Have you ever stopped to ponder how your favorite spirits come to be? Sure, we have movies and novels that love to elaborate on the romanticism that is wine making. Shows like Brew Masters have taught us a thing or two about how beer is made. But the production of spirits like tequila is often left somewhat of a mystery to the general public. That’s a real shame because it’s a process that’s rich in both history and flavor. If you’ve ever wondered how that beautiful Blue Weber agave plant made its way from the ground into your frosty margarita, we’ve got the answer.
On a recent tour of El Tesoro’s historic tequila distillery in the highlands of Jalisco, Mexico, our team learned quite a bit about this favorite Latin American spirit. Not only is the making of Mexican tequila a process that results in a delicious product, but it’s one that’s environmentally friendly as well. With zero need for costly and wasteful irrigation systems or gasoline-guzzling harvesting machinery, it turns out tequila is good for both the planet and the party.
Tequila from Mexico comes specifically from Blue Weber Agave plants, unlike mezcal, which can be made from any type of agave plant. The Blue Weber Agave is larger in size and sweeter in taste than other agave plants, and it’s the only plant that can be used to make what can legally be classified as tequila under Mexican law.
These Blue Weber plants are absolutely beautiful. Their blue-tinted leaves are a stark and stunning contrast to the red clay soil of the Jalisco agave fields. The men who harvest them are called jimadors and work expertly with only one tool, called a coa, which is a long pole with a flat blade at the end. Knowing exactly when a plant is ready to harvest by the height and color of the leaves, the jimadors will dig the plant from the ground, then quickly and efficiently remove the leaves with their coas, readying the core of the plant — the “piña” part in a piña colada — for the cooking process.
Weighing upwards of 130 pounds each, the piñas will often “bleed” a red sap after harvesting — a tell-tale sign that they’re ripe and tequila-ready.
After being brought in from the fields, the piñas must be cooked. Before working ovens were around, this process was done by burying the piñas in large pits and covering them with hot stones and coals. Nowadays, however, large ovens are used, making the process much simpler.
The piñas are cut into evenly-sized pieces, then roasted in huge ovens made either of brick or stainless steel. This process takes up to three days, start to finish, due to the high temperature and need for cooling time.
Once the piñas have cooled, the doors are opened and the sweet scent of cooked agave fills the air with its heady aroma. From here, the juices must be extracted. But if you get the chance, bring an appetite.
Taste the cooked agave (this step is optional, but highly recommended)
On our tour, we were given the chance to taste the cooked agave at this stage, and the flavor was surprisingly delicious. Much like an artichoke, the agave plant has two parts — the leaves and the core. While the leaves remain too fibrous after baking to eat whole, their fruity flesh can be enjoyed the same way you would eat an artichoke leaf. The flavor is slightly jammy, reminiscent of yam or sweet potato. The fleshy core of the agave is intriguingly sweet and tastes very much like plums. The combination of these two parts and flavors gives tequila its complexity.
From this stage, the piñas go on to be pressed for their flavorful and delicious juices.
The extraction of cooked agave juices can be done one of two ways. Many brands these days favor more modern technology and use an industrial mechanical shredder. Some brands, however, such as El Tesoro, prefer the tried-and-true historical method of using a large stone wheel — a tahona — to get the job done. The juices are pressed from the cooked plant before moving on to fermentation.
After the juices have been extracted, they’re put into large containers (either steel tanks or enormous wooden barrels), combined with yeast and water, then left to ferment anywhere from 3–12 days. During this process, the agave juice ferments into ethyl alcohol. Many tequila makers joke that at this stage in the process, the secret to a good product is to keep the juices happy; some will even go so far as to play music to the juices as they ferment.
After the fermentation process, the agave juices are moved on to distillation. At this step, the juices are purified and the alcohol is concentrated. Most tequila makers process these juices twice to ensure the product is free of impurities and the alcohol content is perfect, but some of the more vigilant distillers will do this up to four times. After the final round of distillation, a clear tequila is produced and ready to be aged in barrels.
The final stage of tequila making is the final stage of most great spirits: Aging. In general, tequilas can be broken down into five categories: Blanco, reposado, anejo, extra anejo, and ultra anejo. The youngest tequila is blanco, sometimes called silver, and has been aged the least amount of time. On the other side of the spectrum, ultra anejo has an aging requirement of at least five years. As the aging time increases, so does the complexity of the tequila’s flavor (and usually, the price). Blanco, or silver tequila, is a popular choice for mixed drinks and cocktails because its flavor is simpler. More aged varieties, however, are best when enjoyed on their own so that you can fully appreciate their complexity.
After their respective aging processes, these different varieties are put into tequila bottles of all shapes, sizes, and price-points, then sent off to your favorite local stores, restaurants, and bars for you to purchase and enjoy.
Whether you’re in the mood for a few blended margaritas by the pool or it’s a more refined, more sophisticated sip you’re looking to savor, you no longer have to question where your tequila comes from.
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