Tequila: A traditional drink takes on the modern world

Davies Wakefield

davies wakefield | wine uncorked | feb. 2018

There is a special place in Mexico that has been producing tequila since the 16th century. The inept King Charles IV of Spain, who was forced to abdicate by Napoleon Bonaparte, accomplished at least one good thing while he was in charge by giving the Cuervo family the first license to produce tequila. But the story of tequila starts quite a few centuries earlier.

The earliest “tequila" was pulque. It was fermented agave drink consumed by the pre-Columbian Indians before European contact. When the Spanish conquistadores arrived, they started to distill the pulque when they ran out of their own brandy, producing the first North American distilled spirit.

By 1600, Don Pedro Sánchez de Tagle, the Marquis of Altamira, began mass production of tequila in the territory that would become the state of Jalisco. It only took eight years before the taxman showed up when the colonial governor began taxing the distilled product. Until the late 1800s, tequila was a local drink in Mexico but this was about to change.

Don Cenobio Sauza, founder of Sauza Tequila and Municipal President of the Village of Tequila from 1884-85, was the first to export tequila to the United States. He also changed the name from 'Tequila Extract" to just Tequila for the American markets. Don Cenobio's grandson, Don Francisco Javier then made a pronouncement that changed the competitive playing field to this day when he stated that “there cannot be tequila where there are no agaves." This statement caused an uproar but led to Mexican laws that tequila can only be produced in the State of Jalisco.

Now, at this point, you may be asking yourself “Why is the wine dude doing an essay on tequila"? Well, there are some good reasons for this; first, it comes from a very specific growing region with strict rules about the type of plant that can be used; second, while there are large multinational factory produced tequilas, it is still an artisanal product if you carefully select the producers and third, the production process is interesting with many age-old techniques still being used. It also tastes damn good!

The Mexican laws controlling the rights to name the product Tequila are very specific about the succulents that can be used to make tequila. By law, only the blue agave grown in the state of Jalisco can be used; if it is not blue agave, it is not tequila. Scientifically, it is the Weber blue agave and the current plants are all clones of the original plants from prehistoric times. In 1974, the Mexican government created the DOT (Denominación de Origen Tequila) which mandates the use of blue agave only and limits the production to five states: Jalisco, Guanajuato, Michoacán, Nayarit and Tamaulipas. The DOT drove the shift to 100 percent blue agave products as tequila's gold standard, as opposed to some distilleries that use a variety of agave plants. During my research for this story, I couldn't help but notice that all the different tequila bottles were labeled 100 percent blue agave. Anything with up to 49 percent from other types of agave is referred to as mixto tequila.

Artisanal tequila is still produced the traditional way. Straw-hatted, grizzled, sunbaked Mexicans called jimadores use a long-handled razor sharp cutter called a coa (these tools weigh about 25 pounds) to cut the leaves off the agave. The stripped agave, shaped like a pineapple, is called a piña and weighs about 150 lbs., typically, a jimador harvests about 2-3 tons a day. The blue agave takes six to seven years to reach maturity and it may take three years to completely harvest a field, as each plant grows at differing rates. The whole town of Tequila revolves around the tequila making process. In fact, like the old time factory towns in Wisconsin, at 6 a.m. every day since 1812, a loud siren proclaims the start of the workday and shift changes at the La Rojeña distillery.

Once harvested the agave is slow cooked in stone ovens for 36 to 48 hours or in autoclaves for six to eight hours to convert the agave starches to fermentable sugar. The roasting and browning also produces the Maillard effect, which is what occurs when grilling or roasting meat that gives meat its savory character. After cooking, the piñas are crushed or milled to extract the sugar. The traditional way is to use a stone mill called a rahona, which is similar to the millstone used in old granaries, but rolled around in a circle on its edge by a pair of donkeys. The liquid is drawn off into fermentation tanks where the base liquid is fermented to achieve the flavor esters. The longer the controlled fermentation takes, the greater the numbers of flavor esters are produced. The fermented liquid (pulque) at this point is similar to beer at about four to seven percent alcohol and is ready for the distillation process.

Distillation is what gives any one particular tequila the flavor profile that is distinct to that producer. The choices made at each step of the distillation process are like a branding process. There are more than 300 known compounds in tequila, many of which are produced in the fermentation process. The components that make up tequila do not act individually but rather depend on the interaction and quantity of each organoleptic compound (I wonder if any of these organic compounds are donkey related?). There are about 50 esters that give tequila its characteristic flavor and I won't go into the chemistry detail other than for two which really stand out. Two furanic alcohols: 2-furaldehyde and 5-methylfuraldehyde contribute to tequilas smoky flavors. Desirable esters are drawn off from undesirable ones during the double distillation. This is the same process that gives Cognac its distinctive flavors. After distillation, the tequila measures between 40 to 60 percent alcohol.

The unaged tequila is called blanco. Blanco tastes of anise and raspberries with cinnamon and pepper on the tongue, ending with a slight citrus note. According to tequila master Marco Antonio Lamas at Jose Cuervo, there are over 100 distinct flavor components in a blanco. In the world of wine this would be like an unoaked chardonnay, which I prefer, but in the tequila world, I like mine with a little oak aging.

Reposada (means reposed or rested) tequila is the next level of tequila. This is the tequila I fell in love with while working in the central Mexico town of Queretaro. The town of tequila is near Guadalajara about 200 miles west. I traveled there on business several times and couldn't help but notice the contrast between the vibrant turquoise blue of the agave and the surrounding red dirt hills. My favorite producer is Don Julio reposada. Reposada is aged for four to six months in American or French oak barrels. The oak imparts a familiar vanilla hint which matches well with the caramel notes of the cooked agave. While it is popular to use reposada in cocktails, I always drank mine neat to enjoy the flavors of the distillation.

Añejo (aged) tequila has been aged for at least 12 months in oak barrels. The barrels can be no larger than 600 liters (158 gallons), but most are in the 200-liter range (52 gallons). Most of these barrels are used barrels from American whiskey distillers. A favorite is the barrels from Jack Daniels. The flavors imparted by these barrels are vanilla, orange peel and cocoa. Another product called Atelier is an extra aged añejo that drinks like a fine French brandy or Cognac. Some of the best añejos are produced by the Beckmann family which owns Jose Cuervo, the oldest family-run tequila business in Mexico. In fact, the Beckmann's recently took the Jose Cuervo business public on the NYSE. After researching this essay I think I understand why Jose Cuervo went public. One reason is that in 2013, tequila was allowed to be imported to China, adding about 1.5 billion new customers. Another reason is that the land designated for tequila is limited. It also takes six to seven years to produce a blue agave plant, so tequila is relatively rare. The price of a good bottle today is high and it will probably rise higher in the coming years. That scarcity is driving the rise of another Mexican product: Mezcal, but that's a story for another time.

--banner image courtesy Ted McGrath

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