What is craft tequila?
Craft is a term tossed about by marketers, producers and consumers, but there are no laws regulating its use for beverage alcohol, and no real consensus as to what craft actually means. Consumers are swayed by image and marketing, and the often-mistaken notion that high price equals high quality. Craft is open to interpretation, and producers offer their own definitions.
Whiskey is already well on its way to defining craft. Now, tequila is also addressing what it means to employ artisanal practices to produce this agave spirit.
“The idea of craft in the U.S. was ushered in by the rise of craft beer,” says Melyssa Mead, brand director for Suerte Tequila, and who previously worked for New Belgium Brewing. “Consumers want to know more about artisan tequila, that discovery process. Once they get into it, they can really geek out.”
While the average American might think all tequila is made Mexico by small madre y padre haciendas — and some brands are — much of the Mexican spirit is produced in large, modern facilities using the latest technology to produce excellent tequilas. And many distilleries produce liquid for more than one brand.
That last fact was the thrust behind Patron Tequila’s Know Your NOM campaign. The Norma Oficial Mexicana is a four-digit number assigned by the governing body, Consejo Regulador del Tequila, to each producer, which is affixed to every bottle of tequila. Hacienda Patron NOM 1492 produces only the Patron brand, for example.
“Huge corporations are churning out giant volumes of tequila and spending enormous sums of money to advertise and market it, which draws attention to the tequila and agave spirits categories,” notes Sean Duffin, a spokesperson for Siembra Azul Tequila. “But in today’s world of educated, curious consumers, some of those eyes and palates will be discerning, and there is definitely a growing demand for small-batch tequila.”
Just as terroir is an important consideration with wine, many experts believe soil, terrain and climate influence tequila.
“Where the agave comes from impacts the flavors, aromatics and characteristics of the distillate,” says Khrys Maxwell, tequila specialist at Tequila Fortaleza.
Agreeing with him is Casa Noble founder Jose “Pepe” Hermosillo.
“At the Casa Noble distillery, we grow over 1.5 million blue agave plants across 650 hectares of high altitude, volcanic terrain, where it is very hot and very dry creating a sort of microsystem. This is the perfect terroir for growing agave, where we are stressing the agaves through the 10-to-12 years of their lives, creating complex spicy, herbal, vegetal aromas in our Casa Noble tequilas,” Hermosillo explains.
Siembra Tequila bottles expressions from the Highlands and Valles. “We’re fascinated with how terroir factors into agave spirits, so we just let the agave and its soil present themselves, and try not to get in the way,” says Duffin.
Despite a lack of consensus about what constitutes craft, some small tequila producers are returning to many-centuries-old, traditional techniques for sourcing and preparing the agaves, fermentation and distillation, and aging and bottling.
Additionally, producers large and small are expressing respect for the agave plant, the environment and the local communities, with projects aimed at protecting those valuable resources.
Here’s a look at what some producers are doing:
Agaves are harvested and trimmed down to the hearts, usually by jimadors wielding sharp coas. Then the hearts or pinas are cooked to convert the starches to fermentable sugars. Many large-scale producers efficiently steam-cook agave in autoclaves. The last step is to crush the pinas and mix with water. Here the most efficient method is shredding. Traditional methods are quite different.
“We use a two-ton stone tahona exclusively, a time-intensive process that is the best way to get the true essence of agave,” says Mead at Suerte, making the comparison of using mortar and pestle versus a blender. The agaves roast for 52 hours in brick hornos or ovens, which Mead compares to slow-roasting a brisket, developing more flavor. And the results are blended with the mineral-rich spring waters of Atotonilco El Alto.
Corazón Tequila comes from Casa San Matias Distillery in the Highlands of Jalisco, where the mature agaves are steamed in stone ovens. Then workers extract the juices with a roller mill or stone tahona, depending on the final product, according to head of operations Mario Echanove. “The tahona that is used for extraction is one of two from the original distillery and over 130 years old.”
Calavera Tequila cooks its agaves in an old-fashioned mamposteo oven, says Aldo Garcia, master distiller at Destiladora de Agave Azul.
Patron’s Roca Tequila line, as the name indicates, is made via the tahona process. And the new Gran Patron Smoky mesquite-roasts the agave in stone-lined pits.
