Whisky Hotline Hits the Road-Mexico
Posted: March 24, 2014
Had a wonderful chance to escape the polar vortex in late February and explore a number of Tequila producers. Make no mistake, the production of Tequila is just as involved, complex, scientific, creative and artistic as the production of every other world class spirit we have the good luck of enjoying. The broad purpose of the trip was to explore the varied distilleries involved in the production of the Arte NOM series of releases that are the brainchild of Jake Lustig of Haas Imports. Just like Armagnac, Cognac and Calvados are expressions of place and materials, Arte NOM strives to differentiate based on the expression of the distiller. Each distillery in Mexico is assigned a number by the Tequila Regulatory Council (CRT) that certifies the distillery's compliance with the Official Mexican Standard of Tequila (NOM), with defined rules about appelation, ingredients, production, and more. First stop was Destiladora El Paraiso (NOM 1580) located in the Rancho Sagrado Corazon de Jesus outside of Jesus Maria to see what is behind Arte NOM 1580 Blanco. Like most distilleries in Jalisco, Paraiso produces Tequila for a number of brands available in and out of Mexico. In this case, Herencia Mexicana and Oro Azul are brands you might know. The process begins with Weber Agave Azul (blue agave) grown on the ranch, one of the highest in Los Altos (the Highlands) at over 6000 feet above sea level. The soil in this area is extremely rich in iron, as well as other minerals, and beautiful in its distinctive red. The starches in agave are quite complex, requiring them to be cooked into simple sugars that can then be fermented. In the case of Paraiso this is done in the traditional way, baked in a clay oven. That process takes 36 hours, the first 6 hours are run off of harsher elements that are undesirable for fermentation, the last 30 are what is kept. After cooking and resting, the pinas (the whole and halved hearts of the agave plants) are then lightly crushed and shredded to extract the now sugary goodness from the cooking process. This is done in a traditional staged mill where the shredded fibers are run under a series of water misters and then pressed to achieve maximum extraction. That liquid then goes to fermenters where it is innoculated with yeast and allowed to ferment for over 96 hours, converting the sugars into alcohol, carbon dioxide and heat. The resulting wort, called Mosto, is then double distilled, in this case in relatively small copper pot stills. The resulting spirit is then either aerated for some period of time before resting to be immediately bottled as Blanco, or filled into oak barrels for aging into Reposado (3-12 months) or Anejo (over 1 year) age designations. The distinction between the brands at Paraiso has much to do about the distillation and aeration. In the case of Arte NOM, Jake was looking for a narrower spirits cut, slightly more aeration and high sugar agave to yield a Blanco that is lush, decadent and sweet, a true expression of soil and altitude. The distiller who led our tour, Rosario, was very humble about this, stating "the agave gives the flavors, the distiller only influences the flaws." When you taste this Tequila you will understand she needs to give her self more credit. Next stop was Feliciano Vivanco y Asociados Fabrica 'El Ranchito', NOM 1414, also known as Tequila Mexico, in the capital of los Altos distilling, Arandas. Did not recognize any labels for the US beyond Arte NOM 1414 Reposado and Tequila Calor. Too bad, as this distillery makes excellent Tequila. Differentiating features here are traditional stone ovens utilizing steam, and an open fermentation process that can take from 7-15 days depending on temperature and time of the year. The open fermentation is critical here, as planted directly by the fermentation building are a series of decorative Japanese flowering trees (look much like cherry trees) that release pollen that blow into the vats for at least a partial spontaneous ferment. The remainder of the yeast is a wild strain that is propagated individually for each vat. Distillation is also slightly different as the still sizes are mismatched, large copper pots for the first distillation, smaller copper pots for the second, with a third distillation on a portion of the spirit. The aged spirit is filled into primarily either new (previously unused) French oak or ex Bourbon barrels. For Arte NOM 1414, the preference is third fill Bourbon barrels aged 6 months (slightly different terminology than we use for Scotch, in this case the first fill is the actual Bourbon, the second fill is the first Tequila, so the third fill is the second use for Tequila). The effort here (achieved very well) is to allow the slightly fruitier and spicier tequila to be enhanced by the gentle vanilla and butter character of the oak, rather than overpowered by it. To complete the line we visited Tequilena S.A. in the town of Tequila, located in the Lowlands (hardly low as they are still at over 3000 above sea level.) Tequilena, owned by the wonderful maverick Enrique Fonseca, uses agave grown primarily on his properties in and around Atotonilco in Los Altos, incorporating a smaller portion of Lowland agave from his farms around Arenal. Enrique produces a number of brands, including Don Fulano, Xalisco, Lapis, Purasangre and Asombroso among others. Formerly owned by Bacardi, this distillery has the ability to produce a solid volume of Tequila, but still does so in an artisinal way. Some of the things unique here were an extraction process that minimizes the use of water thus increasing relative sugar content of the Mosto, then cooking in modern steel autoclaves at low pressure (1/3 typical of these devices) for a longer time to limit the extraction of off elements. They have a relatively short fermentation in open, outdoor fermenters (36 hours) with a long rest of 72 hours for acidification to carry into the distillation process. They also use two yeast strains, one to most efficiently generate alcohol, the other to create desirable flavors in the Mosto. The final choice for Arte NOM 1146 is then done to maximize agave character, and is culled from the ridiculous amount of old barrels of various types that Enrique stores. This bottling expresses agave, but also shows a closer, rich, decadent wood character.