Here’s your quick guide to tequila

Tequila. We still remember the days when it was a kind of obscure product behind the bar, but then again we’re kind of old like that.

What we do love about tequila is how it’s this ancient agricultural product, that’s intrinsically linked to the place from whence it comes — it’s like wine in that respect, and to some extent rum agricole — and that means it helps to understand just how this great agave stuff makes its way into the bottle. Here, seven steps to great tequila.

1. Tequila can only come from these places.

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.

2. The agave takes time to grow and mature.

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.

3. Once it’s harvested, the agave needs to be cooked.

Jimadors harvest the heavy agave plants the way they have for centuries: by hand. 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 — method.

4. Once the agave is cooked, 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.

5. Next, it gets all fermented.

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).

6. Now it’s time for distillation.

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 with in at somewhere between 35 percent and 55 percent alcohol to be labelled as tequila.

7. Then the spirit is rested.

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.

Barrel ageing at Jose Cuervo.

Jose Cuervo’s La Rojeña distillery

For a distillery that is some 200-plus years old, Jose Cuervo’s La Rojeña certainly gets a work out — get to know the oldest active distillery in Latin America with some fast facts from the brand below.

• La Rojeña, founded in 1812, is the oldest active distillery in Latin America.
• The piñas arrive at La Rojeña and are thoroughly examined to guarantee their quality.
• Each day the agave oven deck receives from 200 to 300 tonnes of agave for the production of tequila. 
• They go through a traditional test to determine the average size and therefore average price for the batch. Using 21 metal flags and an old numbered bicycle wheel, the flags are randomly tossed into the huge pile of piñas and the wheel is spun to determine which piña will be tested against Jose Cuervo’s high quality standards. If it passes, the whole batch is purchased and the horneros begin to load and stack the piña’s into the adobe oven.

Ask the Expert…

Ruben Aceves, Casa Herradura
Ruben Aceves is the international director of brand advocacy for Herradura, and he’s been at it a long time. Which means he knows a thing or two about what makes great tequila, so we asked him just that.

What are the qualities you look for in the best tequilas?
Transparency, aroma, flavour and a smooth, balanced and long finish.

What do you think is fueling the demand for tequila around the globe today?
Finally, consumers are getting to understand that tequila can be, and it is, a great spirit (but not all tequilas, of course).

Which part of the tequila making process are you most passionate about, and why?
To make a great tequila, you have to do all of it right: growing the agave; harvesting it at the right time; the cooking is so important, fermentation is amazing, and the right distillation is key! And then to finish it up in nice barrels is important, too.