On Knowing Tequila
Scott Rosenbaum, our Spirits Strategist, is back from Jalisco, where he took a trip with our team to visit Arette Tequila. Thanks for the post Scott!
To know a place you must go there. This dictum was never truer than in the case of Tequila. It is a special place where all assumptions about what agriculture is and how it relates to the production of the eponymous spirit are readily dismissed once you start exploring Jalisco. Once there, you discover that most of what us Gringos know about Tequila was learned from a book that either, at best, romanticized the beverage or, at worst, made egregious errors in detailing its production (no, agave is not a cactus). A recent T. Edward visit to the town that lent its name to the spirit came to embody the idea that “you don’t know until you go.”Our host was Eduardo Orendain, Jr., fifth generation Tequila-maker, son of Eduardo, Sr. and nephew of Jaime, the two brothers that founded Arette in the 1980s. The family’s roots run deep. When you walk into lobby of the Consejo Regulador del Tequila (CRT), the busts of four of Tequila’s founders greet you; one of them is Don Eduardo Orendain Gonzalez, Eduardo, Jr.’s grandfather. Eduardo, Sr. was the mayor of the town of Tequila, a place with population today of roughly 40,000 inhabitants.
It’s the nearby village of Amatitán that is home to Arette’s 300-hectare agave plantation. Here’s where reality clashes head on with what most spirit guides will tell you. This area, where agave is cultivated west of the city of Guadalajara, is often referred to by Americans as the “lowlands.” It’s nestled between an extinct volcano and the Sierra Madres, which is why Mexicans refer to it as the valley. The distinction might seem subtle, but at an elevation of 1,200 -1,400m asl there’s nothing “low” about the lowlands. Yes, they might be lower than “los altos” (aka the highlands which rise 1,600 – 2,000m asl), but at those heights arguing about elevation is a moot point. The differences in soil types probably play a larger role.
Arette practices organic agriculture even going so far as letting horses roam the property to have at the weeds. Ownership is also paramount to quality as Arette only uses estate-grown agave. In a place so defined by knowing and understanding the intricacies of the land, quality is bred by a familiarity with it.
Tradition is also alive in the distillery. Built in the early 1900s, the old “El Llano” distillery has been in the family for over 100 years. Eduardo, Sr and Jaime took over what had long been a mothballed property in 1976 and restored it to good working order and its former glory. It is here that autoclaves are used roast the agave, a process which breaks down the inulin (a complex carbohydrate) into simpler, fermentable sugars. Many self-proclaimed Tequila aficionados decry the autoclave as a modern encroachment on the time-honored use of a horno, or oven. The oven certainly predates the advent and widespread usage of the autoclave, however it’s usage as it relates to quality is debatable. Arette sees to it that the agave spends a total of 30 hours in the autoclave (15 hours cooking and 15 hours slowly cooling off). It is this thoughtful and considered use of the autoclave, whereby the agave is cooked at temperatures lower than necessary that yields beautifully intense and flavorful Tequila.
Fermentation takes place in stainless steel takes for 4 days, again longer than necessary, using a proprietary yeast strain. Double distillation follows in 5,000L and either 2,500L or 1,000L pot stills. The final 100% de Agave Blanco Tequila is proofed, hand-bottled and boxed by hand. The result is sublime, if not only because it tastes so good, but also because one knows the backbreaking work that went into crafting it. The Orendains are a humble dynasty whose tireless commitment to preserving their heritage and legacy are preserved in every bottle – a story that would have been sadly overlooked had a visit not been arranged.