Tequila is a much-maligned spirit here in the United States. Most of us think of it as something so nasty you need to do it in a shot with salt and lime so that you'll taste it as little as possible, or take it mixed into an over-sweet margarita. All of that is changing.
The modern cocktail scene has reignited our interest in Mexico's most-famous booze, and more and more people are realizing what tequila enthusiasts have known for years: There are some unbelievably good tequilas out there. So when Casa Noble—a tequila distillery with a hardcore following—invited us south of the border to see how they make theirs, well, how could we refuse?
It's Friday afternoon, you've made it through the long week, and it's time for Happy Hour, Gizmodo's weekly booze column. A cocktail shaker full of innovation, science, and alcohol. Da-NA-dana-DAna-Da-da, da-Na-Dana-DAna-da. Tequila!
Growing and Harvesting
All tequila starts with the Weber Blue Agave plant, which, contrary to popular belief, is not a cactus. By law, in order to be called tequila, it must be at least 51-percent agave (just as a bourbon's mash-bill must be at least 51-percent corn), but the good stuff is 100-percent pure agave. Those that aren't 100-percent are categorized as mixtos, and they use other sugars for fermentation in an effort to have some smoothness while costing as little as possible to produce.
The agave plants are grown in and near the town of Tequila in the Mexican state of Jalisco. In fact, tequila can only be produced in Jalisco in order for it to be called tequila (Update: Well, actually, it can also come from certain parts of Nayarit, Guanajuato, Michoacán and Tamaulipas). If it's made anywhere else, it must be label "agave spirit" instead. The plants—that look a lot like large pineapples growing on the ground—grow for a minimum of seven years. Casa Noble typically goes 10-14 years, and it's also one of just three USDA certified organic growers... y'know, if that's important to you. The plants are continually stressed and routinely have their flowing stalks (quixotes) cut off to prevent them from flowering and dying. In response to this stress the plants produce more sugars, thus making a sweeter plant.
When they're ripe, the tequila plants are harvested by a jimador (an agave farmer). The harvesting is still done almost exclusively by hand using a tool called a coa. It's basically a long wooden staff with a round blade (also hand-sharpened) at the end. It is shockingly sharp and very effective.
Using the coa, the jimadores cut away all of the leaves from the piña, the sweet heart of the plant, which really does look like a pineapple at this point. The piñas can grow to be 150 to 250 pounds, and each jimador may harvest as many as 150 to 200 plants a day. It's some back-breaking work.
Cooking and Juicing
As soon as possible after harvesting (to ensure freshness), the piñas are put into stone ovens. Steam is piped in from the giant steam generators, and is the only heat that is used. Mescal, on the other hand, is exposed to direct flame, which accounts for its Scotchy smokiness. The agave is steam-cooked in these traditional ovens for 36 to 38 hours, which is basically the time required to convert the starchy carbohydrates into sweet sugars.
I had the chance to taste the agave after it was cooked. It was incredibly sweet and juicy, but it also had an earthiness to it. There were these subtle flavors that you taste very concentrated in tequila, and you think, "Ah, that's where it gets that."
After the piñas cool, they're off to the juicer. Traditionally, this was accomplished by a donkey dragging a large stone over them. Oh, to be young. Today most distilleries use roller mills, which are extremely efficient at extracting almost all the juice. Casa Noble uses a screw mill instead, which presses the the piña with less pressure and is actually much less efficient. So why would they use it? Because it's their opinion that when you press the hell out of the plant it breaks the fibers within it, which release undesirable flavors. That's where a lot of the astringent, nail-polishy flavors in bad tequilas come from. Casa Noble ends up wasting much more plant material, but they're a boutique operation—so, for them, it's worth it.
Once the juice is extracted and transferred to its vat, the solid plant matter is transported to the back of the building where it is allowed to slowly compost. The piles lie in long rows of varying age. You can really see the difference between them. The newer stuff looks like a grassy, sinewy mass, with lots of fibers still visible. The older stuff looks like plain old dirt with the odd fiber still in it. Once it's decomposed enough it is distributed into the farm before new agave is planted.
