A Lesson on Tequila Production by Bill Norris

Bill Norris, Alamo Drafthouse Beverage Director, will be the guy behind the tequila selection and menu at The 400 Rabbits, the new bar at Alamo Drafthouse Slaughter Lane. He went to Guadalajara, Mexico to study the production and distilleries of agave. This is his report:

Despite it sometimes having a frat boy (or post-frat, refuse to grow up) image, Tequila is a spirit that can hold all the complexity and interest of a fine single malt Scotch or Cognac.   It is one of the few spirits in the world that is protected by international trade agreements and regulated by a government body.  Moreover, it is one of the few distilled beverages that can really maintain a sense of terroir or place after distillation.  With a spirit like Bourbon, or even Irish whiskey, it’s not likely you can trace the origin of the corn or barley that dominates the mash bill.  With well-made Tequila, a true sense of the agave plant and where it was grown can really shine through in the finished product.

But it is an industry that is in serious trouble, trouble that even those who govern and make Tequila largely refuse to acknowledge as they rush towards what some see as an inevitable catastrophe if the industry (and its consumers) keep moving forward on the same path.

Tequila is one of the fastest growing spirits categories in the world.  The vast majority of all Tequila made is still consumed in either Mexico or the United States, but the producers—and the multi-national corporations that keep buying Tequila distilleries and producers—are determined to continue to expand into world markets, without regards to the artisan traditions that make Tequila great.

On a recent trip to Guadalajara and the highlands of Jalisco with the Tequila Interchange Project, I was privileged to spend time with some distillers who maintain that tradition, visit a major distillery that was recently purchased by a giant, multi national spirits corporation, and to spend time with representatives of the CRT (the group that polices Tequila regulations) and the Tequila Chamber of Commerce (the group that sets those policies).  I saw a lot of people who were trying to do the right thing, but also a quest for profits that might doom Tequila forever.

By law, the Weber Blue Agave, grown and distilled in five Mexican states, is the only of hundreds of agave species that can be used to make Tequila.  Each plant takes between seven and twelve years to mature.  Traditionally, when an agave is ripe, a skilled Jimador harvests the plant, trims the spiky leaves from its pina or core, and ships the trimmed pina off to the distillery.  At the distillery, the pina is halved or quartered, fed into ovens, and baked to release its sugars so they can be fermented (cooked agave reminded me a lot of sweet potato).  In the past, producers would crush the cooked agave in a Tahona, a sort of giant stone pit, with a grinding wheel pulled by mules.  Many producers now use mechanical mills for the same purpose.

The extracted juice is fermented in vats, than distilled a couple of times, cut to proof and, bottled or barrel aged.  So far, so good.

But those of us who were working bars in the mid 90s remember the last time there was an explosion of interest in Tequila.  A shortage of agave at the time caused a massive spike in prices of both raw agave and Tequila.  In the wake of the shortage, many farmers and producers pushed more land into agave production, and now, there’s a glut of agave on the market, with prices so low for those who grow it that the expense of the harvest isn’t worth the cost for many.  Driving through the areas outside of Arandas, we saw whole fields left to rot.  Even more troubling is the lack of biodiversity amongst Tequila plantations.

If you’ve ever grown a “Century Plant,” or other variety of agave here in Austin, you’re familiar with the runners the plants send out. For tequila producers, if those clones are left on the plant for a few years, and transplanted at three years old, it shortens the lengthy growing cycle and creates a more profitable yield.  But it also creates a situation in which entire plantations are essentially full of exactly the same plant, prone to fall victim to the same disease or predators, without the bio-diversity that can protect a crop from disaster.

The solution would seem to be simple—allow some agave to go to seed, where they shoot up the giant Dr. Seuss-like inflorescence from its center and start from scratch.  But an agave that flowers is worthless for tequila production.  The process of flowering consumes all the plant’s sugars, and after flowering it dies.  So tequila producers rely on these vulnerable clones.

Producing Tequila is costly.  Only agave spirits require a raw material that takes more than one growing season to produce.  And because agave takes so long to mature, more can potentially go wrong over time.  But current regulations and laws don’t consider biodiversity and it is not inconceivable that the entire industry could fail because of the lack of biodiversity—it’s happened before when European grapes were almost completely wiped out by Phylloxera in the 1800s, decimating the wine and brandy industries.

Even more disturbing is the “revolution” in Tequila production that has largely accompanied international investment in the industry.  Anyone who’s shopped in a liquor store lately has seen a huge increase in Tequila brands on the shelf.  Part of this is due to the massive agave glut—it’s never been cheaper to produce tequila than it is right now.  But a lot of it is due to giants of the liquor industry setting their sights on Tequila as the next “growth” category.

