The process of tequila begins when a blue agave plant is ripe, usually 8 to 12 years after it is planted. Leaves are chopped away from its core by a “jimador” who assesses the plants ripeness. If the plant is harvested too soon, there won’t be enough sugars to do the job. Too late and the agave’s sugars will have already been used to form a once-in-a-lifetime stem “quiote” that springs 25 to 40 feet high so that the seeds grown at the top of the stem can scatter with the wind. The jimador’s task is a crucial one; once he decides that the plant is ready, he wields a special long knife known as a “coa” to clear the core. The cores or piñas (Spanish for pineapple) weight an average of 40 to 70 pounds, and can weight up to 200 pounds.
Piñas are hauled to the distillery where they are cut in half or chopped and put to roast. Starches turn to sugar as the piñas are roasted in furnaces called “hornos”. Modern distilleries use huge steam ovens to increase output and save on energy. Roughly speaking, seven kilos (15 lb.) of agave piña are needed to produce one liter (one quart U.S.) of tequila.
Different agaves and processes produce mezcal with different names throughout Mexico: stotol in Chihuanhua, mezcal in Oaxaca, and bacanora in Sonora.
The roasted piñas are then shredded, their juices pressed out and placed in fermenting tanks or vats. Some distilleries use the traditional method to produce tequila. In this method –artesian tequila– the cores are crushed with a stone wheel at a grinding mill called “tahona” and the fibers are dumped into the wooden vat to enhance fermentation and to provide extra flavor. Once the juices are in the vats yeast is added. Every distiller keeps its own yeast as a closely guarded secret. During fermenting, the yeast acts upon the sugars of the agave plant converting them into alcohol.
Juices ferment for 30 to 48 hours then they are distilled twice in traditional copper stills or more modern ones made of stainless steel or in continuous distillation towers. The first distillation produces a low-grade alcohol and the second a fiery colorless liquid that is later blended before being bottled. Alcohol content may be between 70 and 110 Proof. At this moment the liquor is no longer mezcal but tequila.
All types of tequila start with this colorless distilled spirit. Each type will be called depending on its aging.
Blanco or Silver
This is the traditional tequila that started it all. Clear and transparent, fresh from the still tequila is called Blanco (white or silver) and must be bottled immediately after the distillation process. It has the true bouquet and flavor of the blue agave. It is usually strong and is traditionally enjoyed in a “caballito” (2 oz small glass).
Oro or Gold
Is tequila Blanco mellowed by the addition of colorants and flavorings, caramel being the most common. It is the tequila of choice for frozen Margaritas.
Reposado or Rested
It is Blanco that has been kept (or rested) in white oak casks or vats called “pipones” for more than two months and up to one year. The oak barrels give Reposado a mellowed taste, pleasing bouquet, and its pale color. Reposado keeps the blue agave taste and is gentler to the palate. These tequilas have experienced exponential demand and high prices.
Añejo or Aged
It is Blanco tequila aged in white oak casks for more than a year. Maximum capacity of the casks should not exceed 600 liters (159 gallons). The amber color and woody flavor are picked up from the oak, and the oxidation that takes place through the porous wood develops the unique bouquet and taste.
Although not a category in itself, it is a special Añejo that certain distillers keep in oak casks for up to 8 years. Reserva enters the big leagues of liquor both in taste and in price.