As you enter the town of Arandas, about a two hour drive into the Jalisco Highlands from Guadalajara, you pass by a few recognizable facilities on the way to La Alteña. There's the Vivanco distillery right after the first roundabout, and then there's Cazadores with its big Pernod Ricard placards as you move around the border. While those distilleries are right in the town center, getting to the home of Tapatío requires a trek into the sticks. There are a number of winding country roads and narrow pathways before you see the brick facade of the distillery walls in the distance. I've always found that Tequila has much more in common with wine than whiskey, and in visiting the various agave distilleries of Mexico that comparison holds true on the production side as well. Some distilleries are like sterile custom crush pads with nothing more than the proper equipment and truck loads of material being dropped off for preparation. Others are actual estates, surrounded by their own vineyards (or agave fields, in this case), with an atmosphere and an aura all their own. La Alteña is definitely the latter. It's like the Ridge or Stag's Leap of Jalisco, a heralded property that has continued to make quality liquid despite its growth and enhancements over the years.
Any great wine's reputation will (and should) always begin with the quality and the location of its vineyards. In the case of La Alteña, the agave is planted in the vibrant red soils of the Jalisco Highlands, which create a much different flavor profile than those planted in the Lowlands. Whereas Lowland agave produces a greener, more vegetal and herbaceous style of Tequila, Highland agave piñas tend to be larger, fruitier, and sweeter in flavor due to the difference in both soil types and climate. I've heard people compare Highland Tequilas to Highland single malts, but I've never liked that analogy. The classic Highland single malt profile has much more to do with stylistic choice than terroir. The difference between Highland and Lowland Tequila is more like the different between Napa mountain and valley-grown Cabernet. Due to the recent shortage of agave, many large producers (especially those using diffusers) don't distinguish between the geographical origins of their piñas, but that's no different than buying a bottle of red wine that says "California" on the label and one that very specifically indicates "Howell Mountain." When you buy a bottle of El Tesoro, Tapatio, or Ocho, you know you're getting Tequila made from Camarena family estate Highland agave.
Carlos Camarena needs no introduction to those familiar with fine Tequila, but for those of you who are still getting your feet wet: he's the man behind a number of outstanding brands on today's market; those baring the NOM number 1474 on the side label. His father first founded La Alteña in 1937, so as you can imagine there were a number of banners celebrating the 80th anniversary of the distillery around the property yesterday. Like any great winemaker, he's always been much more interested in the agricultural side of production rather than the distillation and began his career in the fields. We spent a good hour out in the Highlands with him, learning the intricate details of agave reproduction and the delicate ecosystem that supports their growth.
Like most wine enthusiasts shun the excessive extraction or manipulation of top quality fruit, serious Tequila drinkers want to know exactly what's being done with their Highland agave after it's harvested. With all of the tricks, shortcuts, and hijinks happening behind the scenes of our modern alcoholic world, it's tough to know for sure if anything is still real these days. Rest assured, however, that the production at La Alteña is pretty straightforward. The agave comes in from the field, it gets chopped up by these guys, and then it goes on a conveyor belt into the oven.
There are two guys who collect the piñas and stack them in the oven for the steaming process, which cleans the bitter and somewhat waxy residue off the agave, while cooking and concentrated the sugars inside. Every Tequila made at La Alteña starts this way. Once the agave is removed from the oven we can start breaking down the differences between El Tesoro, Tapatío, and Ocho.
If you've never heard the guys at St. George distillery talk about their fateful foray into agave distillation, have them start by showing you the bill for all the equipment they ruined trying to break the cooked agave down into a fermentable pulpy juice. Agave piñas, even when steamed, are treacherous and densely fibrous plants. That's why the original distilladors had to use a giant stone wheel or tahona to crush those cores into submission. While most modern facilities have moved onto to more efficient power shredders or roller mills, La Alteña still uses the tahona for part of its production. In the case of El Tesoro, however, 100% of the agave used is tahona-pressed, which in the wine world would be the equivalent of foot-stomping.
The roller mill is what most producers use today because it's far more efficient and not in a bad way. I know there's a certain romanticism to using the giant stone wheel, but the cleaner and brighter Tequilas I often enjoy today are generally run through the roller mill—the agave industry's version of a bladder press and a shining example of where efficiency leads to a better flavor. In order to create distinctions between the brands, Carlos uses different percentages of tahona-crushed and milled agave for the various brands. As I mentioned before, El Tesoro uses only the tahona, while Tapatio is a blend of 30% tahona/70% milled, and Ocho is 100% milled. Those distinctions can be even further distinguished during fermentation.
Winemakers can dictate the concentration of their wine by choosing to ferment with or without the skins, while repeatedly punching down the cap that eventually forms at the top (or not) to further increase skin contact. Carlos makes the exact same stylistic decisions when fermenting his agave. Some fermentations are done with the liquid only, while others keep the agave fibers in the juice. Some are punched down so that the fibers continue to mingle with the liquid, while others are allowed to bubble up naturally. Every little variance creates a different tasting Tequila. Decisions, decisions!
Carlos said two things to me when talking about distillation that stood out: 1) smaller copper pots are better, in his opinion; and 2) every distillation is itself a blend. Tequila is double distilled in copper pot stills much like single malt whisky, but whereas a number of Scotch producers will talk about the importance of the height of the still, Carlos believes a more concentrated and flavorful Tequila results from a smaller still due to the increased contact with the copper. As many of you already know, copper creates a number of reactions that result in various flavor profiles and it also eliminates any of the sulphurous components released by the fermenting yeast. There are a number of different sized stills at La Alteña, but not one of them is all that large. When we asked him about blending the spirits after distillation, he said: "Every distillate is itself a blend because the spirit tastes different every minute it comes off the still." I thought that was fantastic. In essence, you could cut each minute of every singular run into its own batch and each would taste slightly different from the next. To categorize a spirit as singular because it's from one single distillation is to ignore the fact that it's still a collection of liquids with various flavor profiles. Poignant!
Perhaps the most poignant story Carlos told me, however, was about water. We hear a lot about water sources when it comes to whisky, but not so much with other spirits. When talking about the natural spring water that La Alteña sources for its fermentation, Carlos explained that his father and his partners actually built a second distillery in the town of Arandas back in 1938, but eventually closed it when customers complained that the Tequila tasted different than Tapatío. "The only difference was the water," Carlos said.
We eventually made our way down to the barrel room (which you can actually see through one of the grates upstairs) and tasted some of the El Tesoro reposado selections from single casks. If you hadn't already guessed, I wasn't at La Alteña yesterday simply for professional development. We'll be bringing in a few lovely single barrels in later this year for your enjoyment. Now we all know a little bit more about how they were made!
A very special thank you to Carlos and the Beam-Suntory team for hosting us yesterday.