Traveling Down the Tequila Trail | Wine Enthusiast
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Traveling Down the Tequila Trail

Out in the field, the vast rows of spiky, silver-green agave plants shimmer against the morning light. In the distance, the dark silhouette of a mountain is plainly visible. The locals call it “El Volcán de Tequila.” The Tequila Volcano.

This is where Tequila is born—not in the bars or on the bottling lines, but out in the fields, where the sword-like agave leaves stretch toward the sun.

Much like fine wine, Mexican Tequila emphasizes the raw material from which the spirit is made, blue Weber agave.

Some agave grows in Jalisco’s lowland valley region, in view of the long-dormant Tequila Volcano, where the volcanic soil imparts an earthy, herbaceous character. Agave also thrives in the highlands farther east, in Los Altos, which sits 7,000 feet above sea level. Here, hot days and cool nights give the agave more fruity and floral notes.

Sharpening a shovel-like tool called a coa that is used to dig up the agave roots.
Sharpening a shovel-like tool called a coa that’s used to dig up the agave roots / Photo by Penny De Los Santos

Except for single-estate Tequilas, most producers use a mix of agave from both the highlands and lowlands.

Across the border, Americans are consuming more Tequila than ever. According to the Distilled Spirits Council of the U.S., its growth rate trails just whiskey, driven by high-end, aged Tequilas and more Tequila-based cocktails.

Mexico’s agave fields may seem far away, but our beloved margaritas and Palomas wouldn’t be the same without them.

How Tequila is Made

Whether born in the highlands or lowlands, agave plants grow for a long time, usually between six and 12 years, before they’re harvested for Tequila.

The sharp, spiky leaves of the agave being sheared away / Photo by Penny De Los Santos
The sharp, spiky leaves of the agave being sheared away / Photo by Penny De Los Santos

The Harvest: Jimadores (farmers) dig up the root using a sharp, shovel-like tool called a coa. The jimador first uses the coa as a lever to pry the plant from the ground. Then, the coa’s razor-like edge is used to shear away the spiky leaves and expose the white heart of agave, marked by green crescents where the leaves once sat. It resembles an oversized pineapple, which is why agave hearts are called piñas.

The piñas are then delivered to distilleries. How the agave hearts are processed varies by producer and can make a tremendous difference in a Tequila’s flavor.

Agave hearts, or piñas, after being harvested
Agave hearts, or piñas, after being harvested / Photo by Penny De Los Santos

Cooking/Pressing: At the distillery, the piñas are halved or quartered. The pieces may be pressed for juice (“fresh pressed”); cooked in a steam oven and then pressed, often using a stone called a tahona; or shredded in a mill. At this point, the agave develops underlying flavors that range from honey or brown sugar to deeper, earthier notes like sweet potato, molasses or tamarind.

Fermentation: The agave is moved to a wooden or steel fermentation tank, where it’s combined with yeast. Some producers use wild yeasts, while others opt for commercial or carefully protected proprietary strains. It ferments in these tanks for three or four days.

Avión Tequila aging in barrels / Photo by Penny De Los Santos
Avión Tequila aging in barrels / Photo by Penny De Los Santos

Distillation: Some distillers use copper stills, while others employ less expensive steel stills either lined with copper, or with copper elements inside. Both pot stills and column stills can be used. Most Tequilas are distilled twice. By this point, it has transformed into a lighter, more nuanced spirit, where it shows fruity, floral or herbaceous notes on top of the honey-like core.

Aging: While blanco Tequilas are unaged or minimally aged (see sidebar), other Tequila expressions are funneled into barrels, often ones that previously housed Bourbon. There, they rest for months or years before the Tequila is bottled. As with other spirits, time in the barrel equals layers of vanilla, caramel and spice.

A Quick Guide to Tequila Expressions

Depending on how long a Tequila is aged, this is what it will say on the label.

Blanco: Unaged, or aged less than two months

Reposado: Aged from two to 12 months

Añejo: Aged for a minimum of one year

Extra-Añejo: Substantially aged; the youngest Tequila must be aged a minimum of three years

Cristallino: A new, not-quite-­official category; usually, a sweetened añejo Tequila with the color filtered out

Who’s making your Tequila?

Though Tequila distilleries range from small artisan operations to big conglomerates, many of the largest brands have been family-owned for generations.

Tequila Avión’s Alejandro Lopez (right), Ricardo Lopez (center) and Maurilio Lopez (left) / Photo by Penny De Los Santos
Tequila Avión’s Alejandro Lopez (right), Ricardo Lopez (center) and Maurilio Lopez (left) / Photo by Penny De Los Santos

Tequila Avión: The Traditionalist

Avión founder Ken Austin started his career working for Gallo and Seagram’s, then started an aviation company, Marquis Jet, in 2001. Avión, a nod to his aviation roots, was founded in 2009.

Austin says he went from distillery to distillery in search of a partner. The family-run Lopez distillery, Productos Finos de Agave, heeded his call.

If the backstory of this brand seems ready for a TV drama, well, it’s a bit late for that.

The brand’s big break came when Doug Ellin, creator the HBO hit show Entourage and a childhood friend of Austin’s business partner Kenny Dichter, included the Tequila as a major Season 7 plot point in 2010.

No mixto, por favor

Look for 100-percent agave Tequila­. Mixto Tequila, made with a mix of agave sugar and other sources like molasses that often has caramel coloring added, is not considered of high quality. Mixtos are often labeled as “gold” Tequila. Avoid them.

Such product placement can cost brands millions, but reportedly, Avión’s inclusion in the show didn’t cost a dime. Entourage greatly increased its brand awareness, but Austin flatly denies that Avión is a “made-for-TV Tequila.” Pernod Ricard bought a 20-percent stake in the company in 2011, and it acquired controlling interest in 2014.

