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."

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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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