Fermenting and Distilling
Once the juice (or joose... just kidding) is extracted, it is transferred over to large fermentation tanks. Casa Noble is one of just two distillers that uses natural yeast in their fermentation process, which is slower, but they believe it yields a better result. The mash is fermented for three to five days, depending on the weather. When it's warmer, fermentation will go quicker. In the cooler months, it'll take a little more time.
Around the outer rim of every tank is a perforated blue hose. Water comes through the hose and drips down the outer walls of the tank to help facilitate cooling. Once the mash has fermented enough it's transferred over to the stills.
Casa Noble uses three stainless steel pot stills with copper plates on the inside (which impart some flavor into the resulting spirit). After the first time though the still you are left with ordinario. Trust us when we say that that stuff is harsh. Heads and tails are cut out, as they are with gin and any other distilled alcohol. Interestingly enough, after some experimenting with earlier batches, Casa Noble realized they were cutting out too many floral aromas in their heads and tails, and so they opened them up a little, just to get those back in.
Virtually all tequila distilleries take the ordinario (first run) and distill it a second time. Casa Noble is one of the few that distills it a third time. Either way, what comes out is tequila blanco aka "silver" or "white," though Casa Noble calls theirs "crystal," for whatever reason. It tastes, essentially, like what you're going to end up drinking if you buy a bottle of tequila blanco, except it's stronger. It comes out of the still at 57-percent alcohol by volume. Enough water is then added to bring it down to 40-percent ABV for bottling.
Aging and Varieties
So, as we've already established, there are two base types of tequila: The cheaper mixtos, and 100-percent agave. Within those, though, there are five sub-categories that you need to know.
Blanco a.k.a. "Silver"
This is the un-aged stuff. It comes out of the still, water is added to bring it to 40-percent ABV, and then it's bottled. The end. Of all the varieties out there its flavor most closely resembles the cooked agave plant. It typically has a little more edge to it than the other varieties. Generally speaking, if you're making a margarita, this is the way to go. That's not to say it isn't good. It can be very good. It just has more prominent plant flavors, so it can still stand out some even when drowning in lime juice and sugar.
Joven a.k.a. "Gold"
Gold isn't really the gold standard here. Joven is just blanco tequila with a little aged tequila (see below) added for flavor and color. Some even use caramel flavoring and color.
Reposado a.k.a. "Rested"
Now we're getting into the aged stuff. Tequila that is aged in wooden barrels for two months up to one year is known as Reposado. Different distilleries use different types of barrels, with everything from used bourbon barrels to wine barrels being used. Casa Noble happens to use new Taransaud French White Oak barrels with a very light char (char #1), and it uses them in three different sizes: small 114 liter, medium 228 liter, and large 350 liter.
Each size ages the tequila in a different way due to the differences in surface area, but, regardless of the size, the tequila all goes in and comes out on the same day, exactly 364 days later, the maximum limit for reposado. Barrels can only be opened by the CRT (the Regulatory Council of Tequila), so there can be no shenanigans. The reasons the different sized barrels are used is so they have three flavors to play with when they are blending. The distillers have a master sample they taste from, and then they blend the new barrels until it achieves exactly the flavor they're looking for.
Tasting the reposado, it's much smoother than the blanco. The agave flavors are still in there, but everything has mellowed. There's much, much less of an edge to it. There are also some of the sweet, woody characteristics brought in by the barrels. There are faint notes of caramel and vanilla, and the color is a light gold. It would be wasted in a margarita, but it could definitely be nice in a high-end cocktail, and it's certainly smooth enough to sip neat.