The Lopez family owns or manages almost 300 ranches, including agave fields, in Jesus Maria, the town where the distillery is located. Avión uses Lopez-grown agave and is made in the Lopez distillery, using mostly traditional methods.

In the U.S., people love (or love to hate) the industry’s largest distillery.

“Automation is a no-no,” says Austin, who serves as the brand’s chairman. The agave is cooked in a brick oven, then shredded and distilled in relatively small stainless-steel mills with copper coils tucked inside.

If the production methods seem modest, the warehouse is vast and somewhat slick, which befits its connection to Hollywood. One space features neon signs and holds 3,000 barrels, while a second subterranean space holds twice that amount and includes a large section of former tawny Port barrels. The Port-influenced spirit, yet to be released, tastes almost like a fruit-infused Tequila, with notes of peach nectar and raspberry.

Patrón's David Rodriguez (left ) and Francisco Alcaraz.
Patrón’s David Rodriguez (left ) and Francisco Alcaraz (right) / Photo by Penny De Los Santos

Patrón: The Big Dog

In the U.S., people love (or love to hate) the industry’s largest distillery. Approximately 1,700 employees work at the Patrón compound that feels a lot like a resort hotel property. Amenities include a new conference center with a gorgeous private bar that wouldn’t feel out of place in Las Vegas.

Francisco Alcaraz, the brand’s master distiller and blender, created the recipe for Patrón at Siete Leguas (another Tequila distillery), where Patrón was made from 1989–2002 before building its own distillery. In addition to the flagship Patrón Tequila bottlings, the lineup now includes high-end Roca Patrón and Gran Patrón selections.

Patrón purchases its agave from outside producers. Inside the distillery, the piñas are cooked in steam ovens, and then crushed by large tahona stones powered by a tractor-like device (traditionally, these stones were pulled by donkeys). The crushed agave is fermented in large wooden vats and distilled in small copper-pot stills. The end result? A fruity Tequila with plenty of citrus and spice.

 Rubén Aceves Vidrio of Herradura.
Rubén Aceves Vidrio of Herradura / Photo by Penny De Los Santos

Herradura: The Naturalist

While some Tequilas are made in tightly controlled, lab-like environments (see Cazadores, below), Herradura takes a more relaxed approach. There are no lids on the large, open steel vats of fermenting agave, 80 percent of which comes from the lowlands. The open vats encourage wild yeast to float in from the 16 varieties of fruit trees grown on the property. Herradura is one of the few large producers to use natural yeasts, rather than lab-developed varieties. The resulting Tequila boasts a subtle botanical profile, with notes that suggest pineapple and floral honey, but flavors can vary by batch.

Part of the Brown-Forman empire, many of Herradura’s Tequilas are aged in barrels that formerly held Kentucky Bourbon. Its longer-aged selections boast a bold, Bourbon-like characteristic that suggests caramel, vanilla or custardy flan.

Herradura also produces the El Jimador label. Rubén Aceves Vidrio, master taster for Herradura, explains the difference. For El Jimador, the agave is pressed before it’s cooked (which yields more juice). Conversely, the agave is first steamed for Herradura, then the tender piña is pressed for juice.

“It’s like boneless ribeye versus bone-in ribeye,” says Aceves Vidrio. Like a bone-in ribeye, he says, Herradura has more complexity, thanks to the additional effort needed during production.

Jesus Susunaga Acosta of Cazadores
Jesus Susunaga Acosta of Cazadores / Photo by Penny De Los Santos

Cazadores: The Laboratory

At Cazadores, the distillery environment emphasizes “sterile liquid” and eschews impurities in every way. The steel tanks are polished until guests can see their reflection. A team of 20 lab testers analyzes all of the products for quality assurance.

There are no fancy, varied barrel finishes used here. The brand only employs new barrels.

“We want to keep the flavors as clean as possible,” says Jesus Susunaga Acosta, the brand’s master tequiliero. Some of the barrels are encased in plastic wrap, ostensibly to prevent evaporation, but it likely also protects against dust and dirt.

The Tequila style is similarly clean and lean. It’s a crisp, citrusy blanco that takes on gentle vanilla and stone fruit as it ages. It’s just about as pristine as it comes.

Recommended Tequilas 

Here are five bottlings to seek out that span the full range of Tequila expressions. Here are five bottlings to seek out that span the full range of Tequila expressions.

Herradura Ultra Añejo; $55, 95 points. One of the few cristallino bottlings available in the U.S. This one mixes añejo and extra-añejo Tequilas, plus a hint of agave nectar. It’s crystal clear in the glass and has subtle flavors of coconut, pineapple and vanilla. abv: 40% 

Partida Añejo; $50, 95 points. Hitting all the right notes, this 18-month-aged añejo melds tropical fruit and fresh-cut apple with silky vanilla and agave nectar. It finishes on a brisk peppery-cinnamon note. abv: 40%

Siete Leguas Reposado; $43, 95 points. Delicate and balanced, this pale, straw-hued selection seems to trade jabs of jalapeño and smooth vanilla-honey sweetness into the elongated fade. Sip or mix. abv: 40% 

Cazadores Tequila Blanco; $24, 93 points. Brisk, clean and herbaceous. The aroma has a spicy edge, while the minty palate finishes with vanilla-coconut sweetness and mild baking-spice tingle. Best Buy. abv: 40% 

Patrón Roca Añejo; $90, 93 points. Remarkably light for an añejo, look for a bracingly peppery aroma and pale straw hue. It’s feather-soft on the palate, with notes of pineapple and jalapeño that fade into a pleasant finish of vanilla and spice. abv: 44%