by Bryan Saunders

Real tequila comes from mature Agave tequilana
Real tequila comes from mature Agave

Having just regained consciousness, they’re cradling their head in their hands, bent over in pain.

“When did my skull expand to six times its normal size?” they wonder.

Suddenly, memories of the night before come back in a bright flash. After a solemn pause, they swear, “I’m never drinking tequila again.”

They brought this pain upon themselves, of course; real Tequila isn’t enjoyed by the bottle, but by the glass.

Furthermore, real tequila isn’t mass-manufactured and sold at $16 bucks a bottle; it’s lovingly handcrafted by true artisans and comes with a price tag that reflects all love and care that has gone into it. Here in Canada, though, where the most wellknown brands of tequila are massproduction giants like Cuervo and Sauza, this fact is sometimes lost. This is why I paid a visit to the Los Osuna distillery—familyowned since 1876—to learn a little bit more about the history of tequila.

“We don’t use any chemicals or pesticides here,” explains my guide, Jonathan Torres. “We make a product that is 100 percent natural, and we make it using a traditional process.”

That traditional process means, first of all, handpicking the blue agave (also known as the Agave tequilana) at just the right moment in its roughly ten-year life-cycle. This is one of the most important steps because an agave that is too young doesn’t yet have enough starch and an agave that’s too old has already used all of its starch to produce a flowering stem.

Most blue agaves on the Osuna’s farm reach their peak after seven or eight years of care, Torres explains. Depending on the soil and the weather, this timeframe can vary. Jimadores, experienced agave farmers, are the only ones who really know when an agave plant is ready to be harvested.

Once harvested, the prickly spines of the agave are removed and only the heart of the plant, called the piña, is kept. The piña looks a lot like a pineapple except it has white flesh instead of yellow, and— oh yeah—it’s enormous, with some weighing up to 200 pounds. With my fingers, I carve a small piece of flesh out of an already harvested piña and put the morsel in my mouth. The raw fruit is drier than a pineapple, I find, and tastes like a cross between raw potato and sugarcane.

The fruit of the piña isn’t used raw, however, it’s chopped up and then roasted in giant underground ovens to break the starches down into simple sugars which can be converted into alcohol.

Once roasted, the pieces of piña are milled in a motorized milling machine or in a stone-mill powered by horses (depending on how busy the Osuna farm is) to extract the

Agave harvesting is an art, not an industry
Agave harvesting is an art, not an industry

sugary juice from the tough fibers of the fruit. This sugary juice is collected and this is what is fermented, distilled, distilled again, aged, and used to make tequila.

At this point, Torres takes a moment to educate me on the difference between mezcal and tequila.

“Hundreds of years ago, people first used a relative of the blue agave—a plant called the maguey—to make an alcohol called mezcal. But, then, they discovered that the blue agave produced more sugars and a better tasting drink. Mezcal has a stronger, harsher taste. So, people stopped making so much mezcal and started making tequila instead.”

“Mezcal is the one where they started to put the moth larvae called the gusano, in the bottle. They don’t put a worm in real blue agave tequila because that means the plant is infested, it means the plant is sick,” Torres goes on to say.

That said, just because it’s made from blue agave, doesn’t mean it can be called tequila either. Tequila is an indigenous Nahuatl word meaning place of tribute and it refers to the town of Tequila, Jalisco, where the practice of making alcohol out of blue agave instead of maguey is said to have originated.

Tequila, due to government and industry intervention, is now a protected name and only speciallylicensed distilleries in and around the municipality of Tequila, Jalisco are allowed to use the term—much like wines coming from France’s Champagne or Burgundy regions.

For this reason, Los Osuna’s product, which is made in the nearby state of Sinaloa and not Jalisco, can only be labeled as “Blue Agave Distillate” and not “Tequila,” even though they use all of the same processes as a traditional distillery.

It’s unfortunate that tequila distilleries in places like Sinaloa or other regions of Mexico can’t legally call their product tequila, Torres concedes, but it was necessary to protect the name.

“China started making a product a number of years back that they called tequila. They used blue agave sugar, but they also added cheaper or artificial sugars and chemicals to make a less expensive product. All those added chemicals change the flavour and they give you a big headache if you drink them too,” Torres laughs.

“Lately, some distilleries in other parts of Mexico, outside of Tequila, Jalisco, have been able to buy a license to be able to call their beverage tequila,” he adds. “But it is very expensive to buy the license and they put a lot of restrictions on how exactly you can make your drink.

“Even with our blue agave distillate, there are restrictions: after we distill our drink for a second time, we have a beverage that is 120 proof. We’re not legally allowed to sell a drink that is 120 proof, though, so we have to dilute it a bit.”

“I’ve tried the 120 proof. It’s very good! But… we can’t sell it,” Torres laughs.

With that, we head over to the bar to sample a glass of the farm’s final product. Sipping it slowly, I take the time to enjoy the taste of oak that accompanies the rich flavour of the agave. A pleasantly warm burn tickles my throat. I take another sip and I let the tequila sit on my tongue.

“Oh, that’s good,” I smile, finishing off the glass, “Give me one more.”

Bryan Saunders learned that blanco tequilas are for sharing with friends, reposado tequilas are for sharing with family, and añejo tequilas are to be shared with nobody.