Explainer: how tequila is made

With Day of the Dead — that’s dia de los muertos in Spanish, folks — fast approaching, we thought it would be a good time to brush up on how tequila, that famous Mexican export, is made.

It begins on the land, in the agave fields.
There’s five areas from which tequila is allowed to be produced: in the state of Jalisco; in delineated areas of the neighbouring states on its border, Guanajuato, Michoacan, and Nayarit; and on the east coast of Mexico, in Tamaulipas.

But most of what we see in Australia is coming from Jalisco, and in particular from two regions in the Amatitan-Tequila valley: the highlands (Los Altos), and the lowlands, in the valley itself.

It takes time.
Unlike other spirits, or wine, which employ crops that grow back each year, the growing period for the blue agave — the only species of agave allowed in the production of tequila — takes up to 10 or even 12 years.

That’s true for the Espolon brand, master distiller Cirilo Oropeza Hernandez has told us. “From the Highlands region of Jalisco, we allow our agave plants to grow for between seven to ten years to ensure a full mature essence in our tequila,” he said.


It requires hard labour at harvest.
Then what’s required is hard work — that’s performed by jimadors, who harvest the heavy agave plants the way they have for centuries: by hand.

“The agave chosen for the tequilas goes through a rigorous selection process, judiciously harvested when the fruit has reached its sweet spot and incorporated only when the plant is perfectly aged to provide a full, mature and flavourful product,” Oropreza said.

It requires cooking.
The cooking of the agave is a crucial step in the production of tequila: without it, the starches inside the agave are not converted to sugars, and without sugars, you’re not going to get your fermentation happening.
The agave pinas are put inside either a traditional oven, where they are steamed, or into autoclaves, which are kind of like your pressure cooker but on a big scale. Autoclaves take less time than the oven — also known as hornos (see the opposite page for the hornos at Jose Cuervo) — method.

It then needs crushing.
This is how the sugars inside the agave pinas are extracted. Traditionally, the pinas were put into a pit and crushed with a large, heavy stone wheel, called a tahona, which releases the sugary sap inside the pina, otherwise known as aguamiel. Larger producers sometimes use a what is called a diffusor. A diffusor is a means of blasting the agaves — which have been shredded, with a hot, high pressure stream of water that strips the sugar from the fibres. Though this method is far more efficient, the more traditional (yet slower) tahona method allows for fewer bitter components to be removed from the fibres.

It undergoes fermentation.
Now you have your sugary aguamiel, it’s time to get things fermenting. The aguamiel is added to big stainless steel or wooden vats, and yeast is introduced to get the ferment happening from either a proprietary strain, or from naturally occuring ‘wild’ yeasts in the distillery. A traditional fermentation with natural yeasts can take up to 12 days to complete. Once completed, the result is called mosto muerte and has a low percentage of alcohol (around 5-7 percent).

It’s then distilled.
Tequila must undergo two distillations to be labelled as tequila. The first shot of distillation is called ordinario — and the second run doesn’t have any particular alcoholic strength that it must be distilled to. It’s only when bottled that the spirit must wigh in at somewhere between 35 percent and 55 percent alcohol to be labelled as tequila.

It’s then given a rest.
Blanco tequila can be rested for up to two months. Reposado tequila is aged between 60 days and one year. Tequila aged longer than one and up to three years, in barrels no larger than 600 litres, is labelled as anejo; longer than that, in barrels smaller than 600 litres, are labelled as extra anejo.

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