I’d like to be able to say that I have always loved tequila, but I haven’t. Like many others out there who loathe Mexico’s ultimate nectar, I too have my first time horror story involving waking up on a concrete patio with swastikas and penises tattooed in permanent marker all over my face and body. It took three years for me to go near tequila again and it wasn’t until a ‘tequila night’ where some friends and I drank all of the top shelf tequila from a Cairns bar for me to appreciate it. My love for the drink has been growing ever since and when I knew I was coming to Mexico, I simply had to visit the town of Tequila and some of its distilleries.
Three of us sat around the TV in Guadalajara’s Tequila Hostel at 11am watching a brief introductory video to tequila and its history. The video concluded with 50mls of a triple distilled reposado (rested) tequila from a distillery we would visit later that day. The feeling from that first drink is a lot like drinking a good scotch. Your chest warms as the tequila goes down and there are no bad burning sensations in your throat. It feels like it’s going to be a good day.
With that feel-good warmth still lingering, we hopped in a taxi for the hour long trip to the first farm and distillery. Awaiting us is a Jimador (agave harvester) who takes us to a blue agave plant and shows us the process of using a special tool called a coa to remove the leaves so that only the heart of the agave remains. We were able to have a go at slicing the leaves off and I also had a feel of the blade – those tools are incredibly sharp. The hearts can weigh up to 90kg’s depending on their age and roughly 7kg’s of the blue agave is needed to make 1L of tequila. I noticed that one section of the heart looked like it was bleeding a dark red juice. I was told that the agave ages a little bit like a banana in that it starts of green and hard and throughout its aging process becomes darker. Depending on when you harvest the agave (usually between 7 – 10 years) you can get a different flavor and aroma, which is why one distillery may be able to produce different brands, each using a different age of agave. Before we moved on to see the ovens, we tasted the raw agave. It had a texture similar to coconut with no strong/sweet flavour, yet you can tell there is a lot of sugar in it by feeling the sticky residue left on the hands.
Modern distilleries use big, sealed ovens and steam cook the agave and prepare it for rolling whilst traditionally, a big ground oven was dug into the soil and then covered with material to keep the heat in. After cooking, the heart’s are allowed to rest and cool before getting chopped and rolled to extract the nectar. The taste of the cooked agave was sticky, sweet and delicious!
Once the nectar has been extracted, the fermentation process begins. Yeast is added to the nectar in large, open aired tanks where it gets to work on the sugars. The distillery had many tanks in use at various stages so we could see the progress. At its most active, a layer of foam is easily visible on the top of the nectar and you can see it bubbling away, almost as if it were boiling. The best tequila is made with 100% blue agave nectar with inferior products able to use only 51% blue agave, with the rest being made up of cane or other sugars. Once the fermentation is complete, the distillation process begins.
Using large stills, the nectar is heated and cooled a number of times to remove excess solids and water from the nectar. After the first distillation, the tequila smells incredibly strong, yet only contains around 20% of alcohol content as it is not until the second distillation that the alcohol content rises. Premium brands, much like whiskey and vodka will triple distill the tequila before storing it.
I found the rules regarding the aging of tequila to be quite fascinating. If distillers chose to use second hand barrels, they cannot chose wooden barrels which have already been used to age tequila. Instead, only barrels which have been used to age rum or whiskey are allowed. Much like whiskey, the length of time the product is aged, the better it is as the wooden, and if stored in a scotch barrel – smoky notes blend with the tequila. Blanco, the clear tequila hasn’t been stored in wooden barrels and is obviously the quickest to produce. Reposado, or rested tequila has been aged in wooden barrels for up to 11 months before bottling which gives it its coloring. Anejo or aged tequila is aged between for at least one year and since 2006, any tequila that has been aged longer than three years is considered Extra Anejo.
Once our education was complete, it was time to taste. We used oranges (sometimes with cinnamon) to cleanse our palettes in preparation for the blanco and reposado. Once we got to the anejo and extra anejo we ate a piece of chocolate prior to tasting to enhance the flavours. Personally, my favourite was the reposado, followed by the anejo. Once we had made it through the four, we got quizzed by our guide and if we got it wrong, or right for that matter, he poured us another. And another. I had lost count after our 7th and so when it came time to leave, I was feeling pretty buzzed.
On the way out our guide pointed out where the Mt Tequila would be if it weren’t for the clouds. He explained that most people think that first the drink was named, then the town, followed by the mountain. However apparently the mountain was named first, followed by the town and then the drink.
The second distillery was in the heart of Tequila town and could be considered a micro-distillery. The distillery is family run and begun after the father, who used to sell agave to distilleries didn’t like the quality of tequila the distillery was producing, so he made his own. The mother, who found tequila to be too harsh in flavour decided to infuse tequila with a number of different fruits to create a delicious line of liqueurs. During the tasting, the son, who is the salesman of the company came out and explained to me that their triple distilled blanco had just been introduced to Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane as of two weeks ago. It was a wonderful and interesting story to hear first hand – and a great product that I’ll definitely be buying once I get home.
At this point in the afternoon, we were all a quite drunk and definitely in need of some lunch to soak up the tequila. We went to a busy little restaurant in the heart of the town where I had my first ‘drowned sandwich’. The sandwich, which was essentially a baguette filled with meat and ‘drowned’ in tomato sauce certainly did the job. On the way home, myself and our guide had a much needed ciesta in the car to finish off the great day.