Not All Tequilas Are Created Equal
Step 1: Farming
We mature our agave plants 8-12 years in the lowlands of Jalisco. They are grown in volcanic soil that has a mineral quality and gives the tequila an earthy, spicy taste almost like cinnamon.
The harvest of the agave is made in three steps… when the plant is 6 years old, 30% of the agave is cut with a sharp curved tool called a Coa to trim the leaves and protect the heart or pina of the agave. Once the plant reaches 7 years of age, another 30% is cut and the remaining 40% is cut when it reaches 8 years old. Cutting the plant allows the pina to mature properly in order to receive the proper sugar content.
What is truly important is the sugar content…the older the agave, the longer the pina will have to accumulate the starches allowing for a smoother taste. About 15 pounds of pinas produce one liter of tequila and we do not add anything artificial to our tequila. Even the yeast comes from the honey of the plant.
Once matured they are delivered to the distillery for inspection of the raw material to verify the agave Tequilana Weber is authentic in its blue variety. It is checked for ripeness and to confirm there are no traces of disease. A lab analysis is performed to verify the optimal amount (23% to 26%) of reducing sugars.
Step 2: Cooking
The cooking stage, known as hydrolysis, is done by the application of steam at high pressure to break down the carbohydrates (mainly inuline) to obtain simple sugars, fructose, and glucose for fermentation.
Dry masonry ovens are used in cooking, even though they are slower, because this is the traditional way tequila is made. Cooking them the old-fashioned way is like a chef using a seasoned pan, much more flavor is embodied.
Cooking time ranges from 36 to 40 hours under high steam pressure at a temperature of 90 to 105 degrees. Once cooked, the agaves stay in the oven with the door closed for a period of 6 to 8 hours without any steam. When the time has passed, the doors are opened to allow the agaves to cool down. The entire period for cooking takes 44 to 48 hours.
The canals at the lower part of the oven are called rafters and where the liquid (honeys) produced by cooking are accumulated. Every two hours the valves for draining the honeys are opened and the juices in the rafters are drained from the ovens. First honeys produced when cooking are called “Bitter honeys” and are disposed of. The second honeys are rich in fermentable sugars and added to the ‘MOST’ in fermentation stage, giving desirable natures to the finished product.
Step 3: Milling
After the agaves are perfectly cooked, the pinas are pulled out by hand and taken to the grinding area where honeys are separated from the fiber. This is done using a tearing machine in combination with roller train mills.
The traditional method is to crush the piñas with a “tahona” a giant grinding wheel operated by mules, oxen, or tractors in a circular pit.
The tearing machine shreds the agave and then it is taken to the four roller mills train where juices or aguamiels are squeezed. High-pressure water is applied on the mass for better extraction of juices. The industrial process, molienda (grinding), produces an agave juice containing 8 to 12 degrees BRIX, which is received in containers and taken through pipes to fermentation tubes.
Step 4: Fermenting
There are 18 tanks used during the fermentation stage and the tanks can be opened or closed. These tanks are made out of stainless steel with a capacity of 18,000 liters each.
This is where the sugars are transformed into ethyl alcohol, the main component of tequila. The fermented juices then pass into stills, where they are heated to a high temperature to evaporate and condense into tequila.
Transformation of sugars into alcohol is carried out by yeasts (microorganisms) and there are approximately 200,000 microorganisms in a liter of tequila. We only use the natural yeasts from the agaves extracted from honeys during the cooking process. Important factors in the fermentation phase are temperature (which should be the same as the atmosphere without any artificial heat) ph, and pollution by organisms that represent competitors to yeasts.
For temperature control of the liquid, the tub has a blue pipe around it on the upper part of it called “anillo de enfriamiento” (cooling ring) to spread cold or hot water based on what is required. Fermentation must take place at 30 to 36 degrees and never should reach 40 degrees.
The “most” in full fermentation is effervescent and ceases when the work of the yeasts is completed. Bubbles in the liquid are produced when yeasts eat the microorganisms and in turn carbon dioxide is casted. While yeasts are working the liquid, it is known as “live most” and when the process is finished it’s called “dead most”.
At the end of fermentation, it is ready for distillation. It has an alcohol content oscillating from 4% to 8% in volume, depending on the concentration of reducer sugars contained within the most and produces 0. 511 grams of ethylic alcohol.
Step 5: Distilling
After the most is fermented, it passes to the distillation process which is completed in alembics. Alembics may be made out of copper or stainless steel and are a common style of distillation towers.
Alembics comprise three parts:
- Pot or caldron where “Most” is deposited for heating.
- Column or capital collects and conveys the vapors through the alembic’s neck.
- Condenser or coil where vapors are condensed and become liquid.
The caldron’s temperature is 90 degrees; alcohols begin to evaporate at temperatures above 60 degrees.
In distillation the alcohol is purified, getting rid of non-desirable components including remaining yeasts, nutritive salts, solids, some secondary alcohol as methanol, a group of components known as superior alcohols, and water.
