Azul Blue Tequila
100% Pure Blue Agave High Quality Aged Tequila

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The Making of a Tequila

Tequila is not made from the typical grains or fruits most alcoholic beverages are made from. It is distilled from the roasted centre (piña) of the blue agave (maguey) plant - the agave tequilana weber azul - one of 136 species of agave that grow in Mexico (with 26 sub-species, 29 varieties and 7 types). It has a lifespan of 8-14 years, depending on soil, climate and cultivation methods. The blue agave was classified by German botanist F. Weber in 1905. It's commonly - and mistakenly - called a cactus, but it is really a succulent that belongs to the lily (amaryllis) family. It is sometimes known as cabuya, maguey mezcal, mexic, pita and teometl. The agave used in mezcal, although similar, is harvested younger than the tequila agave.

Most of Jalisco state where tequila is made is a high plateau that averages 7,500 feet above sea level, with sandy, mineral-rich red soil in the highlands, and black earth in the valleys. It is a mountainous, hilly region - but agave grows best above 1,500 metres. According to some, the best agave plants grow on the slopes of the extinct volcano beside the town. Others say the best tequila is made from agave taken from the highlands to the east because highland agave tend to grow larger. One variety, the Arandas agave, is very large and considered a premium plant that commands more money. Another term for large agave is mano larga or long hand. It may also be that highlands distillers tend to use more traditional production methods to manufacturer smaller quantities of tequila, while those around the town are more modern and produce more export product - usually mixto (made with sugars added to the fermenting agave to increase the alcohol content).

Once all tequila had to be made by law in Jalisco state. Although that has been changed for more than 20 years, only two distilleries are currently in business outside Jalisco. The owners of La Gonzaleña - makers of Chinaco - fought a long battle to get the laws changed to permit tequila to be made outside Jalisco. They won their fight only in 1977, and now operate the sole distillery in the northeast state of Tamaulipas. The other distillery outside Jalisco is Tequilera Corralejo, which opened in 1996 in the city of Penjamo, in Jalisco's neighbouring state of Guanajuato.This distillery is named after one opened in the state in 1755. Blue agave for tequila use may also be grown in the states of Nayarit, Guanajuato and Michoacan.

The agave plants are grown in cultivated orchards called potreros (pastures, also called agave fields, or campos de agave - also called huertas, or groves, in the Los Altos region). Traditional plantings may still have corn and beans growing between the rows. Agaves are grown from shoots (mecuates or hijuleos) taken from the adult plants at the start if the rainy season in their fourth to sixth year (when the shoots themselves are at least a year old, and about the size of a leek or small onion). The shoots are left in the fields to dry out for about a month before they are planted in a nursery for another year, after which they are transferred to the fields. Sometimes the shoots are planted right away, just before the rainy season, so they can get established in the soil more quickly. The agave may also be grown from seed, although this is generally not done any more. There can be anywhere from 1,000 to 2,000 plants in an acre.

The agave plant takes at least eight years to reach the stage where it is suitable for fermentation and may be left for up to 12 before harvesting; the more mature, the better its natural sugars (agave sazon means ripened). During this time it is pruned (barbeo), cutting the points of the leaves with machetes to encourage the piña to grow. Some farmers also use a technique called 'shotgun plowing' (barbeo de escopeta) to induce premature ripening of plants, but most fields are hand grown and cultivated, using traditional methods passed down from generation to generation. Modern producers often spray agave fields with fertilizers and pesticides. Most use farm hands to meticulously control the weeds by hand. Fields are not irrigated; the plants depend entirely on the rainy season for moisture. Experiments with irrigation showed the larger plants that resulted did not produce any more agave sugars.

The part of the plant that is used for tequila is the heart (root), or piña (also called the head, or cabeza), which looks like a large pineapple or pinecone. It starts underground, but soon pushes its way into the light. A mature piña usually weighs 80 to more than 300 pounds (although most are under 200 pounds). Even 500-lb. piñas have been cultivated in the highlands, although they are rare.

