Making Real Tequila With the Men of Mexico's Sangre de Azteca

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Inside the factory in the town of Tequila, workers have been using traditional techniques for more than a decade to squeeze nectar from agave.

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I placed the mouth of the glass bottle under the spigot and watched the golden, four-year aged tequila stream into the jar. I had come to the right place. Real tequila, after all, comes from the blue agave cactus-lined hills of the state of Jalisco, Mexico. In the 1980s and '90s, Jalisco, a coastal state with twisting mountain roads and a seemingly endless expanse of small farms, was perhaps best known for serving as the base of one of Mexico's most powerful drug cartels. Now, army trucks patrol the mountains and heavily armed police guard the city streets at night. As security improves and new businesses invest, the state is becoming better known for its original export: tequila.

Mexico's government is now promoting the town of Tequila, home to major brands like Jose Cuervo, Sauza, and a number of smaller producers, as a patrimonial city, the true home of the drink that shares its name. Overall, according to figures from Mexico's secretary of economy, tequila production has more than doubled since 1995. In 2011, Mexico exported more than 163 million liters of the agave-based alcohol, up from 64 million in 1995.

I sampled real Jalisco tequila down the road from Tequila in the town of Magdalena at a small distillery called Sangre de Azteca, a name which means "Aztec Blood." Over the brick wall next to the Sangre de Azteca factory, I could see the sprouts of young agave plants growing on the hills.  Cows grazed on the dusty ranch across the street.

Villalobos dipped his finger into a tube. I did the same. It was sweet, thin, and highly alcoholic. "Es muy fuerte," he said.

Francisco Villalobos, a recent college graduate with a degree from Tequila Jalisco, a local technical institute, who works as a manager at Sangre de Azteca, gave me a tour of the facility. Steam poured from the main boiler, clouding the exit where men in blue overalls hacked at the clipped hearts of the tough, seven-year-old blue agave plants that are used to make tequila. A man in a small backhoe pushed the heavy plants toward the building. They looked like giant, wooden pineapples. "Here, we're in the reception room for the agave," Villalobos told me. This is "where the cooking process starts, the rustic way."

Sangre de Azteca produces about 9,000 liters of pure tequila a day, selling it under different brand names in Mexico, France, and the United States. Major tequila producers, by contrast, use machines called diffusers to extract the agave juice directly. "What they cook is the juice," Villalobos said. "Jose Cuervo, Sauza -- they use the most modern techniques."

Inside, conveyer belts whirred, pushing the chunks of roasted agave toward spinning gears, which crushed the plants, extracting liquid. Water poured from jets, washing over the juicy, mashed agave, collecting in pools below, ready to be used in the fermentation process. "This is the artisanal way," Villalobos, skinny with black hair and short beard, told me. "This tequila is 100 percent pure. It's not mixed with corn or sugar or any other type of alcohol."

Villalobos picked up a piece of cooked agave from the ground. "Here's the molienda," the mill, he said. The lower half of the machine was covered with brown earthen tiles. On the bright green wall behind the machine, there was a hand-painted picture of a raw agave core, with the word PIÑA, which means pineapple, written under it.

"Here's where they extract the juice from the cooked agave. This is the second step in the process of making tequila," Villalobos explained, speaking over the hum of the engines and the hiss of steam. "They extract the honey, the sugar," he said, holding the chunk of roasted agave in his hand. The plant's hard, white core had softened, turning honey-colored, separating into soft hair-like strands, held together by gobs of thick, sweet agave nectar.

Inside the Sangre de Azteca factory, the air compressor used in the bottling process whirred to a stop, letting out a hiss of air. We climbed up a ladder and looked into the 15-foot-tall, 25,000-liter vats where the fermentation process takes place. Some of the vats were covered in white foam. "It's a carbon oxide that makes the foam," Villalobos said. "You can feel it, the temperature rises. It's a little bit caliente from the process [of fermentation]." To the right, the liquid in another vat was bubbling. A third had already finished the two and half day fermentation process. "It's now ready for distillation."

While Sangre de Azteca has been producing tequila using traditional techniques for more than a decade, other spirit-makers in the region have over 100 years of experience in production. Unlike other name brand producers that run only a small part of their operations in the town of Tequila -- mostly for the benefit of tourists -- Sangre de Azteca makes all of its product at its Magdalena location.

A man walked by below, pushing a wheelbarrow full of dry, roasted agave husks. Over the sound of cold water splashing against the outside of a storage tank, Villalobos explained the distillation process. It takes four hours. "They separate the alcohol from the honey and juices," he said, standing in front of a table of instruments used to check the alcohol level the nascent tequila. "When it comes out, it's full of greases and solids."

"You can try it," he said, "so you know the difference." The taste of young tequila is far different from the final, filtered and aged product. Villalobos dipped his finger into a tube. I did the same. It was sweet, thin, and highly alcoholic. "Es muy fuerte," he said. "The filters take out all the impurities for it to come out crystalline, blanco."

Villalobos led the way, underneath the red and white painted bricks in the arch in the hallway, and into a side room where oak barrels were stacked to the ceiling. "We just fill up the barrels, seal them, and leave them to age," he said. They re-use the same barrels, re-burning the insides after each use, part of the process that gives aged alcohol its robust, smoky taste and dark amber hue.

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A blanco is just tequila that finished the distillation process. "[It's] a young tequila. One that has been in the barrels for between one and three months," Villalobos explained. "It doesn't really smell like tequila," he added, swirling the bottle under his nose, inhaling. Among aged tequilas, there are two main varieties, reposado and añejo. "A tequila reposado stays for between one month and six months. It smells more like wood."

"This is a tequila reposado," he said, placing a glass jar under the spigot on the vat, turning the valve like a garden hose. He filled the jar up an inch. In the low light of the storage room, I could see the slight golden tint. "It already has the color, the flavor, and the aroma of the wood," he said. "It spent half a year in these barrels."

"To be a tequila añejo, it needs at minimum one year," Villalobos said, dumping what remained from the reposado sample jar into a white, five-gallon plastic bucket on the cement floor. An extra-añejo is aged between three and five years. "All of these in the barrels are all extra-añejos, they're at least four years old, more or less," he said. "It has a really dark color. It's a little bit sweeter. The flavor is more concentrated."

The growing demand for high-end spirits in the U.S. is part of the reason why tequila producers have been expanding their businesses. Overall, tequila exports from Mexico increased more than 11 percent in 2010 and seven percent in 2011. As demand for tequila in the U.S. increases, niche market producers such as Avion, which gained fame from its inclusion in the HBO television series Entourage, and Alma, a cleverly packaged boutique tequila, are finding their way into a select group of restaurants and bars north of the border.

At the Sangre de Azteca factory, Villalobos let me fill up my own jar to bring back home with me. I held a bottle under the tap, turning the valve, letting a thin stream of aged, extra-añejo tequila pour in. I watched the light from the room's high, semi-circular windows shine through, letting the liquid, which seemed thick in comparison to the young blanco, seep into the container, gaining color as the bottle filled.

"What we focus on here is the tequila ... the quality of the tequila," Villalobos said. "Other regions of Mexico make alcohol from agave, but they can't call it Tequila."

Image: Jesus Cervantes/Shutterstock.

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Nathaniel Parish Flannery is a Mexico City based writer who has worked on projects in Mexico, Colombia, Bolivia, India, China and Chile and written articles for Forbes, The World Policy Journal, The Nation, The Global Post, and Lapham's Quarterly.

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