Two distillations are needed when making Tequila; first is called mangler and the second is named rectifier. During distillation three products are obtained: Heads, Heart, and Tails.
Heads are a small amount of distilled alcoholic liquid obtained at the beginning of distillation processing. They are rich in substances, obtained in the first 10 minutes of distillation, and thrown out.
Heart is the major portion of the distilled alcohol and produced immediately after heads appear. It is rich in ethylic alcohol and most of the desirable organoleptic substances. In the first distillation, heart is the liquid obtained and it’s called Ordinary Tequila while the one obtained in the second distillation is White Tequila.
Tails are the liquids obtained at the end of each distillation and they are alcoholic products rich in superior alcohols, vinazas, and other undesired heavy substances. Tail’s alcoholic graduation is the same as fermented mosts which is distilled once more to purify alcohols.
Ordinary Tequila is the one obtained by first distillation and it contains an alcoholic percentage from 20 degrees to 28 degrees. Tequila obtained by second distillation may have an alcoholic graduation from 55 degrees to 60 degrees. Recommendations are that the lower graduation of Tequila must be 35 degrees and the highest 55 degrees.
The process of tequila dilution, distilled portable or demineralized water is added, is called homogenization of tequila. After homogenization, it rests for 24 hours and is then analyzed to ensure it has the conditions for the next stage.
Step 6: Aging
Aging, also known as maturing the tequila, is storing the tequila in wood casks. The cellar has over 2000 barrels stored and is a fresh place with mango trees inside to help preserve a moist and fresh atmosphere.
This way the wood of the barrels does not absorb too much tequila and the wood stays moist avoiding dryness and ruptures.
The wood of the barrels are made of French White Oak and the lifetime of a barrel ranges from 14 to 17 years. In the presence of a representative from the CRT (The Tequila Regulatory Council), a seal is set on each full barrel to guarantee the authenticity of the tequila.
There are 5 kinds of tequila…White (Silver), Jovan or Oro (Gold), Reposado (Rested), Añejo (Aged), and Extra Anejo (Ultra Aged).
Blanco:After the double distillation process a Blanco can be aged up to two months. Señor Rio Tequila’s Blanco expression is not aged at all.
Reposado: After the double distillation process, it rests for a variable period from two to eleven months in casks. Señor Rio Tequila’s Reposado is aged for six months in French Cognac barrels.
Añejo:After the double distillation process, it ages for a minimum of one year to less than three years. We age Señor Rio Tequila’s Añejo expression for two full years in French Cognac barrels.
Extra Añejo:After the double distillation process, it ages for 3 years or longer. We age Señor Rio Tequila’s Extra Añejo expression for five years in French Cognac barrels.
The longer the tequila ages, the more color and tannins the final product has. The condition of the barrels (such as their age, previous use, and if their interiors have been burnt or toasted) will also affect the tequila’s taste.
Step 7: Bottling
The bottler of tequila is obliged to demonstrate, at any moment, that the product hasn’t been altered in its final bottling. The product with a label that reads Tequila 100% agave of Tequila 100% puro de agave must be bottled at the bottling plant of the maker and in the zone of “Denominacion de Origen.”
Capacity of any portable container must not be more than 5 liters. All 100% agave tequilas must be bottled in the designated Mexican regions and include on their labels “Hecho en Mexico / Made in Mexico.”
Step 8: Tasting
If you are a purist, a glass of Blanco served neat is a great start. Pour about 1 to 1 ½ ounces of tequila in a snifter or wine glass. (Note: Reidel makes a tequila glass). Allow the tequila to breathe and open up so you capture the nose of it.
Hold the glass at the base and swirl it around to the left to free the aroma and observe the body. Notice how the tequila clings to the side of the glass then cascades downward. This is known as the legs or tears of tequila. With Blanco, the legs move quicker than the aged expressions. This is because the glycerin is transferred from the oak cask to the tequila during the aging process, resulting in a thicker consistency with a slower movement of the legs.
Place your nose near the glass to smell. The fragrance or aromas determine if it is a delicate tequila or not. The senses of the nose capture the bouquet of the tequila. The lower rim holds the basic elements of the tequila. In the mid-section of your glass, you’ll find the dominant notes. The upper rim reveals the secondary notes such as spice, floral, or herbal.
Take a small sip and allow the tequila to roll over your tongue like a fine wine. Swish the tequila around the inside of your mouth, swallow, then breathe in to capture the aroma and taste together. Your tongue will adapt with the second sip. The Blanco is clean, crisp, and really offers the agave flavor and most alcohol.
The Reposado is very complex with many lovely layers introducing the oak, cognac, and spice from the earth. It is a nice balance between the Blanco and Añejo.
The Añejo tastes more like a cognac, smoother because of the aging process. Some of the characteristics are reminiscent of a scotch and the oak is much more prominent with a lingering silky finish.
You may cleanse your palate between tequilas with a small glass of water.