Your first experience with tequila probably involved shots, preceded by salt licked sloppily from the back of your hand, and a wedge of lime for biting down on afterward. Now that you’re all grown up, of course, you know that tequila doesn’t have to be this way. And, actually, it shouldn’t be. Mexico’s most famous spirit has a long, rich history and should be enjoyed as such. Fine 100% agave tequilas are made to be sipped rather than slammed. A precious few are made using such a painstakingly artisanal process that it would be a shame to throw them down your gullet without savoring them.
That said, tequila is always painstaking to make. First, you need to grow agave, which takes an average of seven years to mature. Once you have your raw material, you must cook it and crush it, then ferment and distill it. Most distilleries now use modern technology for the process, from pressure-cooking ovens to industrial mills. But a handful of brands have a more traditional way of making tequila. Not only do they slow-cook their agave in brick ovens, but the crush is performed using an ancient stone mill, called a tahona.
The tahona is a two-ton wheel carved out of volcanic rock. It gets pulled around a stone pit in the ground where the cooked agave is placed for crushing. As it gently presses the agave, it releases the sweet juice, called aguamiel or “honey water,” that will be fermented, then distilled into tequila. In the past, the tahona was pulled by a beast of burden – a horse, donkey or mule. The few tequila distillers who use these ancient stone mills today mostly have a tractor to pull the wheel around the pit. But at least one tequila producer still uses a live animal for the task.
At this point, you may be asking yourself: what does it matter how my tequila is made? So long as it tastes good. Purists and even academics argue that replacing traditional production methods with modern automated technology is tantamount to destroying the culture in the parts of Mexico where tequila is made. Whether you consider this point of view extreme or not, it’s hard to ignore the difference between how a tequila made with stone-crushed agave tastes next to one made from agaves that have been shredded mechanically. The tahona gently presses the cooked agave, resulting in a round, lush spirit. A mechanical mill shreds it, which can release bitter compounds from the plant’s fibers. The difference between the two is astounding.
“What we crush in a day a machine will shred in five minutes,” one distiller who uses the tahona told me. But the extra time and effort is worth it, he says. Stone-crushed agave tends to be the domain of small, independent distillers. But even Patrón, the best-selling super-premium tequila brand in the U.S., has just released a line of 100% tahona-milled tequilas. It’s priced between $70 and $90, and bottled between 84 and 90 proof. Notably, its flavors are more robust than original Patrón, which is light and citrusy. Here are five more tequilas (blanco, because that’s how we roll) made with the tahona:
1. 7 Leguas
Years ago, when a plucky hair product magnate started his own tequila brand, it was this tequila he fell for. Patrón was made in the 7 Leguas distillery for 11 years. Today, only the house brand is made here, a blend of roller-milled and stone-crushed agave. It’s rich and silky with a sweet, earthy character.
The founder’s last name is Sauza – and, yes, he’s from that Sauza family. But, since his grandfather sold the Sauza brand, he can’t use his family name for commercial purposes. No matter. He makes a rounded, creamy tequila with complex minerality from 100% tahona-crushed agave.
3. El Tesoro
This brand has changed hands several times, but throughout the reshuffling it continues to be made the same way – using ripe agave, crushed by tahona, then fermented naturally in open wooden vats and distilled in small batches in copper pot stills. The result is an oily, savory spirit with depth.
4. Olmeca Altos
Owned by Pernod Ricard, this brand blends tequila made from tahona-milled agave with tequila made from mechanically shredded agave. The company also makes a 100% stone-crushed tequila that is much harder to find in the U.S. The Olmeca Altos bottling shows candied notes with a hint of pepper.
It’s a relatively new brand, but Suerte makes tequila the old-fashioned way. Slow-cooked agave heads are crushed using the ancient tahona. The blanco is then rested for two months in stainless steel prior to bottling. The result is a fresh, herbaceous tequila with fine minerality.
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