Distilling Tequila

“1 tequila, 2 tequila, 3 tequila, floor!” -Buddy Shirt

Tequila has won the thirst of Americans twice over and now you, too, want in on the spirit that takes people to the floor. First, we would like to clear some misconceptions regarding the classification of Tequila, for there are many variations of and myths about the famous Mexican spirit that has swept over the US, and they are not one and the same.

Sometimes, mezcal and tequila get confused. Simply put, all tequilas are a mezcal, but only one mezcal is a tequila. By definition, mezcales are spirits made from any agave plant. Tequila, however, can only be made from the blue agave plant, which only grows in the fertile red soil of Western Mexico, in the Tequila region. Another misconception is that tequila can be made from the maguey. Blue agave and maguey are not the same plant and neither of these is a cactus, as many assume.

The blue agave is a spiky plant which, when stripped of its spiny leaves, looks like a giant pineapple. This part of the plant, the heart or core, is called piña. Piñas can weigh quite a bit, sometimes all the way up to 150 or 200 pounds! Before the agave can be harvested it must reach its peak, which may occur any time between 8 and 14 years. For tequila distillers, patience is certainly a virtue and is key for making fine tequila. Jimadores, the agave harvesters, have an important job because if they harvest too early, the agave will not be sweet enough; if they harvest too late, the agave will have matured and sprouted a quiote, a 25-40 foot stem that releases its seeds in the air, and is no longer suitable for tequila production. Once the piña is cleaned of its leaves it is chopped in half and thrown into the oven for roasting.

Special ovens, called hornos, roast the piñas to convert the starch into sugar. This important step cannot be missed because otherwise, besides not breaking down the starch into sugar, you would not get the flavor that makes tequila so desirable. Under high temperatures, the naturally odorless and almost colorless piña begins to brown and excrete sweet juices. Roasting takes between 24 and 36 hours at a temperature ranging between 175 and 205 degrees Fahrenheit. After the piña has been fired up, it is ripe and ready for fermentation.

When the piñas are ready, they are shredded and pressed to extract the sweet, flavorful juice. They are then washed down to create the wash, aguamiel, or honey water. The wash is placed in fermenters and will ferment from anwhere between 2 and 4 days. Unless temperature controlled fermenters are used, ambient temperatures will affect fermentation time. Also, different yeast strains will affect each batch differently; with time and experience, that can become a key secret ingredient! With fermentation done, two more steps remain: distillation and aging.

Distillation also varies among tequila distillers. Most claim to distill their ferment twice and some will proudly claim triple distillation. The first distillation is always a rough, low grade distillate and the second or third run is used to purify and perfect the mezcal. While Mexican tequila distilleries prefer traditional methods (using alembic potstills), one cannot rule out the efficiency and flexibility of a reflux still. Ultimately, distillers want to create a product that captures the aroma of the agave and, at the same time, tastes as pure as possible. No matter which still you use, patience and careful distillation will get you the results you seek. Avoid heating your mash too high – you will get too many impurities through, and avoid heating it too low – you will overcook the mash and lose the aroma. When you are happy with your mezcal, it is time for aging.

According to Mexican law, all tequilas must be aged for a minimum of 14-21 days. This becomes your basic tequila blanco, or white tequila. Oro, or gold, tequila requires 2 months aging. For a tequila reposado, or rested tequila, you must age it anywhere up to 1 year (364 days maximum). And the last classification, perhaps the best tequila out there, is the tequila añejo, the famous aged tequila. Tequila añejo must age for at least one year and has no maximum. Finally, before your spirit achieves official tequila status, you must decide whether to make regular tequila or the real thing that has people paying $130 per bottle.

Two types of tequila exist according to the regulations of the Mexican government: Tequila and Tequila 100% Agave. Tequila must be made with a minimum of 51% blue agave juices. The remaining 49% can be made from different sources of sugar. Regular tequila can be exported and bottled in other countries and still be called tequila. Tequila 100% Agave, however, must be made from 100% blue agave juices and can only be bottled in a Mexican distillery. And once it is bottled, you have your official TEQUILA!

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