Agave Pinas at Jose Cuervo Tequila Distillery
© Colleen Graham
Tequila takes patience, not so much in the distillation but more so in the very beginning. It takes an average of 7-10 years for an agave plant to grow to maturity. The plant is not a cactus but a member of the lily family and it resembles an oversized aloe vera. Unlike the aloe, it is not the leaves that the tequilleros (tequila makers) are interested in, but the bulb underground.
The agave bulb is called a piņa, which translates to "pineapple" but that only refers to the look of a bare piņa (pictured) - it tastes nothing like the fruit. The jimadores (agave field workers) harvest the agave by hand when they are ready to be harvested and remove the large, spiny leaves using a special tool called a coa. The piņa is then transported to the distillery.
It is at this point that tequila starts to take shape. The raw agave is often cut into smaller chunks then baked at high temperatures in special ovens until they are soft and dark brown. The raw taste of baked agave is amazing, almost like a juicy dehydrated fruit snack (the ones kids love) with a sweet, earthy tang. The job of the tequilleros now is to extract the juice from the agave and each distillery has their own methods. At Jose Cuervo a mechanical press is used and at Tezon and Patron an old-fashioned tahona wheel is employed. From this point the juice is distilled into tequila in much the same way as other spirits.
So, there's a little trivia for you to impress your friends while you're making them your favorite Margarita this summer. By the way, do you want the best Margaritas? Look for tequilas that are 100% blue weber agave and choose either a blanco or reposado. I prefer to stay away from the "gold" tequilas because these are often mixes and have additives - the best Margaritas come from pure tequilas.
Read more about tequila distilling and see more images at "A Trip Through Tequila Country."