All of the agaves used for Tequila Ocho are grown by Carlos Camarena, whose family has cultivated agave since 1888. The agaves are not harvested until they are super-ripe, which imparts maximum concentration of flavors, says global brand ambassador Jesse Estes. “The cooking is done at low temperature and extremely slowly to convert the starches to sugars properly.”
Tequila Fortaleza uses a small brick oven to slowly steam cook the agave for almost two days. Then a tahona gradually extracts the sugars. “Because of the soft extraction, the tahona produces a distillate with a creamy texture on the palate,” says Maxwell.
Casa Noble cooks agaves with steam for 38 hours. “Which gives us beautiful, sweet-cooked agave with some ‘smoky’ notes,” says Hermosillo. “Then we will do something no one else does — we squeeze the agave with a proprietary system, eliminating any bitter notes that are created by the traditional method of crushing the agave.”
“Our methods vary depending on the expression we’re producing, because we seek a lot of different flavor profiles,” says Duffin. For Siembra Valles Ancestral, agaves are roasted five days in underground pits; for other expressions, like Siembra Azul Blanco or Siembra Valles Reposado, agaves are steamed in clay-lined brick ovens.
For crushing the pinas, roller mills are often used. Siembra Valles High Proof is tahona-crushed. And for Siembra Valles Ancestral, the pinas are crushed by hand with wooden mallets. “Siembra Valles Ancestral is the only hand-macerated tequila made in the past 300 years, which is part of the reason it doesn’t taste like any other tequila,” states Duffin.
Fermenting and Distilling
While commercial facilities often ferment in stainless steel tanks with cultivated yeasts and distill in column stills, craft producers use more archaic methods.
Corazon ferments in small lots in open pine or stainless vats to let the natural yeast interact with the mosto. Distillation takes place in copper or stainless pot stills, says master distiller Rocio Rodriguez.
Suerte ferments for 72 hours, then double-distills, first with a stainless pot still, finishing in a smaller copper-lined pot still. “We pride ourselves that our stills are inefficient,” notes co-founder Laurence Spiewak. “And our master distiller cuts quite a bit off the heads and tails, going for the pure corazon, the heart.”
Fortaleza ferments for three or more days in open-top, wood tanks. “Wood fermenters are a pain in the butt to maintain, but provide a buttery/vanilla aromatic/flavor to our tequila,” says Maxwell. Distillation is in small copper pots, finishing with a lower ABV than usual. “The lower ABV you distill, the more of the original agave sugar source is retained.”
Tequila Ocho uses an indigenous yeast sourced originally from an agave plant. “The key to best quality for fermentation and distillation is ‘slow’, as in the Slow Food movement philosophy,” says Estes.
Pine fermenters are used because, among other benefits, they impart additional flavors from the yeast living inside the wood’s pores. The fermentation is open-air, with natural airborne yeast. Distillation is low and slow, first in a medium-sized stainless steel pot still with a copper coil, then finished in a 350-liter all-copper still.
Casa Noble is distilled in small batches, 900 liters at a time, all in pot stills. “We triple-distill the tequila [All tequila must be distilled at least twice], which gives us an opportunity to do it slowly and carefully to get the best tequila and show off the heart of the spirit,” says Hermosillo.
All Siembra Valles tequilas are fermented with bagasse, the crushed agave fibers. “The bagasse makes the tequila taste more of agave,” says Duffin. Distillation depends on the expression. For most, the first distillation is in stainless steel with a copper coil, and the second is all copper. For Ancestral, they distill in copper first and then in Filipino stills made of Oyamel and pine woods. “The Filipino stills have not been used with tequila for around 300 years, but with Siembra Valles Ancestral, we sought the historical flavors lost to tequila’s industrialization.”
Resting and Barrel Aging
Blanco tequila is often aged for a few months in stainless steel before release. Reposado, anejo and extra anejo tequilas are wood-aged, often in used-bourbon barrels. But there are exceptions.
“We don’t use old bourbon barrels like a lot of other producers,” says Duffin. Siembra has commissioned barrels built with American oak from Missouri. “So our aging program definitely takes a different shape, in that only tequila has ever touched those barrels, and only our tequila, at that.” Siembra Valles High Proof is an unaged blanco, which rests in glass demijohns for 11 months before bottling — a practice normally reserved for mezcal.
Casa Noble Tequila ages in new French oak barrels, which adds depth and complexity.
