On October 5th, Tequila Patron brought its Academia Patron program here to Columbus, and I was fortunate to join a host of USBG and other industry types for the all day event. Patron only puts on a few of these education seminars a year, making us fortunate to see it here in Columbus. Attendance was tremendous, and we had bartenders making the journey here from as far away as Pittsburgh and Louisville. The presentation was densely packed with information, some of which I already knew, and some of which I really didn’t want to know, but it was overall hugely interesting and useful. This will be long enough without trying to digest the whole day’s training, but I thought it would be fun to go over some of the things we discussed that stood out to me as either fun or particularly useful.
The first two-thirds of the seminar was presented not by Patron, but by Consejo Regulador del Tequila, or The Tequila Regulatory Council. This is the Mexican quasi-governmental agency that regulates everything tequila, from agave farming to labeling.
Legally, “Tequila” is an Appellation of Origin, a legal definition the same as for “Cognac”, and more strict than, say, bourbon. The differences are technical, but suffice to say that the tequila folks are far pickier about how and where you can and cannot make tequila. Imagine if all bourbon had to be made with one and only one variety of corn….
Among the most important things to be clear on as a consumer or purveyor of tequila is that there are two distinct categories of the spirit: Tequila 100% Blue Agave, and Tequila. The former is made from only the Weber Blue Agave plant. The latter may employ up to 49% sugars from other sources. The distinction here looks similar but is fundamentally different from the distinction between, for example, single malts and blended scotches. Blended whiskies add other alcohols after distillation, whereas the other sources of sugar, principally molasses, are added into tequila before the initial fermentation begins. All tequila, in both categories, can use only Weber Blue Agave. If you want an agave liquor made from other agaves, try mezcal, which conversely may not legally contain any Weber Blue.
To make tequila, you cut all the leaves off of your mature blue agave, leaving you with a stem that looks like a gigantic pineapple, so much so that it is called just that, a piña. The piñas are then very slowly roasted in a sealed oven or autoclave to break down the sugars to something that won’t give yeast indigestion. The piñas are then subjected to any of a variety of processes each horrible enough to have given the Spanish Inquisition pause in order to extract the juices. If you are not making 100% blue agave, you add your molasses or other sugars at this point. Tequila can be distilled in either pot or column stills, and pot still tequila is usually twice distilled directly to bottling strength, while column still tequila must be diluted back down.
Silver tequilas are essentially the pure distillate, straight from the still. It may be filtered, but can have zero additives. We were told that many true tequila wonks prefer silvers to geek out with, as you get the truest expression of the agave flavors and sweetness. I surmise this means that it is in silver tequilas that the difference between a half-assed product and one made with great care will be most apparent. Despite the requirement that silvers have no additives, you will often see some that have a slight color to them. This is because they may be legally aged in wood for up to two months.
The other main types of tequila are all aged for more than two months. Reposados (literally, “rested”) may be aged at least two months. Anjeos (“Aged”) are aged more than a year. Extra Anjeos (“Extra Aged”) must be aged at least three years. Those are the literal translations. The US legal translations are Reposado–Aged, Añjeo–Extra Aged, and Extra Añjeo–Ultra Aged, because bureaucrats hate you. You will seldom find Extra Añjeos much older than three for two reasons. It is hot in Mexico, which means the angels down there are serious lushes. Also, tequila simply does not age terribly well. The distinctive agave flavor compounds that make tequila what it is are overwhelmed or destroyed by enough time in oak.
There are few restrictions on what barrels are used to age tequila. Distillers use and reuse new and used, and the used barrels come from wine and all types of other spirits. Patron’s aged tequilas are a careful blend of tequilas from several different kinds of barrels. Right off the bat, you can often tell by taste what kind of barrel was used to age a tequila.
If the barrel aging process for reposados and añjeos are all over the place, the last group of tequilas, Golds, are the Wild West. Gold, or joven, tequila is a silver tequila to which colorants and/or flavorings added. The wild west comes in here because the flavorings could be almost anything. Most jovens are colored and sweetened with caramel colors and sugars, but there are some that add only some amount of aged tequila. In other words, your gold tequila could be an Early Times analogue… or a Johnny Walker Black. With almost everything else about tequila so strictly controlled, I do not know why the gold classification is left so wide open. All I got is, again, bureaucrats hate you.
A final important point about the making of tequila is that agave plants take seven to ten years to grow to maturity and harvest. Farming economics being what they are, this has historically lead to crazy cycles of glut and scarcity in agave production. My guess is, the next time you see a sudden wave of premium producers touting the virtues of their mixtos, it is because there has been a scarce harvest, and there isn’t enough agave to make as much 100% blue agave tequila as they’d like.
The main feature of Patron’s portion of the session was the tasting, of course, but it was accompanied by a fascinating discussion of how Patron does business and how their production processes affect the finished product. The government speaker, representing all tequila makers, could not go into many value judgements about how different distilling options affect quality, although she was very strong on the point that 100% blue agave is not an automatically superior liquor. There are applications and significant portions of the market who actively prefer mixtos. But Patron can of course brag all they want about the choices they make. The most interesting point was an admission that in some segments of the craft bar world, Patron is becoming a victim of its own success. Its basic Silver expression in particular is sometimes sneered at as bland because of its ubiquity, rather than any actual blandness. Their response, rather than stomping their feet and insisting anyone who doesn’t like basic Patron Silver is a visigoth, is to suggest their Roca Patron line of expressions as alternatives. I quite like the Roca Silver, a lot. But whatever your personal opinion of this line of expressions, “bland” won’t likely be included.
Patron uses two distinct processes to crush their roasted piñas. One is a modern roller mill, which is highly efficient in extracting the juice from the pulp. The other is an almost pre-industrial device called a tahona which is a giant stone wheel that rolls around a circle, crushing the agave. Patron’s nod to the modern world with this setup is to replace the mule with a tractor to pull the wheel around. The tahona process is much less efficient in extracting the juice, and leaves a lot of the fibrous pulp behind. Patron leaves this pulp in the “mosto” which goes into the stills. For most of their tequila, they blend the resulting distillates together before bottling. But for the Roca brands, they use only the tahona process. The result is a big, vegetal flavor that strikes me as almost rustic. Hipster Cred Status: Restored.
I’ll wrap up with two final interesting things we learned. The first is that due to the unique chemistry of agave, there is a much higher level of methanol in tequila than any other liquor. No, it’s not high enough to be harmful, but yes, it is high enough to be part of the basic flavor profile. In fact, the experts at CSI:Jalisco are usually able to detect illegally aldulterated tequilas simply by demonstrating a low methanol level. And yes, there is actually a tequila board “crime lab” where they ferret out counterfeit tequilas around the world.
Finally, there was the Mexican goddess of fertility, who was named Muyahuel. She had 400 breasts, which understandably caught the attention of the great god Quetzalcoatl. They ran off from her abusive grandmother and had 400 babies, called the Rabbits of Drunkenness. At any rate, wedded bliss was not long for Muyahuel, as her granny tracked her down and killed her. Her husband memorialized Muyahuel by turning her into the agave plant. Now, if you drink too much of her “milk”, one of her rabbit children will come and possess you…