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  • A jimadore at work, harvesting agave plants using a traditional tool
  • Fearsome fronds, agave’s razor-edged leaves
  • Heart of the matter: the core of plant is used for tequila production
  • Oak influence, premium tequila is barrel aged for complexity
  • Established in 1870, Casa Herradura is located 35 minutes outside of Guadalajara, Mexico

Southern Exposure

For fine tequilas, sippin’ replaces lickin’, slammin’ ‘n’ suckin’. Rod Phillips reports

Sniff the light amber liquid in its ballon-shaped glass, then taste it. There’s layered complexity in the aromas and flavours, some viscosity in the texture. Swallowing it produces the gentlest of burns, more a warmth that radiates through the back of the mouth. In style, it’s not unlike very good bourbon, cognac or single malt. But there’s a distinctive aroma and flavour: The sweet pungency of cooked agave that permeates the area around the ovens at the Casa Herradura tequila distillery near Guadalajara in Mexico.

Tequila? This is tequila in my glass?
The night before tasting this añejo (aged) tequila, as the sun set over the park-like grounds of Herradura’s nineteenth-century hacienda, a small party of writers discussed tequila’s reputation. It came up again (perhaps an unfortunate choice of words) during the tasting itself, as someone said, “We all remember that time at college when we partied on tequila and woke up next morning in a dumpster.”

That’s an extreme experience (mine wasn’t nearly that bad), but tequila is legendary for bringing on rapid intoxication, followed by a terrible hangover. “Lick (the salt), Slam (the tequila) and Suck (the lemon or lime),” is the common formula for drunken bliss tonight and misery tomorrow.

Do that with any high-alcohol drink, of course, and the results are bound to be poor, but for some reason it’s especially associated with tequila. As Rubén Aceves Vidrio, Casa Herradura’s director of international brand development, says, it’s a reputation that producers of fine tequila battle against as they fight to have their products recognized as a spirit that can be as fine as bourbon, malt whisky and cognac.

What makes tequila distinctive is its source. It’s not made from grapes, sugar or grain, but from a succulent, the agave, that flourishes in and around the state of Jalisco, in Mexico. It’s a fearsome plant, with long razor-edged and needle-tipped fronds that protect its heart, a big bulb that grows on the surface of the red volcanic soil that’s common in the area. The prized variety is blue agave, with fronds that have a distinctly dusty-blue colour.

When the agave plants are about eight years old, the hearts are harvested by jimadores (heem-a-DOOR-ess) who work with long-handled, bladed tools (called coas) to remove the fronds and shave the leaf-roots from the hearts. It’s skilled work, taught by fathers to sons, generation after generation. And it’s tough work: jimadores generally work from about six in the morning to midday so as to avoid the early-afternoon heat, each harvesting is about 120 agaves in this time.

Once the agaves are harvested, they’re trucked to the distillery, where they’re checked for quality and for starch content. The starch is converted to sugar by baking the agaves for 24 hours in massive ovens (each holds 45 tonnes). Then the agaves are crushed and the sugars dissolved in water from Casa Herradura’s own wells. This liquid is then blended with the syrup (miela, or honey) which is produced during the cooking process, as the agaves on the bottom of the oven are pressed by the weight of those on top.

The result, a sweet and pungent liquid called mosto (must), is transferred to fermentation vats. At Casa Herradura, wild yeasts start the fermentation after a few days. The distillery has conserved a wide range of trees (including citrus groves) that harbour hundreds of strains of wild yeast. Fermentation takes three to five days and brings the liquid to between six and eight percent alcohol by volume.

The next step is distillation. Some tequila producers distil once, some (the premium producers like Casa Herradura) twice. The resulting spirit, which is crystal clear, comes out at between 40 and 50 percent alcohol, and can be diluted to lower the level. The minimum alcohol content allowed by law is 35 percent, but there’s no upper limit. (Casa Herradura’s strongest tequila has 46 percent alcohol.)

Some tequilas are then aged, for a matter of months in some cases, for years in others. Oak is the preferred medium, giving colour to the tequila, with the depth depending on the length of aging and degree of toast in the barrels. Some producers, though, colour their tequila by adding caramel, just as some cognac producers do.

The laws governing tequila production are soft and they make life difficult for producers of premium tequila. There’s no requirement that tequila must be made solely from agave, and much of the process is left to the discretion of producers. But there are rules governing the use of terms like reposado (the most popular style), which must be aged at least two months, and añejo, which must spend at least 12 months in barrel.

Tequila is hardly unique. There are many producers (nearly 150 distilleries) that produce a wide range of styles and quality under the name. Just as with bourbon and whisky, you have to identify the superior producers and products.
What does distinguish tequila is its reputation for being a rough, hard-hitting drink. My advice is to take a leap of faith: taste the good stuff and let that experience wash away the memories of the bad.


El Jimador Blanco
For a tequila with no barrel-aging, this has reasonable complexity, with hints of pungent baked agave in the mix. There’s some sharpness to the texture, but the burn is quite soft. (35% alcohol)

El Jimador Reposado
Aged for two months in white oak barrels, this displays more complexity and some sweet fruitiness in the aromas and flavours. It’s clean-textured with a pleasant burn and a sharp finish. (35% alcohol)

El Jimador Añejo
After a year in heavy-toasted barrels, this tequila shows a lot more complexity and body than its younger siblings. The flavour of agave comes through nicely, but it’s balanced by a range of layered flavours, all delivered on a texture that’s velvet-smooth. The burn is gentle and diffuse. (40% alcohol)

Herradura Blanco
Aged 45 days, this has good complexity. Because it’s higher in alcohol and therefore less diluted than the El Jimador Blanco, it displays more flavour (the agave shows through more clearly). It’s sweet and spicy, soft-textured, with a soft burn. (40% alcohol)

Herradura Reposado
Although reposado tequila must be aged a minimum two months, this gets 11 months in oak. Look for some viscosity, verging on creaminess, in the texture, and plenty of complexity in the aromas and flavours. The finish is the warm and gentle. (35% alcohol)

Herradura Añejo
This is an after-dinner tequila that will rival cognac or Armagnac. It’s complex with lovely spicy notes, somewhat less viscosity than the Reposado, but with notably more refinement. The burn (always worth noting) is gentle to the point of being caressing. (40% alcohol)

Herradura Selección Suprema Extra Añejo
This super-premium tequila was launched in 1995 and is one of the finest available. It’s aged 49 months (that’s more than four years), during which time about 50 percent of the volume is lost by evaporation. It’s rich, lovely and stylish, with nuanced complexity in the flavours and mid-range viscosity. ‘Alcohol burn’ is not an issue here; a diffuse glow at the back of the mouth marks the finish. (40% alcohol)


Look for tequila labelled 100 percent from agave, preferably blue agave. Many tequilas, notably the cheaper ones, are made partly from agave and partly from sugar cane.
Look for estate-bottled tequila. Some are shipped from Mexico and diluted in Canada and the U.S., but there are no regulations governing the quality of the water used.
Fermentation by wild or natural yeasts, as at Casa Herradura, might make a difference, but I think you would have to be a real aficionado to recognize it.
Double-distilling produces a finer tequila, especially when the heads and tails (the initial and final parts of the distilled liquid, which are more likely to contain impurities) are cut.
Aging in oak barrels contributes flavour complexity, texture and colour to the final product. Avoid tequilas coloured-up with caramel.
Premium tequila is for sippin’, not for lickin’, slammin’ ‘n’ suckin’.