. From horizon to horizon and as far as the eye could see were Blue Agave plants, all planted in incredibly neat rows in the rich red volcanic soil of this region. We were lucky enough to meet the Head Jimadore of Jose Cuervo, who told us that you could not harvest the agave until it is at least over 10 years old, as then the heart of the plant is ripe for baking. Each year the Jose Cuervo plantation have to plant new agave in readiness for the harvest in ten years, whilst harvesting the plants that have reached maturity thus creating a never ending cycle of planting and cutting. The jimadores by regularly trimming any quiotes (a several-meter high stalk that grows from the center of the plant), they prevent the agave from flowering and dying early, thus allowing it to fully ripen. The jimadores must be able to tell when each plant is ready to be harvested, and using a special knife called a coa, with a circular blade on a long pole, carefully cut away the leaves from the piña. The piña, which is the succulent core of the plant, is what is used to later ferment to make tequila. If the piña is harvested too late or too early, they will not have the right amount of carbohydrates for fermentation. Whilst at the Jose Cuervo fields we were shown how a mature agave is cut and removed in readiness for fermentation. In what looked like a ballet, the jimadore moved around the agave clipping it leaves and shearing it with a very sharp paddle to create an object that looked like a very large pineapple. With one sharp thrust to the base the piña was dislodged from the ground and ready to be carted off the distillery. It is worth noting here that there really is no waste, the locals use the leaves to boil up to make all sorts of things from hand cream to syrup.
We then followed our piña to the Jose Cuervo distillery, back in the town of Tequila. The town of Tequila has one of the most memorable aromas from all my travels, the town is full with the smell of the baking agave and as such there is an earthy sweet smell in the air, it emphasises that this really is a town of creation with the ovens baking all year round. The piñas was transported to the ovens where they slowly baked to break down their complex fructans into simple fructoses. Interestingly, one agave plant can make from 2 to 5 liters of tequila, of course that’s depending on the size of the plant and the proof of the liquor. We followed the production line as the baked piñas are mashed under a large stone wheel called a tahona. The pulp fibre, or bagazo left behind is often reused as compost or animal feed, but can even be burnt as fuel or processed into paper. The extracted agave juice is then poured into large stainless steel vats for several days to ferment, resulting in a wort, or mosto, which has a low alcohol content. This wort is then distilled once to produce what is called ordinario and then a second time to produce clear silver tequila. Much like other spirits that are regulated, Tequila must be distilled at least two times and is required by law to be true tequila. From there, the tequila is either bottled as silver tequila, or it is pumped into wooden barrels to age, where it develops a mellower flavour and amber colour.
So after 10 years of maturing, the piña in just over a week is silver tequila, mind-boggling! It can then be taken further through ageing to produce Reposado which is aged a minimum of two months, but less than a year in oak barrels of any size, Añejo, which is aged a minimum of one year, but less than three years in small oak barrels and Extra Añejo, which is aged a minimum of three years in oak barrels. A new type of tequila is also emerging using processes perfected in Tennessee whiskies. Cristalinos are añejos tequilas that have been filtered to remove any colour added by the barrel during the ageing process, leaving the tequila “crystal clear”, like a blanco, but by using filtration through charcoal. All Tequila produced in Mexico is heavily regulated to ensure its quality and to protect the drinks heritage and origins. Tequila must be produced using agave of the species Tequilana Weber Blue variety, grown in the federal states and municipalities indicated in the Declaration. All authentic, regulated tequilas will have an identifier on the bottle, so make sure you always look out for this when buying tequila!
So after seeing how tequila is produced from the fields to the distillery it was the most important part of our time in the town of Tequila: the tasting! We were shown round the incredible cellars of this great house, with tequila barrels that were over a century old, and then taken to the VIP tasting room. We were explained that tequila is actually more like a perfume than a spirit, with 300 known compounds found in tequila. These aromas come from the fermentation period of the process and aid in the final flavour of the tequila. Its all rather complex but in essence not one bottle of tequila is the same from producer to producer, this is due to the tiny microorganisms that are used in the fermenting stage of production plus each house have their own process, recipe and ageing process leading to even more diversity in the taste.
Our tasting was hosted like a perfume class, with an array of items we could smell and match to each tequila; from coffee to chocolate, lime to coconut. We really leant a lot whilst tasting the different tequilas and it made me realise how I had totally underestimated this drink. We also learnt that if tequila does not state on the label that it is manufactured from 100% blue agave then, by default, that tequila is a mixto. Mixto is manufactured from at least 51% blue agave but other sugars are entered into the process. Beware of these tequilas! Remember those tequila shot hangovers? Well those would have been at the hand of one of these mixto tequilas as the sugars usually added are high fructose syrup and other non-premium ingredients which leads to those god awful hangovers. Some distillers of lower-quality tequila have marketed their product to be served “ice-cold chilled” when used as a shot. Chilling any alcohol can be used to reduce the smell or flavours associated with a lower-quality product. To appreciate real tequila you must only buy 100% agave!
Much like anything in life taste is very personal, and at Mundo Cuervo they take this to a new extreme allowing guests to actually mix their own blend of tequila. After deciding which tequilas I most liked, like mad scientists we came up with our blend mix percentages and then headed to the mixing room. Feeling like I had entered Willy Wonka’s booze version of his factory, we filled our litre tubes with our blend from barrels of Jose Cuervo finest tequilas, including Blanco, Reposado and Añejo. After filling the tube we filtered the tequila in to hand blown glass bottles, put in a stopper and then slowly spun the bottle to mix the tequilas. The final step was to add a hot was seal and to sign the distillery book to get a certificate and batch number for the bottle. What an experience! In a day I had gone from a tequila novice that associated it with my uni days to a certified Maestro Tequilero blender.
Heading back to Solar de las Animas for dinner and then bed I was full with respect for this drink. Having had little respect for Tequila, thanks to 24 hours in the beautiful town of Santiago de Tequila I was now in awe of the passion and dedication that goes in to each bottle. Do not underestimate this drink, it is versatile and complex, and it offers so many varieties and flavours that there is a tequila to suit everyone.
Solar de las Animas
Ramón Corona 86