Agave to Anejo: The tequila renaissance

No longer just a party drink to shoot back, tequila has undergone a recent resurgence, repositioning itself as a premium offering meant to be sipped and savoured. We head to Jalisco in central Mexico to determine the difference between bar-rail tequila and craft offerings.

The agave fields of the Jaliscan Highlands can look like a hostile landscape at first, but taken together, the neverending rows of spiky leaves make up one of the most culturally celebrated landscapes in all of Mexico.

Locally referred to as Los Altos, the highlands are located 90 minutes outside of Guadalajara. At nearly 7 million people, the bustling metropolitan hub in the state of Jalisco is one of the major cities of Mexico. It feels more European than Central American with its eclectic culinary scene and mix of Neoclassical, Gothic and Baroque architecture. It’s more diverse than other cities in Mexico and that is represented in its culinary scene and local culture.

Once you head north or south from Guadalajara, you’re quickly surrounded by gently rolling hills spattered with plantations of agave. Picture the tranquil, undulating landscapes of wine regions across the world and the roads that wind casually through them. Now picture the opposite.

Jalisco is a sprawl of barren fields with low vegetation sectioned by rigidly straight highways. Here, 460 years ago, the Spanish empire fought its longest war against the nomadic people of Mexico, the Chichimecas. It was a costly campaign of “fire and blood” that spanned 40 years and culminated with the defeat of the Spanish by the indigenous Chichimeca Confederation.

Agave being harvested at the Espolon distillery.

Today, Jalisco is home to many of the recognizable traits of Mexico’s global identity, from mariachi to iconic birria (a hearty meat stew) and, of course, tequila. Legally, tequila can come from five Mexican states. The popularity of Mexico’s national spirit over the last two decades has given way to a boom of craft distillers that are seeking to create individual takes on the spirit that highlight the microclimates of Jalisco.

These distilleries are looking back to the beginning of tequila’s story in the 16th century. The Spanish conquistadors ran out of brandy and created a milky fermented spirit called pulque from the heart of the agave plant, the pina. Pinas were cooked in large ovens, and the extracted juices were left to naturally ferment.

Nearly a century later, tequila (made from blue agave plants) became a mass-produced product that sprouted over a 100 distilleries that exist today. In the last two decades, a small wave of higher-end tequilas has sparked interest in the spirit and has started to shift perceptions about the drink, which is still largely regarded as a party drink, consumed by the shot and quickly slammed back in debauched situations to celebrate a hedonistic existence.

If a mere mention of tequila fills you with feelings of nausea and memories of embarrassing transgressions, then you haven’t had the good stuff. What you’ve had can only be classified as tequila on paper. On the low end, 51 per cent of agave distillate is mixed with other sugars to create a product often referred to as “mixto”. If you’ve ordered a round of tequila shots at your local dive bar, it’s most likely cheap mixto, and chances are good that you’ll regret it the next morning when the head-splitting hangover kicks in.

Good-quality tequila is a type of mescal that is made using only blue agave plants. Mescal in general can be made from blending up to 28 different agave types. Tequila is classified by age into blanco, reposado, anejo and extra anejo categories. For a newbie crash course in mescal, take the Tequila Express. The regional service runs from Guadalajara straight into Herradura distillery in Amatitan. It’s a quick jaunt from the city with ample live entertainment, tequila tastings, and even a local dinner.

If a mere mention of tequila fills you with feelings of nausea and memories of embarrassing transgressions, then you haven’t had the good stuff.

Two major regions are at the centre of the craft mescal movement: El Valle (lowlands) to the south, and Los Altos (highlands) to the north. Each region has its own unique microclimate due to the rugged topography. Just like in wine, the soil helps give a sense of place to what grows in it. El Valle’s topography is distinct due to a massive extinct volcano that sits at the centre of the region. The weather is hot and dry, the soil is a rich, dark clay that produces a plant that exhibits amplified earthy and herbal characteristics. In the highlands, the soil is fertile with minerals, and the higher-elevation nights are cooler, which creates a spirit that has a florality and lightness to it.

