True Agave Flavor

Paul Blow

Here’s a tequila mystery: Where does all the agave flavor go, leaving so many tequilas so bland? I don’t know the answer, but I suspect it has to do with the industrialization of the product. I prefer to drink artisanal mezcal, but it’s harder to find than tequila, plus it’s more expensive and not to everyone’s taste. Many people just can’t get past the smokiness (which comes from cooking the agave in the ground over wood coals), which tequila never has.

So, if you have to drink tequila, which ones should you drink?

I know this answer: El Tesoro and 7 Leguas. While there are other good brands out there, these two deliver sterling agave flavor. Their process is in many ways closer to that of the mezcal producers than typical, industrial tequila.

During a quick walking tour of El Tesoro’s open-air, brick-walled facility outside of Arandas in Jalisco, Mexico, owner Carlos Camarena explained how his agave is harvested, pushing a little toward overripeness, which risks the onset of rot that will render the piña (agave heart) useless. Many tequila producers, he said, intentionally harvest when the agave is less ripe—accepting a somewhat underripe flavor profile—because it is easier to control. El Tesoro and 7 Leguas, both of which control most of their own agave fields, harvest solely for optimal ripeness.

Cooking the agave converts starches and carbs into fermentable sugars. There are several ways to cook, each affecting flavor. Industrial autoclaves that steam the piñas under pressure can do the job in 12 to 18 hours, while giant stone ovens take between one and four days. The most flavorful tequilas seem, unsurprisingly, to come from the latter.

The juices inside the cooked agave hearts must then be released for fermentation. Most modern facilities have mechanical shredders that cleanly separate the agave fibers from the juice. El Tesoro does it old school, with a giant stone grinding wheel on an axle in a pit, pulled in a circle by mule or tractor. This process allows for a more thorough extraction of sugar and juice from the agave fibers. (Half of 7 Leguas’s production is also made this way.)

Both distilleries keep the fiber in the mash through fermentation and even distillation (most tequila makers throw the pulp away and just ferment the juice). “It’s more work; it takes longer,” said Camarena. “But that’s where flavor comes from.”

Distillation, the final step, is a complicated and nuanced process. But I’m predisposed to any place I see copper pot stills, as you still do in the best places in Tequila (and as you do in Scotland, Cognac, and so on). Slowness, time, and uncut corners are the key ingredients in flavorful tequila, just as they are in a good braise, a complex chicken stock, or tasty bread. Alas, good things cost more, and El Tesoro and 7 Leguas, in the $45 to $50 range, are some of the more expensive blanco tequilas out there. (The brands also make añejo versions.) Their time is my money, but it’s a price I’m willing to pay.

Jordan Mackay is a San Francisco–based wine and spirits specialist whose work has appeared in publications such as Gourmet, the Los Angeles Times, Food & Wine, and Decanter. Follow him on Twitter. Follow CHOW too, and become a fan on Facebook.