The agave is a plant of which there are hundreds of varieties in Mexico — only one of which is allowed for tequila production: the blue agave. Agaves grown in the lowlands valley (like Tequila Fortaleza) often make a tequila that is a little spicier and earthier; those from Los Altos, where the temperature is cooler, make something a little softer and fruitier, though it isn’t always the case.
“Although it is a good rule of thumb, tequileros can still produce styles that defy these generalisations,” Reece Griffiths (one of our go-to guys for all things tequila) has told us in the past. “Tapatio for example, from Arandas in Los Altos, is full-bodied and spicy, due to the wisdom of the Camarena’s to employ techniques such as distilling to bottling proof to intensify agave flavour.”
Tequila, like wine, is often referred to as an agricultural product. What does this mean? It means first and foremost that it’s a product of the land. And, again like grapes for wine, the agave is a plant that has a life cycle — it’s just that the blue agave isn’t an annual crop, but takes between eight and 12 years to develop. Unlike the grapevine, however, once the agave is harvested, that’s it — it doesn’t grow back. Instead, hijuelos, the young shoots of the plant, and cut off and replanted. You’ll see agaves planted in rows, just as grapevines are.
And harvesting the agave is backbreaking work. This is done by jimadors, the (mainly) men who work the fields, who first cut away the sharp and hard leaves of the plant to expose the pina, which is then cut away from its roots. The harvested pina can weigh up to 50 kilograms, so there’s no doubt about the difficulty of this kind of work.
To make alcohol, you need to have fermentable sugars, right? The way to fermenting the agave is in its cooking. This is done either in an autoclave — a large, pressurised steam cooker — or in a traditional oven called a horno. Each method of cooking will produce a different flavour in the final tequila, but because steaming under pressure is more time efficient, many of the larger producers use this method.
Regardless of the method, the cooking process converts the starches in the plant into sugars, which can then be fermented.
After cooking, and before fermentation, one more step needs to take place: crushing. This is so that the fermentable sugars can be made into a wash to ferment, and is done in a couple of different ways.
The traditional method is to use a big stone wheel called a tahona, which crushes the cooked fibres of the agave. However, some producers have been using a machine called a diffusor, which according to Sydney bartender and agave aficionado, Reece Griffiths, “takes raw shredded agaves and washes them with hot, high pressure water, often with chemicals to strip sugars,” from the agave. He says this means “ there is no window for minimising or removing bitter elements during cooking.”
The tahona, on the other hand, removes less of the bitter components from the agave. The problem is, it is far less efficient at extracting the sugars from the agave, and it’s the sugars you need to ferment and make tequila.
Once the sugars have been crushed and extracted from the agave fibres, the resulting liquid is called the aguamiel. Traditionally, this was placed into wooden vats for fermentation, though many producers now use stainless steel vats to hold it. The fermentation is started with added yeasts, though some producers
Traditionally, tequila is distilled twice in copper pots, before being bottled at an ABV between 35 and 55 per cent. These days, however, there’s a few things that can be done differently: it might be distilled in column stills, or in pot stills made from steel but with copper inserts. The aguamiel can be put into the still with or without the fibres leftover from the fermentation (including them helps to use as much of the liquid as possible, as it can be hard to drain all the juice from them). Some producers, like the Camarenas and Fortaleza, will distill to near bottle strength, whereas others distill to a higher proof then dilute it back down to between 35 and 55 per cent.
What is tequila?: It’s a distilled beverage made under the control of the Mexican CRT (Tequila Regulatory Council), made from at least 51 per cent blue agave plant sugars, and an ABV between 35 and 55 per cent.
100% Agave: This is tequila, but is different from above in that it is required to be made from 100 per cent blue agave sugars, with an ABV between 35 and 55 per cent.
Blanco: White unaged spirit bottled after distillation or aged for a maximum of eight weeks.
Reposado: “Rested” tequila — aged for a minimum of two months and less than one year in oak barrels.
Anejo: “Aged” tequila — aged for more than one year and less than three years in barrels no larger than 600 litres.
Extra Anejo: Aged for more than three years (with no maximum age) in oak barrels no bigger than 600 litres.
Six Top Tequilas to Try
Jose Cuervo Tradicional Silver
This is 100% blue agave tequila. The agaves are cooked in an artisanal way, for between 36 and 40 hours. It has a fresh, crisp taste, ideal for cocktails.
Sesión tequila is sourced from the prestigious Tierra de Agaves, located on the outskirts of Tequila in Jalisco, Mexico and home to agave fields that are as old as the spirit itself.
Milagro Select Barrel Reserve Anejo
100% blue agave tequila aged in both American and French oak barrels. This añejo is an intriguing mix of sweetness and oak that is smooth and full-bodied.
William Grant & Sons
Gran Centenario Anejo
Medium to full-bodied on the palate, Gran Centenario Anejo is hand crafted in small batches at Hacienda Los Carmichines, Jalisco.
ArteNOM Seleccion 1414 Tequila Reposado
From the Tequila highlands of Arandas, this is estate-grown tequila produced in pot stills and with a rich taste.
Sauza Hornitos Reposado
Sauza Hornitos Reposado is a 100% Blue Agave tequila that is double distilled and rested in 40,000L American oak vats for two months, delivering a pure and lively agave flavour on the palate.