Left to grow in the wild, these piñas would extend a tall shoot, 15 feet high or more, with pale yellow flowers at the top. The wild flowers are pollinated by local long-nosed bats (Leptonycteris nivalis), and then after producing 3,000-5,000 seeds, the plant would naturally die. The dwindling population of these bats is an environmental concern and may spell serious trouble in the future for wild agaves used for fibre, pulque and mezcal.

The young, tender flower stalk is called a quiote or quixotl, and is picked and eaten as a vegetable. The stalk is not allowed to grow on cultivated agaves, because it uses up the nutrients in the plant to produce its seeds, and is cut so the piña grows fatter. The piña is ripe when it starts to shrink and develops a maroon tinge, and red spots appear on the leaves.

When ready for harvesting, the carbohydrate-rich piña is cut from its stalk. Then the 200 or more 6-7 foot spiky and thorn-covered leaves (pencas) that stand out from the agave are cut away from the heart by a jimador or harvester (from the Nahuatl word jima, or harvest), using a sharp, long-handled tool called a coa. The skill of harvesting is passed down from father to son and some fields have three generations of jimadors working in them. Methodical, but efficient, a good jimador can harvest more than a ton of piñas in a day. He loads the heavy piña on a truck, Full truck loads are carried to the factory (fabrica) where the piñas are usually quartered or halved before baking. The remainder of the agave has no other uses. Harvesting is done year-round because the plants mature at different stages in the fields. Some large distillers pick young agaves, but others, like Herradura, use only plants 10 years or older.

Some distillers will 'pre-cook' the piñas to rid them of external waxes and solids that may be retained in the penca. These can make a bitter or unpleasant juice. The steam-injected autoclaves used in modern distilleries also wash away any external materials from the piñas. Farmers who sell piñas by weight may leave on more of the penca, while those paid daily wages by the producer are more likely to cut them off closer to the piña. It takes about 7 kilograms of piña to produce 1 litre of 100% agave tequila - which means the average piña can make 60-100 litres. Small distillers may simply purchase agave syrup to ferment, without any of the intervening processes.

Traditional distillers (tequilleros) let the piñas soften in steam rooms or slow-bake ovens for 50-72 hours. The traditional stone or brick oven is called a horno - hence the name of Sauza's Hornitos. This bakes the agave to process its natural juices (baking, or roasting is tatemar) at around 140-185 degrees F. This slow-bake process softens the fibres and helps keep the agave from caramelizing, which adds darker and bitter flavours to the juice and reduces the agave sugars. Baking in ovens also helps retain more of the natural agave flavours. Here's where mezcal and tequila part ways: mezcal piñas are baked slowly in underground pits, rather than steamed.

Many large distillers prefer to cook their piñas faster in efficient steam autoclaves and pressure cookers in as little as a single day (8-14 hours). The baking process turns the complex carbohydrates into fermentable sugars and softens the piña so they can easily release their juice. Fresh from the oven, the piñas taste a bit like a sweet potato or yam, with a mild tequila aftertaste. In traditional distilleries, the piñas are allowed to cool for another 24-36 hours after steaming, then they are mashed to separate the pulp (bagazo or bagasse) from the juice (although some traditional distillers keep them together during the fermenting).

Originally, the manufacturers beat the piñas with mallets to break them up once they were soft and cool. Then they moved to the tahona, a giant grinding wheel that can weigh up to two tons, operated by mules, oxen or horses (nowadays more likely by a tractor). Modern distilleries use a mechanical crusher, or shredder, like a giant wood-chipping machine to process out the waste bagazo (usually given away as animal food or fertilizer). Using one of these methods, the piñas are minced and strained to remove the juices (called aquamiel, or honey water), them mixed with water in large vats.

The resulting wort (tepache) is sprinkled with yeast. Traditionally this is a yeast that grows naturally on the leaves of the plant, but today it may be a cultivated form of that wild yeast or even a commercial brewer's yeast (natural fermentation from airborne yeasts is sometimes allowed in some traditional mezcals and pulque). Tequila Herradura boasts it is the only company that uses 'natural fermentation.' However, according to a story in the Wall Street Journal (May, 1999) when yeasts are used to speed fermentation, some distillers must add antibiotics to kill unwanted microbes that result.

