Planting and tending to the agave plant is a skill that has been passed down from generation to generation. Many distilleries have grown to a larger scale with up-to-date equipment, but the tending to the plants remains a manual effort. Ain't no gadgets and shortcuts here.
Tequila comes from the Blue Weber agave plant (and only this plant - by law), grown in five different states: Jalisco, Nayarit, Michoacán, Tamaulipas and Guanajuato. The agave grows in miraculously neat rows for up to 8-10 years before the plant is ripe and ready to be harvested.
The final taste all depends on where the plant is grown. Agaves grown in the highlands, with their red clay-like soils, will produce sweeter floral tasting tequilas; those grown in the lowlands (still about 1600m above sea level), aka Tequila Valley, are more herb-like in nature.
During harvesting, the leaves and thorns are hacked off by the harvester, or jimador (yes, THAT’S where the name comes from), using an old-school tool called a coa (that's a huge large knife to you and me), leaving only the heart of the agave, or the piña.
WARNING: those thorns will prick you, and they prick HARD, releasing a little poison making that pain last (and BarChick can vouch for that). At this point, the piñas look like weird pineapple kinda things.
The piñas are taken to the distillery to be chopped into halves and quarters, and the male part of the plant (cogollos), which is full of wax, is removed. It is not included in the cooking process because the wax would have a bad, bitter effect on the final flavour.
Once removed, the plants are cooked in large ovens, and the starches are turned into fermentable sugars (they are usually cooked for up to three days). They are then transported to the milling area where the cooked agave is pressed to get the rich flavours out. They do this by using a tahona - a traditional grinding wheel. Traditionally this large stone wheel would have been pulled around by horses, but these distilleries have grown MASSIVELY so tractors are now usually used, which can cope with the high product demand a tad better! Phew.
Once all the juices have been squeezed and minced, they are then washed with water and strained before being placed in the fermentation tanks (usually stainless steel, but sometimes wooden if you want details) - and this is where the magic happens - ALCOHOL time (finally).
Yeast is added to the tanks to get the process going, and they are heated slightly. The yeast tends to be naturally produced, using only yeast that grows naturally on the agave leaves, although some distilleries use cultivated and propagated yeast strains. This whole process can last between one to six days (Ocho’s fermentation is four to five days, which is pretty much the longest for tequila, with some being as short as 24 hours).
The liquid then is taken through a double distillation process. The liquid is evaporated and then condensed back into a liquid. After the first distillation, the liquid has an alcohol level of 20%, but the second distillation (which takes three to four hours) is much higher, close to 55%. The liquid is divided into heads, hearts and tails, with only the heart of the process used for the final spirit.
The real ageing takes place over the 8-10 years it takes to grow the agave before the plants are harvested. This means after distillation, the ageing process is pretty short.
The Ocho distillery is up in the highlands, with fields of different types of agave (10 if you’re asking). Similar to the labelling of fine wines, they are the first to create a "tequila vintage", which states the exact year of harvest and location the agave plants were grown. The legendary Carlos is in control over here - he’s a bit of a G.
Fermentation gets started with Champagne yeast (FANCY) and it’s done in the winter months as the cooler temperature gives it a fruitier nature… nice tactics. This brand's bottle is the bottle of all bottles. They did studies with bartenders to perfect it, making it perfect for any speed rail. Everything was thought of, from the peel-able labels to ensure bottle can be reused, to the logo engraved at the bottom that can be seen when poured, to the groove for the bartender’s fingers. Wise.
This distillery is in the highlands, where the air tends to be thinner - so you can blame your dizziness on that and not your hangover. Awesome. Jesus Hernandez is the master distiller and main man here, and he knows everything there is to know about tequila.
During the fermentation at the Herradura distillery ,they play classical music through speakers to the barrels as they believe it helps along the process. Who are we to judge?! The tanks were bubbling happily. Want a bit of history? You’ll get it here - the old original distillery from 1870 still stands today in the grounds for people to visit.
These guys have their own fricking Cuervo Express train. That’s what we’re talking about.
Seeking more epic tequila brands to continue your education with? We've got 20 of our faves rounded up for you right here, honey. Just remember... tequila ain't always the answer, but it's always worth a shot.