This past Christmas break we went to Guadalajara and during our time there couldn’t miss out on a trip to the area around the town of Tequila to learn more about Mexico’s national drink. That’s how we found ourselves at Casa Herradura in the town of Amatitán, a functioning hacienda that claims to be the birthplace of the distilled agave liquor known as tequila.
The best part was seeing how the history of this hacienda is still being lived with a mix of tradition and modern methods. At Casa Herradura, history, agriculture, and chemistry come together in the bottle and it makes for a fascinating story.
In Spanish America, an hacienda was a rural estate, and by law had to produce a product and contain housing for workers and a church. This system was carried over after Mexican independence and continues at the Hacienda de San José del Refugio, which was known colloquially as Hacienda del Padre, as it was originally owned by a priest. Today, two thousand workers as well as the current owners live at the hacienda. Some families have worked there for six generations!
At this hacienda, tequila was produced, first illegally, from 1820-1870, then legally since 1870, explained our guide, José Manuel. Tunnels across the property date to this era and were used to hide both tequila and priests during the era of the Cristero Rebellion.
At one point during this conflict, government officials came searching for priests and the owners flooded the basement cistern to provide a hiding place. The priests survived by breathing the air left in pockets against the ceiling while the distillery owners insisted to officials that there was “only water in down there”.
This wasn’t the only memory of the past. Our next stop was the old distillery, where the stone basins now museum-ready were used as fermentation vats were used until as recently as 1963. We saw as well the remnants of boilers from this era which were shipped from London to Veracruz and delivered overland by mule.
At the time of its founding, distilling was a dangerous industry. Our guide told us that 80% of tasters died. These tasters were the ones that sampled the tequila to test whether it was ready for consumption and I imagine consumed the “head” and “tails” as well as the “heart” of the distillation before modern chemistry intervened to save lives.
My thoughts at this point turned to the value of a commodity over that of human life at that point in history, though perhaps this was common across all industries at the time. It’s not like coal mining was ever portrayed as good for your health, for example.
Luckily, these historical production methods have both stayed true, yet improved, safety-wise. Tequila’s rarefied historical and regional status is protected by law, much like French Champagne. While there are 126 types of agave, there is only one variety that produces tequila, tequiliana weber, and only five states can produce this beverage officially, mainly Jalisco.
Growing the tequila plant, agave azul, is no easy feat. An agave plant takes 25 years from seed to be ready for harvest. After 3 years the agave becomes a mother and gives children which are replanted and ready in 7-9 years, which I imagine is like having a giant spider plant. Each agave is then tested and must pass 26% sugar content to be ready for harvest.
The field hand in charge of preparing the heart of this spiky plant is called the jimador. He shaves off the spines of the agave until the heart is exposed, leaving the spines behind to compost. This heart varies in size from 80-200 pounds(!) (see photos below) and roughly 12 pounds of agave is needed for a single liter of tequila, hence each heart produces 6 or more bottles of tequila! The jimador can shave as many as 120 “pineapples” or hearts per day.
Such a reliance on a single region and a single plant with a multi-year gestation period produces anxiety among producers. There is a reserve of millions of liters of tequila to smooth out dips in supply due to any unforeseen circumstances, such as an infestation, which happened several years prior.
Fermentation and Distillation
As a homebrewer, I recognize parts of the tequila preparation process, with a few key differences. First, the hearts are split and baked in an oven for 26 hours to release the honey, which smells like malted barley or sweet potato. These ovens take quite a lot of punishment and have to be repaired or rebuilt after a year and a half, a process that was underway when we visited. This honey or syrup is then held in a giant stainless open-topped tank.
What amazed me from the start is how much of this process takes place essentially outdoors. The ovens, the fermentation, even the distillation all take place with only a roof overhead, no doors and nearly no walls.
That is, fermentation is open to the air and takes 4 days, using a mixture of 51% agave juice and 49% honey, the latter of which is the thick syrupy product of the baking process mentioned above. This is an improvement over the 19th-century process, which we saw indoors in those stone vats, used to take 20 days. Fermentation at that time happened spontaneously as the vats were exposed at night to a a patio outside their window that was lined with fruit trees. Fruit trees, in fact, are still scattered around the property.
Distillation is where my knowledge gets a bit fuzzy. This is the process that concentrates the alcohol from fermentation into liquor. Here’s what I caught: the ordinario is the first 25% of the distillation, which is sent back. It’s used as fuel or for washing and sanitizing bottles before the bottling process. The end product, the “heart” is 55% tequila, which is then diluted with distilled water.
We were taught by José Manuel to rub it on our hands and smell (smells like tequila), and to shake a bottle of the liquid to see if it’s clear. If it’s milky or turbid, it’s not safe. I imagine sampling these bad parts is what drastically shortened the lives of those 19th-century tasters I mentioned earlier.
Aging and Bottling
After distillation is the aging process, which to my surprise is the only difference between the different grades of product from light to dark. Certain special labels may select the best of the agave hearts, but within the normal product range, it is aging alone that accounts for the difference in flavor.
Plata or silver is aged for 45 days, reposado for 11 months, and añejo for 1-3 years. The newly coined extra añejo is aged for 3-5 years. Up to 50% is lost in the aging process through evaporation or absorption into the oak casks.
Bottling is the only part of the process that resembles a modern food production facility. We were only able to see the bottling line from outside, looking through thick double-pane UV-tinted glass. I was fine with not getting closer; after all the initial steps feeling so close to the land, the bottling line looks like any other production line elsewhere in the world.
If there wasn’t a chance to taste the product, nobody would come on these tours. So with a bit more of a sunburn than when we started, we sat down to try some tequila. I can’t say that I remember much other than how the tasting is performed:
- breathe out;
- swish the sample around in your mouth and consume.
The purpose of this exercise is to limit intake of alcohol vapors, which in my personal opinion seems to be the element that makes most straight liquor go down with a shudder. This process was reminiscent of using mouthwash, made my gums tingle, and did seem to cut down on the “yuck” factor, making the tasting more enjoyable.
Generally, the tequila gets smoother and smokier as it ages. The plata always seems a bit harsh to me, though now I know it’s the same as the añejo, only younger. In fact, aficionados can buy a one- or two-liter mini-cask at Herradura and age their own product from plata up to the point of their choosing. That’s about as DIY as you can get without breaking the law.