The must (mosto) is left to ferment in wooden or stainless steel tanks. This can naturally take seven to 12 days, but modern plants add chemicals to accelerate yeast growth so fermentation only takes two to three days. Longer fermentation results in a more robust body. Fermented must may also be used as a starter mixture for the next batch.

Sometimes the must is fermented with the residual pulp from the piñas left in it to impart the most flavour to the liquid - another traditional practice - but more often the pulp is disposed of. It may be sold to construction firms for adding to bricks or as packing material.

Some manufacturers use cane or brown sugar cones (piloncillo) to speed fermentation to be able to use immature and fewer plants. This type of tequila can be sold in bulk for shipping out of the country, and can be bottled anywhere, including other countries where the regulations regarding agave content are not necessarily maintained. These tequilas are called mixto, and will not be labelled 100% agave, which purists demand. After fermentation is finished, the must may be left another 12 hours to richen and settle before distillation.

The result of fermentation is a liquid with about 5-7% alcohol. It is then distilled twice in traditional copper pot stills called alambiques, or in more modern stainless-steel column stills. The best copper stills are said to come from Tomelloso, in Spain. Distillation takes four-eight hours. The first distillation takes 11/2-2 hours. It is called the ordinario and is about 20% alcohol. The second distillation takes 3-4 hours. It has about 55% alcohol. It has three components: the cabeza, or head, has more alcohol and unwanted aldehydes, so it is discarded. The middle section is the El corazon, the heart, which is the best part and saved for production. The end is the colos, or tails, which is sometimes recycled into the next distillation to make it more robust, or may also be discarded. The residue, or dregs (vinazas) is discarded. Most mezcal is only distilled once, although some premium brands now offer double distillation.

All tequila is clear right after distillation. The colour comes later, from aging in wooden barrels (barricas) or from additives like caramel (in mixto only) or wood essence. Before bottling, most tequila is filtered through activated carbon or cellulose filters.

One premium blend offers triple-distillation, although some connoisseurs say it comes with a subsequent loss of flavour. Most distillers add de-mineralized water to bring the proof down to 80 (40% alcohol), although some will stop the process at the required proof. Reposado and añejo tequilas will be stored in wooden casks. These barrels are generally purchased used from American distillers (bourbon barrels are the most prized but some distillers use sherry barrels, whiskey barrels, cognac barrels and even new oak barrels to impart sharper flavours) and older ones may be 50 years or older and still in use. They will be stored in warehouses or bodegas. Blanco will remain in stainless steel tanks until bottling. It may also be bottled immediately after distillation.

The passion for premium aged tequilas that look like brandies has led some distillers to age them longer in oak barrels to absorb the maximum colouring. Others simply add colouring to create the impression of age - which may also affect the flavour. Some distillers, like Centinela, disdain the use of any such additives. Note too that changing barrels (replacing old ones with new) can also darken a tequila and change its flavour until the barrels are 'broken in.' The colour of a tequila does not necessarily reflect either age or quality.

The final product is usually blended with other barrels of a similar age to create a consistency of taste and aroma. Representatives of the Tequila Regulatory Council oversee the production to ensure the distillers meet the standards and quality controls in place under Mexican legislation. The resulting mix is then bottled or tanked for bulk shipments. A few 'single barrel' tequilas are available in the premium market. All 100% agave tequilas must be bottled in Mexico and marked "Hecho en Mexico" - made in Mexico. Only mixto tequila is allowed to be sold in bulk and bottled outside the country.

"Distilled from melancholy and from lucidity; from an intense love for good; from a need to bite into the earth and hear the poetry of the people's song."

Author unknown, quoted in the Guia de Tequila, published by Artes de Mexico,1998.

Tequila production is facing a crisis in production - the combined result of a plague of diseases and pests with spiraling agave costs and an agave shortage. The looming shortage of agave has seen several distillers drop their low-end brands in favour of higher-priced premium products. The shortage could also seriously impact mezcal producers because tequila manufacturers are already buying agave from Oaxaca state to shore up their dwindling supplies. Mezcal producers face a 40% increase in costs due to the demand by tequila manufacturers for the agaves from Oaxaca. This appears to violate the Mexican NORMAS and DOT standards for tequila - but the industry seems remarkably quiet in its response.

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