WHAT IS TEQUILA?
Mezcal is a spirit produced in Mexico from the agave plant - not a cactus, but a member of the lily family. Tequila is a mezcal produced from a specific agave, the Weber Blue Agave, grown in a demarcated region of western Mexico. The state of Jalisco (in which the town of Tequila is situated) is at the centre of the region,but parts of Guanajato, Michoacan, Nayarit and even Tamaulipas (in the northeast bordering Texas and the Gulf of Mexico) can also produce tequila. The eastern part of Jalisco is referred to as Los Altos - the Highlands - at over 2000 metres. The soil here, iron-rich and volcanic, produces a tequila that is sweeter, more citrusy and less earthy than the lowland style.
THE HISTORY OF TEQUILA
In pre-Columbian times, Mexicans drank a beverage known as "pulque", made from the sweet mill sap of the agave, at 3 to 5% abv. By 1550 the Spaniards had found ways to increase the strength, and there are records of 'mezcal wine' from this time. By the 1700s, the distilled mezcal wine from around the town of Tequila was recognised as the best, and in 1795 the first commercial license to produce was granted to José Guadalupe de Cuervo. By around 1850, the superior mezcal from this area was widely referred to as 'tequila'. Until the early 1900s production was small, and many different agave plants were used, although already blue agave was being recognised as the best. However, as this plant takes up to 8 years to mature, matching supply and demand was (and is) difficult, so 'mix' tequila, including spirit from other sources, was created. Its softer, less agave-driven style became especially popular in the USA. By the 1980s there was an emergence of premium tequilas made, once again, from 100% blue agave.
The family's heritage in Tequila began more than 250 years ago. Their Spanish ancestors immigrated to Mexico in the early 18th Century and in 1761 co-founded the town of Arandas, which is still home to the family-owned tequila distillery. In 1860, Don Agustin Camarena founded his distillery, Casa Casco Viejo, today the number 3 brand of tequila and leader in Mexico City! Don Agustin's granddaughter, Elena Herrera Brendan, a descendent of Jose Cuervo, assumed control of the company in 1970, and her children and grandchildren still manage it today.
The Camarena brothers are the 3rd largest owners of agave plantations in Mexico, with 3000HA - over 3 million plants - in the premium Highland region, at over 2000m altitude where the agave develops a fruitier character than in the lowlands. The agave is harvested by their own jimadors, who avoid the rainy season when the piñas can be diluted (contracted jimadors, paid by weight, are tempted to pick when the piñas are heavy with water). The piñas are harvested at between 6 and 9 years, after the harvest the fields are planted with beans and then corn to regenerate and nitrogen-ate the soil. The stubble is burnt, and after a gap of a year agave is replanted.
> BAKING THE PIÑAS
The piñas are traditionally baked to convert the polysaccharides - starches - into sugar for fermentation. They are then allowed to cool very gently to ambient temperature. The piñas are crushed to extract the sugar-laden juice, the aqua miel "honey water".
Once the piñas have been crushed, each brand is fermented with a specific yeast, which provides its own consistent character. In the case of Maracame, this is the yeast traditionally used to make Champagne.
Casco Viejo and La Cava de Don Agustin are double distilled in traditional pot stills with a capacity of 200HL. Maracame, however is distilled at a lower temperature, 25% more slowly than the other tequilas. Only the heart is used - no heads or tails.
All the tequilas except Blanco are aged in new American white oak barrels (medium toast) which have been briefly filled with tequila to quieten the tannins. The tequilas come off the stills at around 55% after the second distillation, and are reduced to 42% before ageing. Ageing in the warmth of Jalisco is 3 to 4 times as fast as in northern Scotland, but still gentler and slower than in the heat of the lowlands. Before bottling, the tequilas are reduced to their final strength with water from the private well which has been filtered by double osmosis.