It’s the stuff of a Hollywood movie, or a novel about rags to riches. Except it’s all true. In 1940 in the town of Atotonilco El Alto in Jalisco, Mexico, 15-year-old Julio Gonzalez-Frausto Estrada lost his father. Julio became head of the family, and worked as a farmhand for nine pesos a week to help the family’s meagre income.
Julio also worked with his Uncle José, who made tequila, and he learned the skills of distilling from him. At the age of 17, before he was legally old enough to drink tequila, Julio started his own distillery in the hopes of earning a bit more money. With all the confidence of a teenager, Don Julio told people: “I’m going to make the best tequila in the world, even if I don’t sell it.”
He would carry his tequila around the dusty roads of the Jalisco highlands on the back of a donkey, and sell it he did. He was soon making nine pesos a day from his tequila, and could stop working as a farm laborer. He exchanged the donkey for a bright blue Chevrolet truck.
In 1947 Julio moved to larger premises right in the center of town, and that’s where I went to see where Don Julio, the number one luxury tequila in Mexico, is still made. I was met by Master Distiller Enrique de Colsa, who has been making Don Julio since 1999.
“When I arrived,” he told me, “we were making 8,000 litres a day. Now we do 32,000 litres a day, in the same space! I believe we’re one of the most efficient distilleries in the world. We work 24/7 to produce those 32,000 litres.”
Enrique showed me the receiving area, where the blue agave pinas arrive on their journey to being turned into tequila.
“We only take agave that is mature and ripe,” Enrique explained. “Not all agave are ready at the same time, even in the same field. We go after five and a half years to see which are ripe and we take maybe 20% of the agave. We go back six months later, then take maybe another 20% that are now ripe. And we keep going. Other distilleries will clear a whole field at the same time as it is more economical.
“If I’m going to make the best tequila I need to start with the best agave. In one hectare, when you would normally plant 3,000 agave, I will plant 2,500. The agave will grow bigger and be more flavorful. Giving them more space also gives each plant more sun.”
In front of us men are hacking the mature agave into pieces, prior to cooking.
“We cut them into even pieces so that we can cook all ones of the same size together,” Enrique told me. “It might look like the guys are just kicking an agave and cutting it but all the time they’re looking at the size of the agave and deciding how to cut it. We cook in 72-hour cycles. There are no books to tell you how to make tequila. You have to know how to change cooking times, depending on the agave, and the year, and the conditions.”
Enrique then explained the next stage in the process, once the agaves have been cooked.
“Just like you clean clothes,” he said, “with the fibre of the agave you soak it in water and squeeze it, and repeat and repeat. With clothes what remains is the dirt, with agave fibre it’s the sugar. So now we have agave sugar. Next we ferment with yeast. You can do it in two ways. One way is to use wild yeast, the yeast that’s in the atmosphere, but that doesn’t give you consistency. The second way is to use a specific yeast from a laboratory. This gives you consistency, but the bad side is that someone else can buy the same yeast as you. What we do at Don Julio is adapt the yeast to our own flavors. We have had our yeast now for 35 to 40 years.”
After 24-30 hours of fermentation, the liquid is ready for distillation.
“Here’s where we concentrate flavors and aromas,” Enrique explained. “Everybody has to remove head and tails. The key is how much you remove. As a consumer you wouldn’t notice in the taste if some head and tails were left in but your body would notice as it would give you a bad headache, stomach-ache and so on.”
Enrique then showed me a sample of the spirit after one distillation. It was a little cloudy, and still had waxes in it. You can drink it, it’s about 24-25% abv, but the second distillation is pure and clear.
“At the end,” Enrique said, “we produce tequila at 55% and then reduce it to the required strength. If you distill too many times you are removing aromas and flavors.”
After the tour, and naturally a tasting, I’m shown the small museum in the distillery, dedicated to the remarkable life of Don Julio. His distillery and tequila was at first called La Primavera, “The Spring.” It was only in 1985, celebrating Don Julio’s 60th birthday, that his sons as a gift created a tequila which they called Don Julio. It met with their father’s approval.
The first Don Julio tequila also met with the approval of the people of Atotonilco El Alto, and its success spread throughout Jalisco and to the state’s capital, Guadalajara. What’s surprising is that at the time the tequila was the most expensive tequila ever sold. The world’s first luxury tequila had been born. All photos by Mike Gerrard.
IF YOU GO: The Don Julio Distillery is not open for public tours, but private tours can be made by special arrangement.