Añejo a.k.a. "Aged" or "Vintage"
Añejo as the name implies, has been aged for a minimum of one year (año being Spanish for "year") and up to three years. Age doesn't benefit all spirits, but holy crap it does this one right. Casa Noble's Añejo is aged for exactly two years. In that time it gets incredibly mellow and smooth. It has rich, sweet flavors and even stronger notes of vanilla. It's absolutely delicious. I wouldn't even put this one in a cocktail—just sip it neat. If you grew up drinking the cheap stuff, this will completely change your notion of what tequila can be. The first moment I had it I thought, "This is probably the best tequila I've ever had," and it was, until...
There's one more category of tequila: Extra Añejo. To give you an idea of how fast tequila is changing, the Extra Añejo category was only just established in 2006. It essentially means "extra aged" or "ultra aged." It sits for a minimum of three years in oak casks and there is no upper age limit. If done right, oh man...
A few years ago Carlos Santana (yes, Mr. Oye Como Va himself) approached Casa Noble. He wanted in, and he ended up buying a portion of the company and joining the board. Whatever, right? Celebrity boozes are a dime a dozen. But hold on: this is no Ciroc. Carlos picked out a large 350 liter barrel of five year old Extra Añejo. It's a super limited edition—only five hundred bottles bottles are being made, sold for $500 each. I thought, "That's insanely, stupidly expensive," but then I got to taste it.
Not only was it the best tequila I've ever tried by a huge margin, it may have been the best spirit I've ever tried, period. I've been lucky enough to try many old Scotches and small batch bourbons, and I love them deeply, but this was something else entirely. It was so impossibly smooth. It is a deep amber color. It had all of the best flavors you get in the Añejo, but more of them and absolutely none of the harshness. And was that a note dark chocolate in there? What sorcery is this?
This was easily the best tequila I'd ever had. But that only lasted a few minutes.
Casa Noble's co-owner Pepe Hermosillo then poured me a small glass of something even crazier. Taken from the same original batch as Santana's, but aged for five years in one of the small 114 liter barrels, it was pure magic. Santana's reserve was incredible, but this was a whole level above it. What's smoother than smooth? I don't know what to call it, but it's that stuff. In fact, it was given to me at the 57-percent ABV cask strength and I thought for sure that had to be a mistake. It barely tasted like it was 40! It was unquestionably the best spirit I've ever had in my life.
Unfortunately—and you're going to hate me for this—that one will never see the light of day. The barrel it comes from is so small that they won't sell it or distribute it. "This is just for us and our friends," Hermosillo told me. I almost wish I didn't know about it, because I'll probably never have it again. On second thought, screw that, I'll just have my tongue bronzed.
Going to high school in California, tequila was the first thing I ever got drunk off of—my "mother's milk" of liquor, if you will. Like most Americans, my friends and I had no concept of "quality tequila." In fact, we rated tequila on the "Ass Scale," the idea being that all tequila tasted like ass, it's just a matter of how many esses you put on it. Arandas—a cheap rotgut we'd get other people to buy for us—was five S, or ASSSSS tequila. A few years in, the first time we got our hands on Patron, we were amazed. It was only ASS! Maybe even AS!
If I could tell my 17-year-old self that something like Santana's Reserve (or even the Casa Noble Añejo) existed, I don't think he would have believed me, and probably neither would most Americans today. Old misconceptions die hard. Just find yourself a way to taste it, if you can, and see if your mind doesn't change.
Santana Single Barrel Reserve will be out in early 2014. $500 a bottle is brutally expensive, but, to be fair, proceeds from its sale go to support the Milagro Foundation "for the purpose of helping underserved and vulnerable people by making grants to organizations in the areas of education, health, and the arts." So you'll be drinking for a good cause.
Really though, just seduce some rich old guy at a bar and get him to buy you a glass. It'll be worth it. In the meantime, their Blanco, Reposado, and Añejo are all fantastic and can be purchased now without you needing to sell any important organs on the black market.
Big thanks to Pepe Hermosillo and everybody at Casa Noble for their time, hospitality, and tequila.