By Antonio Ramblés
The Siete Leguas tequila distillery is located in Atotonilco El Alto, about two hours’ drive east of Guadalajara, and this family-owned distillery drips with tradition and pride.
Although most well-known tequila brands are now owned by multinational corporations, more than 100 distilleries still make nearly 1,000 brands of tequila, including boutique brands and others available only domestically.
Tequila has a long history. The Aztecs fermented a beverage called pulque from the agave plant long before the Spanish arrived, and when the conquistadors ran out of brandy they began to distill agave. Today’s tequilas are typically 75-80 proof.
By law, tequila can only be produced in the state of Jalisco, where it’s so popular that it often accounts for half of liquor store shelf space.
Just as with wines, regulators police tequila’s Appellation of Origin label to assure the purity of the product.
More than 300 million plants are harvested in Jalisco each year, and also as with wine, terroir is critically important.
Agaves from the highlands are larger and have a sweeter aroma and taste than lowland agaves, which have a slightly herbal fragrance and flavor.
Planting, tending, and harvesting the agave plant remains a manual effort that relies upon know-how passed on through generations of the jimadores who harvest it.
Ripening of the plant is promoted by regular trimming of the stalk which grows from the center, which prevents it from flowering.
When a plant is ready to harvest, jimadores trim away the leaves to reveal the pineapple-like core of the plant – the piña, which can weigh up to 250 pounds.
Once harvested, piñas are oven-baked to break complex starches down into simple sugars before shredding or mashing.
Extracted agave juice ferments for several days in large vats to produce a low-alcohol wort, which when twice-distilled produces silver tequila.
Some tequilas are aged in wooden barrels to mellow the taste and lend color. In recent years, regulators allowed the creation of a new tequila category called “extra añejo,” which must be aged a minimum of three years.
Many growers believe that increasingly hot and dry summers resulting from calentamiento – global warming – are causing agave to mature more quickly, at the expense of sugar content. It typically takes eight to twelve years before an agave plant is ready to harvest.
Now it’s on to the tasting!
Note: While 7 Leguas maintains an office within the city, the distillery is located on the outskirts of town nearer to the agave fields.
Atotonilco El Alto, Jalisco
Harvested agave piñas are oven-baked
Baked agave ready for further processing
Baked piñas are milled the old-fashioned way
Shredded piñas are loaded into distillery vats