The science surrounding Tequila production is generally the same from one fabrica to the next. Agave’s take a long time to grow, nearly a decade, this is universal; though some growers are finding that with improved agricultural practices this is happening sooner, but that is a conversation for another time. Order us a shot of something slow, maybe a nice little Reposado and we’ll talk it over.
Looking at Tequilas, without regard to whether the Distiller has open or closed fermentation, column or alembic stills, 2 times or 3 times through the pipes, and what continent did the Oak grown on; without regard to any of those decisions, what is of interest to the Tequila drinking public is how these distillers use the technology available.
There is quite a bit of snobbery surrounding the time tested techniques of old school methods versus the high technology ones that garner quicker, and more controlled results, but such stubborn ideology is the stuff of your grandparents, no? As a connoisseur of Tequila your mind and palate should remain open. Being quick to judge a product before tasting because you heard they’re doing this or that at the distillery is unfair to the Tequila. Taste. Taste. Taste. And then you’ll know.
Below is a plain Jane, paint by numbers of Tequila production. At each turn in the process a distiller is faced with an opportunity to shape his or her Tequila profile. Our outline will offer you a general introduction to the process.
Tequila production begins with harvest. The Agave’s pencas (long swordlike leaves) shoot out from the plant’s heart, a central base tightly snuggled beneath the soil. Using a coa which is a flat, rounded out blade it takes one highly skilled Agave harvester, un Jimador, less than a minute or so to free the Agave heart from its pencas. Once free the base resembles an oversized pineapple, hence the name piña when referring to the heart of the Agave.
One piña may produce around 15 liters of Tequila. From region to region they vary in residual sugars (that stuff that makes Tequila taste sweet). It is the job of the Master Distiller, at this point more of an Agave Whisperer, to check on the piñas daily for peak ripeness before harvesting. Once it is decided that they are ready, in come the Jimadores and off the piñas go to be be cooked.
Aguamiel, or Agave juices, are extracted from the cooked piñas by force. We could wait for the gods to bless us with a lightning bolt to the base which would cook and extract in one jolt, but we could be waiting a while. So for now, Tequila makers will extract the juices using some sort of mill, or go pre-Tesla and use a Tahona (giant cement wheel) and mule.
The Aguamiel (honey water) is transferred into a vessel for fermentation. Fermentation happens when yeast, either naturally or a proprietary culture, shows up and eats the cooked Agave sugar pooping out hot CO2 and Ethyl Alcohol. This creates a little agave beer jacuzzi which doesn’t turn off until the yeast has died and fermentation is finished. At this point, the fermented liquid, or Mosto, is ready for its first distillation.
Distillation is, put simply, a refining process which uses heat to physically separate the parts of the Mosto we like (ethyl alchohol, agave good stuff, yum) from the parts we don’t like (congeners, fusel alcohols, blegh). To do this, Tequila Makers will boil the Mosto in a still until it vaporizes and then collect the condensation. At this point the Mosto is now called Ordinario. Ordinario is not yet Tequila, since Mexican Law stipulates that Tequila must be distilled 2 times. So back in it goes, and out Tequila comes.
After a second distillation, we now have Tequila Blanco which may be bottled immediately for responsible enjoyment, or placed in an Oak barrel for resting. While the Tequila rests chemical compounds present in the Oak will interact with the spirit giving it those tell tale “time in Oak” qualities which may range from sweet vanilla and coconut to spicy and smoky.