The way the laws that govern Tequila are written (and they’re written by the same people who own Tequila distilleries), there is little control over how agave is processed so that it can be fermented.  For centuries, there was little change—agave was cooked, pulped, fermented and distilled.  The best producers still use that method, but once great producers and some newcomers to the market are using more controversial methods.

A raw agave is a giant ball of caustic starch.  Cooked, it releases agua mile (“honey water” that can be used in agave nectar), and sugars that can be fermented into alcohol.  Many producers, especially those that produce a massive quantity of product, are now using “diffusers,” a sort of giant metal tube that process agave with a mixture of steam and chemicals, usually sulfuric acid, to release those fermentable sugars.  Diffusers extract between 10 and 20% more fermentable material than traditional methods and, if you’re making a lot of tequila, greatly enhance your bottom line.  But at what cost?

There are some once great brands that taste like a shadow of their former self.  I’m generally reluctant to call out brands in a public forum like this because they have pesky attorneys and are fond of cease and desist letters, but Sauza actually promotes the use of their diffuser as an “advance,’ so I’m comfortable asserting that a once great tequila like Sauza Tres Generaciones is a shadow of what it once was, and that decline is directly related to their move towards the use of diffusers and autoclaves instead of the traditional ovens.

Other brands are more complex.  We visited the Herradura distillery, recently purchased by Brown Forman (Jack Daniels, etc) and saw a diffuser in use between the factory that produces the signature Herradura Tequila and the one that produces the lower end Pepe Lopez and El Jimador.  Herradura admits to briefly using the diffuser on its signature line, but claims to have halted the process.  All I can say is that at the distillery we sampled pre-diffused Herradura Silver alongside the current product and there is a clear difference in flavor, agave character and quality.

So what can we do?  As consumers, we have choices.  There are three tequilas on the market in Texas that I’m happy to suggest without reservation.  Siembra Azul, 7 Leguas, and Tequila Ocho all produce a quality product, with a respect for tradition, and a concern for the future of the industry.  You can be sure that if you pay money for a bottle produced by any of these distilleries, you’re getting a quality product.

Ocho in particular is interesting because they produce single vintage tequilas from single estates.  In the past, there was a very real difference between Highland and Lowland tequilas, but most producers now source agave from all over the permitted growing regions, rendering the concept of terroir in Tequila almost useless.  Comparing Ocho vintages is a revelation—though they are distilled to the same recipe, each vintage is different and reflects the estate of origin.  They’re expensive bottles, but worth collecting.

Siembra Azul is my every day favorite.  Across the line, it is great Tequila, reasonably priced and made with passion from highland only agave, giving it a real sense of place and character.  They use only champagne yeast and play Vivaldi and Mozart in the distillery while the mash is fermenting.  I don’t know if the music makes a difference (the yeast surely does), but the tequila is excellent.

7 Leguas is one of the few distilleries remaining that still uses the traditional tahona for a portion of its production and one of the few that uses the ground agave fibers in the fermentation tank during production.  They used to be the contract distiller for a brand we all know that starts with Pa, ends with Ron and has a “T” in the middle.  When that brand moved to a new facility (and a new distiller), they tied up the 7 Leguas people in litigation for a long while, but a taste of 7 Leguas reminds us of what that other brand was before it became an exercise in marketing over quality.

We also had the chance to visit a new distillery owned and operated Felipe Camarena (a 3rd generation tequila distiller whose family has produced El Tesoro, Tapatia and Tequila Ocho).  The first products from this distillery will hopefully be available in Texas by early 2012, because it was the most remarkable operation we saw, with a dedication not only to quality, but also to environmental conservation and a stewardship of the land that would be remarkable in Austin, but is revolutionary in rural Mexico.

If you love Tequila, think about what brands you support.  It used to be enough to find that “100% Blue Agave” designation on the label to know that you were getting the good stuff.  Today, you have to do more.  The database at http://tequila.net is an amazing resource.  Every bottle of Tequila sold has a NOM Number on its label that corresponds to the distillery where it is made.  It’s a place to start, to see if the distillery is a massive contract operation (are the producing dozens of brands?) or a true artisan producer.  The reviews and forums there are worth reading.

Our only weapon in preserving good tequila is our wallet.  Try to spend your money with people who do things right.  But don’t rely on history.  A certain Don who for a long time produced quality tequila is now owned by a certain Jose.  Draw your own conclusions.