A “jimador,” a person who harvests agave, works in the agave fields in Amatitan, Jalisco. Photo: Flickr commons/Antonio MaloMaloverde

Editor’s note: This story has been split into two parts. The first, published here, covers the history and process of tequila production. The second part details recent challenges and innovations in agave production and will be published in the next issue of El Tecolote.

Americans love tequila, so much so that in 2016, a record-high 16.3 million cases of tequila were sold in the United States. There are few, however, who know much about the history of the beverage or where precisely it comes from.

Tequila production dates back to the early 18th Century with José Antonio de Cuervo who, together with his sons José María and José Prudencio, planted and cultivated blue agaves (also referred to as “Agave tequilana”) in the Tequila region of Mexico. Nueva Galicia, the former Spanish colonial region that today is the Mexican state of Jalisco, was the birthplace of the beverage “mezcal of tequila,” which was later shortened to tequila.

The exact date Spanish immigrants began to distill the agave juice is unknown, but there are historic references which show that the first distilleries were located near the agave plantations in the valleys of Amatitan, Tequila and El Arenal. This region in Jalisco has more than 200 years of tradition of cultivating blue agave, the variety of agave used to produce tequila. The Los Altos region is another area of great importance for blue agave cultivation in Jalisco. These two regions produce the most blue agave in Mexico.

Rows of blue agave in Jalisco, México. Photo: Flickr commons/Sergio Niebla

Jalisco, the birthplace of tequila

The blue agave flourishes under specific conditions found in the Tequila region of Jalisco. The Tequila region described in terms of altitude, temperature and average annual rainfall is: from 800-1360 meters (2,500-4,400 feet), from 22-26 degrees Celsius (71-79 degrees Fahrenheit) and approximately 1,340 millimeters (53 inches) of rain. In Los Altos de Jalisco region, the altitude is between 1,600 and 2020 meters, average temperature is 18-26 degrees Celcius and rainfall is 1,420-1,500 millimeters.

Tequila makers are held to strict standards in the production tequila.  The Tequila Official Mexican Standard (NOM) authorizes exclusively the blue variety of Agave tequilana as the single species for tequila manufacturing. At present, Tequila’s designation of origin specifies the regions where the blue variety of agave can be cultivated and used to manufacture the tequila drink.

The counties where agaves are accepted for tequila production are mostly in the state of Jalisco, but there are six counties in Guanajuato, six in Nayarit, 11 in Tamaulipas and 29 in Michoacan.To be considered tequila, the beverage must be made from no less than 51 percent agave sugar. Most tequila factories are located in Jalisco, in the regions of Arenal, Amatitan, Tequila and La Magdalena, as well in the region of Los Altos de Jalisco—mainly Arandas, Atotonilco, Capilla de Guadalupe, Jesús María, Ayotlan and Tepatitlan. But there are some other tequila factories established in the metropolitan area of Guadalajara and surrounding cities.

Juice obtained from agave hearts is distilled in large vats before being aged in oak barrels. Photo: Flickr commons/Jen Pebble

From the field to the manufacture

In a commercial plantation an average of 3,200 agaves per hectare are planted and require a comprehensive control of pests, diseases and weeds. Mature plants are harvested when they are six to 10 years old by expert workers, called “jimadores,” who use a long-handed blade to cut the stems, which are taken to the factory for processing.

The stem juice of the agave plant contains inulin, a carbohydrate chain of variable size composed mainly of the sugar fructose. Inulin is obtained by a careful dehydration of the stem juice. Then hydrolysis by heating the inulin contained in the stem juice, yields the fructose syrup of agave. About 90-95 percent of the total sugars of agave is fructose. The sugars of the agave stem plant are fermented and distilled twice to produce tequila. One kilogram of inulin, or fructose of agave, requires 5.5 kilograms of agave stem, and one liter of tequila requires about seven kilograms of agave stem.

After fermentation and distillation concludes, the tequila is subjected to chemical analysis in the lab. It is verified to meet physical and chemical tequila specifications, according to the official standard and then taste tested.

NOM determines the requirements that must be satisfied for each of the four types of tequila: Tequila blanco, Tequila joven or Tequila oro (young tequila or golden tequila), Tequila reposado (slightly aged tequila), and Tequila añejo (aged tequila). In their specific quality controls, some companies prefer not to add any artificial colorant, and due to certification reasons, containers and the aging stores are kept closed so its access is under strict vigilance.

Tequila is Mexico’s national drink. Photo: Flickr commons/Milosz1

Tequila’s global popularity

The growth of the national and international demand of tequila has resulted in a corresponding increase in production. In 2007, production reached its historical peak of 292.1 million liters, out of which 149.7 million liters were exported. At the end of the same year, the Tequila Industry National Chamber recognized 138 working factories and 800 registered brands. The Distilled Spirits Council of the U.S. valuated the U.S. tequila market that year at $1.6 billion.

Between 2005 and 2014, the tequila industry processed a yearly average of 887,850 tons of stem agave and produced an average of 250.250 million liters of tequila according to the Consejo Regulador del Tequila.

In 2017, the 152 certified Tequila companies (ranging in size from large to very small) produced a total of 271 million liters of Tequila. 213 million of this was exported to a total of 120 countries, with the United States, Spain, Germany, France, Japan, Latvia and South Africa being among the top importers. The Jose Cuervo brand is the main producer and largest seller tequila in the world.

Dr. Remigio Madrigal-Lugo is one of the foremost authorities on the history and processes involved in the production of tequila. He is a professor and researcher at Universidad Autónoma Chapingo, Estado de México.