Tequila 102

by Russ Motley, Akumal Investments

Tequila 101 covered the different types of tequila and their related characteristics. Tequila 102 now goes into some of the background and history of tequila, and then moves into the production side of the popular spirit.

Contrary to popular belief, tequila is not made from cacti. 

The word tequila itself is a mystery.  It is said to be an ancient Nahuatl term. The Nahuatl were the original people who lived in the area. The word means "the place of harvesting plants."
Tequila is actually made from the blue agave plant, which is classified as a succulent, and actually a member of the lily family. Tequila is exclusively produced in five regions of Mexico—mainly Jalisco and small sections of Nayarit, Michoacan, Guanajuato, and Tamaulipas—and it is well regulated by the Mexican government. Almost all aspects of the production of tequila come under regulatory practices, from fermentation and double distillation to aging, bottling, and distribution.

Most agave plants are grown on west-facing slopes, allowing them to receive the most sunlight throughout the day. These plants are taller, wider and juicier. Agave grown in the lowlands have more earthy, fiberish flavors, and are typically on the smaller side.

To be classified as tequila, it must be made from no less than 51 percent Weber blue agave. Better and high-end tequilas are made from 100 percent Weber blue agave. Today's fine tequilas are highly coveted by collectors worldwide, for both the smooth aromatic liquor and the handcrafted decorative bottle.

Brief History
There are different legends as to the origins of tequila. One legend has it that the Aztecs discovered the fermented sap (nectar) of the agave plant, and it was originally used for medicinal purposes, rituals and celebrations. The nectar was viewed as a "gift of the gods." By the time the Spanish arrived, the Aztecs were harvesting the plant and crushing its root into a pulp, producing the sap of the agave plant. The sap was fermented and called pulque. The Spanish, longing for a stronger drink than pulque, used their knowledge of the distillation process to create mezcal from the pulque. A second distillation process was added, and the final product was tequila, as we know it today. 

In the late 19th century, it was determined that of all the approximately 400 agave species, only the blue agave plant was ideal for the production of tequila.

The first licensed manufacturer was a gentleman by the familiar name of José Antonio Cuervo. Sr. Cuervo received the rights to cultivate a parcel of land from the King of Spain in 1758, and the rest is history. However, tequila did not achieve its prominence until after 1821 when México attained independence, and Spanish products were more difficult to obtain. By the middle of the 19th century, Cuervo's fields had more than three million agave plants. By 1880 Cuervo was annually selling 10,000 barrels of its tequila in Guadalajara alone. Today Cuervo is the largest manufacturer of tequila, with a huge export market. Other distilleries established during the 19th century that are still flourishing today include Tequila Herradura and La Preservancia Sauza.

The process of tequila begins when a blue agave plant is ripe, usually 8 to 12 years after it is planted. Harvesting the agave plant remains a manual effort, unchanged by modern farming technologies and stretching back hundreds of years. The agave is planted, tended and harvested by hand. The men who harvest it are called jimadores and they possess generations of knowledge about the plants and the ways in which they need to be harvested. They must be able to work swiftly in the tight rows, pull out the hijuelos (agave offspring) without damaging the mother plant, clear the piñas (the core of the plant), and decide when each plant is ready to be harvested. Too soon and there are not enough sugars, too late and the plant will have used its sugars to grow a quiote (20–40-foot-high stem), with seeds on the top that are then scattered by the wind.  The piñas, weighing 40 to 70 pounds, are cut away with a special knife called a coa.

Depending on the distiller and the type of tequila to be made, the piñas are hauled to the distillery where they are cut in half or chopped and put to roast. Starches turn to sugar as the piñas are roasted in furnaces called "hornitos." Modern distilleries use huge steam ovens to increase output and save on energy. Oven cooking traditionally takes approximately 36 hours. Roughly speaking, seven kilos (15 lbs.) of agave piña are needed to produce one liter (one quart U.S.) of tequila. Different agaves and processes produce mezcal with different names throughout Mexico: stotol in Chihuanhua, mezcal in Oaxaca, and bacanora in Sonora.

The roasted piñas are then shredded, their juices pressed out and placed in fermenting tanks or vats. Some distilleries use the traditional method to produce tequila. In this method—artesian tequila—the cores are crushed with a stone wheel at a grinding mill called "tahona," and the fibers are dumped into a wooden vat to enhance fermentation and to provide extra flavor. Once the juices are in the vats, yeast is added. Every distiller keeps its unique yeast recipe a closely guarded secret. Juices ferment for 30 to 48 hours, and