Story by Anneliese Grazioli, Hot Tamale, Darwin
What makes a great tequila – Is it the story? The distiller? The process? Every distillery I have been to I’ve been welcomed with wonderful hospitality and a great spiel of what makes their brand special, what makes their brand the best. Though are the distilleries doing what they do to actually make their tequila great or is it just a marketing campaign? So here is an attempt at an unbiased look at the production of tequila.
My tequila is the best because of the location. Los Altos versus Valley, what’s the difference? When I visited the Valley where the incredible town of Tequila is located at the base of a volcano, you can see how the water flows down which feeds the agaves and they tend to grow large, this gives them more earthy notes. Agaves I saw in the highlands, the soil is red and richer, and the agaves were smaller and sweeter, this gives them more fruity and floral notes.
My tequila is the best because of the agave. The agave, the very raw, very beginning of the tequila. We have all heard a Tequilana Weber or better known Blue Agave takes anywhere between 8 to 12 years to fully mature, but did you know not all distilleries wait this long? Something I witnessed in passing trucks with what looked like baby agaves, 3 years max. From a business point of view – a decade is a long time to invest in the creation of a raw product, so why not make money faster? As the agave grows so does the sugar level, when brands only use estate grown agaves their choices are slim, the agaves grown are the ones they use. When a tequila chooses to outsource their choices are greater. Firstly, they can request an exact brix level – most brands look for 20%-30% but some are upwards of 40%. There are also the amount of ‘red spots’, these are a type of fungus that grows on the pina as it reaches maturity and adds a distinct flavour.
My tequila is the best because of how it’s cooked. At the distillery they need to turn the agave’s starches into sugar, now which is the best option; a hornos, an autoclave or a diffuser. A hornos is a traditional style brick or clay oven, the agaves are loaded up and steamed/roasted for upwards of 3 or more days. This creates a slow cooker effect but can cook unevenly, so exact results are harder to obtain. An autoclave is a cylinder-shaped pressure cooker, it can either be used to speed up the process or used in the similar style of slow cooking with the benefit of cooking the agaves evenly. Finally, we have the diffuser which is usually frowned upon by agave lovers. Diffusers tend to use chemicals to extract sugar from the agave, though on my most recent trip to Mexico I was able to see one in action in a completely different fashion. The distillery brought the raw agave to the distillery in which they were shredded raw and put through the diffuser where just water was sprayed through to extract and agave sugars and the liquid was then transferred into autoclaves to be cooked.
My tequila is the best because of how the aguamiel is extracted. To extract the aguamiel the traditional method of a tahona wheel is now rarely used, due to the expense in time & lower amount of a yield. A tahona is a large volcanic rock wheel, traditionally pulled around in a circle by a mule, and now more commonly a tractor – the tahona crushes the agave and the juice falls into the underground system leaving just the fibres of the agave. The alternative and most commonly used equipment is the shredder mill, a conveyor belt type machine which shreds the agave whilst spraying with water to extract sugars. Some brands use one way or the other, or some have a blend of both.
My tequila is the best because of how we ferment it. The amazing science of fermentation, natural fermentation is still strong in the agave industry – the yeast in the air giving a wonderful effect to the fresh aguamiel, whether this is from certain types of fruit trees planted in the area or just the luck of the draw. This can be inconsistent and give varying flavour profiles of the final product. Enter the science of yeast – many distilleries have labs to grow, duplicate and test strains of yeast which are added to their aguamiel to give exact and consistent characteristics to their product. There are a few distilleries that add the fibers of the agave back into the juice during fermentation. Most recently I witnessed a great initiative of putting the fibres into potato sacks and using them like tea bags which cut down time in cleaning and re-straining the liquid.
My tequila is the best because of how we distil it. Distillation in tequila can drastically change the flavour profile in the tequila. It’s safe to say a majority are using copper cognac stills and distilling twice. Though you will probably still be able to look left or right and see a few column stills in action and a handful of tequilas distilling a third time. Distillation removes impurities, leaving just the pure alcohol – after the second distillation tequilas will mostly find themselves at the 55% mark, though a few only distil to 40-45% which tends to give more natural agave characteristics to the final product. Tequilas who go for the third distillation will lose more of the agave flavour, resulting in a cleaner and lighter spirit.
So what does make the best tequila? Which part of the process is the most important? To put it simply, all of it. The best way to find out what you like is to head to your closest agave bar, ask about brands and their processes and give them a try. My advice, stick to additive free, always 100% blue agave and ask for the bartender’s favourite.