The region of Jalisco, Mexico (near Guadalajara) has been, and still is, responsible for the entirety of the Earth’s tequila for over 400 years, though the history of tequila dates back several thousand additional years. Everything in this region is designed to contribute to fine tequila. Beautiful warm weather, natural underground soft water, perfect terroir of red volcanic soil, and the variation of agave plants that produce the most natural sugars are the building blocks of a tequila meant to be sipped and savored. Toss out your salt and lime, and join me in a visit to Casa Herradura — the maker of Mexico’s most popular tequila, produced the same way for generations.
Herradura has been instrumental in developing some of today’s key tequila standards, and they continue striving to improve them. They were the first to introduce Reposado tequila to the world in 1974 and Extra Anejo tequila in 1994 — after twenty years spent perfecting it. The excellent quality of their tequila proves that sometimes the old ways are best.
Natural is the way to describe what’s best about Herradura (which means “horseshoe” in Spanish). While there are tequila industry standards, Herradura prides themselves, and rightly so, for exceeding those across the board. Others may harvest their blue agave plants at four or five years; Herradura lets theirs mature a full seven years or more. Herradura enjoys access to their own underground water resources and have their own cooperage through owners Brown-Forman. Even though the fermentation process is quicker in tequila than other spirits (due to the warm weather year-round), Herradura also ferments at each stage of the tequila production process for longer, nearly double what other tequila distillers do. How do you top all that? By cutting the heads and tails, which are unhealthy alcohols that come out at the beginning and end of distillation, not once but twice.
Several interesting things about agave and tequila were brought to our attention during our visit to Casa Herradura. The agave is roasted and then the sugars are pressed out, leaving behind fibers from the agave plant. Those fibers are then rinsed with water to obtain as much agave nectar as possible. This is where the importance of soft water plays in. The liquid is pumped into fermentation tanks, where fermentation begins within a day or two and lasts for 92 hours. No yeast is added, no heat applied, and the mixture foams and bubbles as the sugars are converted into alcohol. The agave nectar you can buy at the store as a sweetener is this same agave liquid used in making tequila. The difference is, in order to turn it into something with a shelf life and no natural fermentation, it must be immediately pasteurized in the same way milk is.
Back to the tequila. There are five types of tequila produced by Herradura. They all come from the very same blue agave and are initially processed the same way. So, what’s the difference between Blanco (Silver), Reposado, Añejo, Ultra, and the Seleccion Suprema Extra Añejo? It’s all in how long the tequila is aged. All of it begins life as Blanco tequila. After 45 days in the fermentation kettles, the clear Blanco is either bottled or put into American White Oak casks to age. If a cask has previously been used, the insides are scraped out before being charred all over again. The next tequila is Reposado, which has a light golden color from the oak. The industry standard is aging for two months, but Herradura ages its Reposado for eleven months. For the Añejo, the aging time lengthens to 24 months. Again, the industry standard is only 12 months. The Ultra starts as the base Blanco but goes through a second distillation process, emerging as a very floral tequila. Seleccion Suprema, the Extra Anejo, ages for a full 45 months, at which point 40% of the original liquid will have evaporated. That “angel’s share” is comparable to a 12-year-old whiskey.
Because all tequilas begin as Blanco, you can really tell the overall quality of a distillery by the quality of the Blanco. It makes sense; if you can’t sip the Blanco and have to mask it with salt and lime to get it down, then you’ll likely have a similarly bad experience with the aged ones. Any cocktail created with a good quality tequila tastes significantly better.
Visiting Casa Herradura begins in Guadalajara, where you hop onto the Herradura Express — a train opening to the public on April 29. Riding this lush train, while sipping on a margarita or Paloma, is just the thing to set your visit off to the right start. As you ride along, the train passes by fields of blue agave in various stages of growth. You also see the rustic lifestyles of many people living in this area of Mexico. Wood and barbed wire fences surround the fields, while bright frescos decorate the sides of some buildings.
Once you disembark from the train, it’s a short bus ride to the Casa. The first thing that greets you upon stepping through the stone gates are pathways lined with blue agave. The lush grasses and native plant life give the place a feeling of being a tequila oasis in the desert. The staff are friendly and greeted our tour group with the house margarita — a tamarind version in a glass rimmed with a chile powder mixture. It tasted wonderfully spicy and tangy.
When you embark on the tour, be sure you are wearing good walking shoes. Casa Herradura is a big place, and you will want to see it all. First up is seeing an agave piña (the center) being stripped of its long, bladed leaves and the green portions sliced away. This is because those green skins will make the tequila bitter if left on. Then, the piña is cut in half and taken to the ovens to be roasted.
Herradura uses the oven baking method for roasting agave piñas. There are other distilleries that use an autoclave to speed up the process, but they sacrifice taste as a result. Our host explained it to us as the difference between cooking meat on the grill as opposed to in a microwave oven. Once roasted, the agave has turned a dark pink-brown color and is ready for removing the syrup from the fibers.
The syrup is pumped into large, open fermentation vats. The reason for the open tops is to allow the natural yeasts from the plantation’s trees and other plants to permeate the syrup as it naturally ferments. On our tour, we sampled the syrup in five stages, all straight from the vats. It is interesting how, in each stage of fermentation for only a few days, the taste of the syrup changes. Some of the sweetness is lost as it converts into alcohol; then flavors of banana and florals begin taking shape.
At this stage, the tequila is pumped into large copper kettles and distilled. Afterward, water is added to the Blanco to bring its alcohol content down before bottling. The remaining tequila is sealed into oak barrels to age.
Herradura is a charming place, filled with enchanting beauty and history. We drank tequila from barrels carried on the back of a donkey and toured the old factory. Rumors are that the old areas are haunted by the souls of those who died there: workers, priests hiding from persecution, and people seeking refuge from revolutionists. There are underground tunnels where Herradura actively helped smuggle many people to safety in generations past. Those tunnels are now filled with water. Here we also learned that tequila was originally sold solely at barrel-strength and only to men. Times have indeed changed.
In Mexico, people seldom drink tequila cocktails. They prefer sipping it neat or mix it with Squirt or Coke. Drink good tequila from champagne flutes or brandy snifters, as those were recommended as the best glasses to bring the scents and tastes to your experience.
An interesting note: when creating your own tasting, line the glasses up in order — Blanco, Reposado, Añejo, etc. Take in the scent of each after swirling it in the glass to observe the color before tasting. Once you’ve tasted them all, go back to the Blanco and Reposado. Taste one and then the other without any water in between. Then, sip the Blanco again. The change in flavor is immediate and wonderful. Do the same for the Añejo, bouncing among all three. When you do this, the more elusive flavors come forth for you to enjoy. It is a bit of a ritual and a perfect way to enjoy Herradura at your next dinner party.