Corazon offers a special-barrel selection to retailers and consumers, who can have tequila aged in barrels that once held bourbons made at Buffalo Trace and Barton 1792 distilleries. Depending on the barrel type and the master distiller’s guidance, the Single Barrel Corazón Reposado is aged from six to eleven months, and the Single Barrel Corazón Añejo is from 12 to 24 months.
Given the relatively small production, many craft producers bottle by hand. And sometimes the bottles themselves are hand-crafted.
Single-barrel selection Corazón is hand-bottled with a premium neck hanger that features the barrel purchaser’s own logo, along with the specific details of the barrel.
“There was a point in time when all of our bottles were hand-blown, but our three different producers are not able to keep up with demand, so we have bottles that are semi-hand-blown and use both types of bottles,” says Maxwell. All of Fortaleza’s bottles are filled and labeled by hand.
Calavera Tequila’s bottles are uniquely shaped and hand-painted. As the name implies, the bottles represent Day of the Dead skulls, which can stand out on retail shelves and back bars. The idea was the brainchild of Jim Robb, partner, Pure Spirits LLC. “No two bottles are the same,” says co-partner Darryl Silver. “The juice inside is handcrafted, but the great idea is the bottle.”
Respect for the Land
Casa San Matias, producer of Corazon, is one of only four distilleries in the tequila industry using a biodigester that breaks down organic waste created during distillation resulting in renewable energy, says Megan Hurtuk, marketing director, Agave & Proprietary Gin for Sazerac. The distillery has also received recognition from the UN as having one of the smallest carbon footprints in the industry.
Tequila Ocho’s La Alteña Distillery practices several ecological sustainability efforts, from recycling production water, recycling packaging materials, to turning organic residues (agave leftovers and vinazas) into compost. La Alteña is also currently moving towards reducing CO2 emissions.
Casa Noble was the first tequila to be certified organic by CCOF (California Certified Organic Farmers). Plant waste created during production becomes compost to fertilize the fields. The company also installed a water treatment facility on the Casa Noble estate.
Calavera’s Destiladora de Agave Azul is using vermicompost, worm castings, in the agave fields, says Robb, to enhance the soil and as a natural pesticida.
Ocho and Siembra are involved with the Bat Friendly Project. The goal is to convince farmers and producers to let five percent of their blue Weber agaves flower to be pollinated by bats, and naturally reintroduce genetic diversity in blue agaves.
Respect for Locals
The Siembra Suro Foundation is one of the vehicles the company has set up for aiding jimador communities. “We try to help them, and especially the children, secure access to nutrition and sufficient education,” says Duffin. “We’re finishing an addition to a schoolhouse in a tiny farming community in Jalisco.”
San Matias is the largest source of employment in the region, and owner and CEO Carmen Villarreal has been dedicated to developing programs that promote healthy living and wellness for all employees, says Hurtuk. Under her leadership, it is the only tequila company to be certified and recognized for gender equality in the workplace. Beyond the distillery, Carmen sits on the Council of the Casa Hogar Alegría Foundation, a network of girls’ homes in Mexico committed to ending the cycle of abuse for young women and building a foundation that provides them with the tools to be independent.
Many of the people on the La Alteña Team are second-, third- and even fourth-generation employees, notes Estes. The company provides jobs to a large number of locals. “There are dozens of employees inspecting and hand-labeling each bottle produced. This job could be done more quickly and efficiently by using machinery, but then most of these people would be unemployed. At La Alteña, our team members being able to take money home every week is more important than being efficient. It is a way of paying back their loyalty for generations.”
The Future of Craft
“My experience is that right now there is room on retail shelves and back bars for artisanal tequilas,” says Spiewak at Suerte. “People are asking for craft tequila rather than blindly grabbing a bottle. And consumers are willing to pay for it.”
“U.S. tequila category growth shows little signs of slowing and continues driven by the premium 100% agave segment,” says Hurtuk. “Increased consumer interest in traditional process, aging and sustainability practices will likely continue and drive additional focus on premium brands with authentic stories.”
Thomas Henry Strenk is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer with over 20 years experience covering the beverage and restaurant industries. In his small apartment-turned-alchemist-den, he homebrews beer kombucha, and concocts his own bitters and infusions. Read his recent piece, Why Rum is Poised to Take Off.