In honor of National Tequila Day (July 24), let me tell you about the time I learned to make tequila.
I have to be honest with you, tequila was never my jam. In college there was too much of it, there was usually a worm involved and the smell just made me gag. It also causes a weird side-effect for me. It makes me go all vampire on people and try to bite anyone within a two feet radius. It’s not pretty.
However, in recent years, everyone I know has started drinking it - but on another level. Not as a cheap mixer for a margarita, or as a slammer (“lick it, drink it, suck it”), but as a high end liquor on its own, often without lime. I was confused. “But it’s so awful,” I said to my friend in Los Angeles.
“Try it,” he said, offering me some 49-month, barrel-aged tequila. I took a deep breathe, steeled my stomach and… it was delicious. Like scotch. I was considering converting when an invite to the Herradura Tequila Factory in Amititan, Mexico came through.
“Sign me up!” I said and a week later there I was at the distillery (housed in an old school hacienda) in the agave fields surrounding the Amititan Mountains.
The Herradura hacienda has been run by the same family for 184 years and is the perfect blend of old school and new technology. My guide, Ruben Aceves, hoisted me on a horse and we rode out to the Agave fields, where I started my “How To Make Tequila in Six Steps.”
“It’s easy,” Ruben said.
Ruben is a liar.
Step 1: Harvest the agave
Photo: Ricky Montalvo)
You chop the arms off the plants. Chop it out of the ground and keep hacking at it until till it’s a round ball. Then, because you aren’t exhausted enough and your arms aren’t quite jelly yet, you aim the spade at the middle of the ball and split it open. It took me twenty five minutes do one. The “jimadores” were on their thirtieth by then. My arms still hurt. Out in the fields, around 8 a.m., hundreds of men show up with razor sharp spades and start attacking row after row of Agave plants (which look like huge aloe plants but are much harder to chop down).
Step 2: Cook the agave
(Photo: Ricky Montalvo)
Fun fact: If you get raw agave on your arms, you will have a rash for more than a week. Just saying. One person actually needs to crawl into an oven to help guide the plants through while someone hoists the (heavy-as-heck) agave halves onto a conveyor belt from the outside.
Step 3: Milling and juicing
I liked this part, as it was actually fairly easy. In the control room, you press a button, and the agave hearts are milled, squished, and all the juice is taken out of them.
Step 4: Fermentation and distillation
This is a little scary. While the process of fermentation and distillation is technically “easy,” the vats the agave juice ferment in are about 50 feet high and 10 feet wide, and the carbon dioxide they emit is toxic. I started to get a little lightheaded.
Step 5: Aging
Photo: Paula Froelich)
In a room that looks like any you would find in any winemaking region, the tequila is then transferred to oak barrels to age for one to 40 months. It smells delicious in this room, and here’s a tip: Go for the oldest aged. It’s better than an 18-year scotch. Trust.
Step 6: Bottling
I had a full Laverne & Shirley moment in the bottling factory, complete with hairnet and gloves. The bottlers can wrap and brand 50 bottles in five minutes. I did one in 10. (It’s OK. My ego is fine. I swear I’m talented in other areas!).
Aaaand then, tequila was done. In the bottle. And I was ready to cry uncle. Every inch of my body hurt, I had crazy rashes on both arms, and I smelled like a bad DUI stop. But I was ready for the final two steps.
Step 7: Drinking!
Welcome to my favorite part. (Photo: Ricky Montalvo)
This naturally led to…
Step 8: Napping
… under an old Magnolia tree. The perfect end to the perfect day. (Photo: Ricky Montalvo)
To book a trip to the distillery, go to Casa Herradura, and don’t forget to ask about the Tequila Express, a five-hour train ride from Guadalajara to the hacienda with many tequila tastings along the way. Olé!