Near the town of Arandas is the “Golden Triangle” of the highlands, an area regarded for its rocky soils and low-calcium water. This soil and cooler climate provides ideal growing conditions for the agave plant. It’s here that boutique mescal brand Espolon has been making mescal for two decades at Destiladora San Nicolas. Espolon’s approach marries traditional practices with modern mechanics, starting with the estate’s blue weber agave plantation. Unlike other commercial spirits, the process of making mescal requires years of patience and laborious farming techniques.

Espolon has been making mescal for two decades at Destiladora San Nicolas.

The blue agave is a hardy plant and the pina is protected by a coat of thick spiky branches that can extend to 7 feet. In the world of wine, you can make a vintage from each year – every harvest will produce useable fruit. In the world of beer, you can brew a batch in a few weeks. Mescal is complicated. It is somewhat similar to whisky but only when we are talking about aging. With mescal, the waiting game starts on the field. Agave plants can take up to 10 years to fully mature. They are tended to by jimadors, local farmers that try to preserve a 500-year-old tradition, which has been passed down from one generation to the next.

One jimador I had the chance to shadow explained that tending to agave is a “lifelong responsibility” and jimadors develop a keen sense to carefully identify the health and maturity of their plantations. In the highlands, Espolon usually harvests plants at around six to eight years when the jimador has determined that they have achieved a desired level of sweetness. Once ready, the jimadors work by hand. They begin by pulling out the pina from the ground using a specialized hoe, called a coa de jima. The coa is used to slice away the toughened leaves to expose the pina.

Truckfuls of pinas are cut into quarters and thrown into large autoclaves where they are slowly cooked for a full day at a controlled temperature. The caramelization process releases an intoxicating aroma reminiscent of sugar and molasses, which permeates the distillery. It’s an edible product once it comes out of the oven, with the texture of a baked potato, stringy-ness of a mango, and sweetness of honey and molasses. The cooked piñas are crushed to extract the juices, and then moved into stainless steel tanks where the fermentation process begins. At this point, Espolon does things slightly differently than other mescal producers.

Two regions are at the centre of the craft mescal movement: El Valle and Los Altos.

Two distillation methods are used depending on the product. Small-batch pot stills for a complex liquid and column stills for a multi-distilled spirit that has a feather-like feel on the tongue. Blanco, a slightly sweet, light mescal with hints of tropical salad, sits in a stainless steel tank for a few months. The spirits destined for the other two mescal bottlings, reposado and anejo, are aged in virgin American oak barrels. The reposados stay there for up to five months and the anejo for one to three years. Anything longer is classified as extra anejo.

Much like with whisky and wine: It is this critical stage of exposing the liquid to oak that imparts colour, depth and taste. A well-made reposado can be a pleasing, complex and layered drink; one that can go toe to toe with the caramel and vanilla monsters of bourbon country. A well made anejo can be as suave as a well-aged single malt scotch. Think of a buttery smooth spirit that ranges from floral to citrus and spice. The variety of available microclimates, range of farming practices, and distilling techniques have helped propagate one of the fastest growing spirit industries in the last 20 years. Most of what is locally produced at brands like Espolon is exported to the United States, Canada and Europe.

In a fairly short time, tequila has progressed from bottom shelf party shot material at the bar to something worthy of sipping in a leisure setting. The agave has evolved from a plant that was used to make a ceremonial drink to one that is at the centre of a booming industry. It has become part of the Mexican cultural fabric, a tradition carefully preserved by the jimadors as they impart their knowledge through their lineage.

Standing there in the highlands as I watched a seasoned jimador carefully slice away at the shell of an agave plant, my tour guide leaned over and said: “Nothing is possible without the life-long dedication that the jimadors bring to the tequila process. They are the keepers of this Mexican tradition”.