Luxury 100% tequilas distinguish themselves through tradition and craftsmanship: at least 60 hands are behind every Patrón bottle, notes strategic planning director Francisco Soltero. “It could be automated,” he says, “but we want to ensure quality.”
High-end producers cook the agave in small brick ovens, which takes three days, rather than 10 to 12 hours in stainless steel autoclaves that act like giant pressure cookers. Copper-pot stills are de rigueur. Only half a dozen producers, including Patrón and Pernod Ricard, still adhere to the 500-year-old tradition of crushing cooked agave (a succulent but not a cactus) in a pit with a 2-tonne hand-cut volcanic stone wheel, or tahona. Just about the only tradition now eschewed by everyone is that of relying on bats to pollinate the plants.
It takes five to eight years to grow the agave to maturity and about a week to chop, cook, mash, ferment and distil it into a blanco — white, or silver, tequila. The spirit can then be aged in bourbon or other oak barrels for up to a year to be called reposado, or rested; one to three years is añejo, or aged; and more than three years is extra-aged.
But there is innovation, like “crystalline” varieties that are aged then filtered to strip out the amber colour. “Some in the industry think we should differentiate tequilas that are made more traditionally. That could make for more interesting marketing,” Mr Velasco says. Others want to honour terroir by dividing the appellation into zones.