If you’ve had a drink in America, you’ve probably imbibed tequila at one point or another. Of the hundreds of millions of liters of the spirit produced yearly in Mexico, around 75 percent will end up in the United States. We love tequila here. And with that love should come a little bit of knowledge about what we’re drinking, how it’s made, and why it can be a transcendent alcohol experience (when done right).
Jesus Hernandez is just the master distiller to guide us on our tequila journey through the blue agave fields in the highlands of Jalisco, Mexico. Master Hernandez has been making tequila for over 20 years. He started out in the US at the Seagram’s plant, before hearing the siren call of his homeland. Hernandez took a chance and moved back to Mexico in the late 1990s to apply his hard-earned knowledge in the booze trade to making a great tequila from his home state. 20 years later, his baby, Altos Tequila, is one of the best tequilas on the market and is poised to become your favorite tequila too.
The tequila Jesus Hernandez makes in Arandas, Mexico is more than any one component. It’s a nuanced understanding of the dirt, the air, the plant, the process, and atmosphere, the wood, the yeasts, and the aroma and complexity that should be in every great glass of tequila. With Hernandez’s guidance, we too can learn what to look for in a great tequila. So let’s dive in.
You were living the Los Angeles area for 29 years before coming back to Mexico. How did that time in the US lead you into the world of tequila?
I’m originally from Jalisco from the Los Altos region. My family moved to California when I was 11. I started working in the industry in the manufacturing of spirits in California for Seagrams. When Seagrams decided to build a tequila distillery in the mid-90s, I became part of the engineering team to look for the site. Eventually, we started the construction and the company asked me to stay on and operate it.
So you have a lot of history with making tequila. Seagrams gave you a good education, so to speak?
I kind of feel that way, yes. I was there from the beginning, watched the distillery go up, being built. Being part of the engineering team was a very exciting, tremendous experience. And starting it out from scratch, putting together a team to operate it, making it happen was all a very big challenge.
So when you decided to come back to Mexico, what informed your decision to settle in Jalisco?
Well, my hometown is about the size of Arandas — so I knew that lifestyle. Even though my family moved to California, we used to spend every summer here. It was a bit challenging bringing the family back here especially for my wife and my son. My son was five years old when we moved back. But within a year, year and a half, we were all very convinced that it was the right decision. We were really happy and enjoy the quality of time we could spend together — instead of being stuck in traffic somewhere in California. Even though it was a big challenge starting out the distillery, we still had a lot of quality time as a family. So it was a good decision.
It takes seven years to grow an agave plant to get to harvest. Where were you sourcing agave in the beginning?
Yes, when we started up the distillery in ’97, there was a lot of indications that there was going to be a shortage two or three years later. The signs were clear. So we discussed what our strategy could be with the company team and we decided we were going to have long-term contracts with suppliers. We chose something like 13 or 14 suppliers that had agave every year. That was the idea, but when the shortage came two years later and agave became scarce. So it left us with a dilemma. We had the distillery ready to go and no agave. So from then on, I started buying agave directly from the fields that were already planted. And then, in the year 2000, we started planting our own agave. And now that’s what we use.
Let’s walk through the process. How important are the minerals in the terroir to the plant?
Yes, it’s a combination of things that make a difference in the quality agave. Of course, the soil is important. It should be a soil that does not retain a lot of humidity. Richness in minerals is important. And then, of course, you have to complement that with the nutrients the agave plants need. Agave, like any other plant, will need a source of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. The red soil here has a lot of iron — so there was a good mix of minerals already there.
We’re in the highlands of Jalisco up here, how does the temperature affect the plant?
The highlands are cold but not freezing, and that’s important. Because of the elevation of 2,100 m — almost 7,000 ft — the temperature drops at night, not to the freezing point, but it’s pretty cool. So the combination of less moisture in the soil and more cold nights, you get stressing that forces the agave plant to concentrate the sugars.
What amazes me about Altos is the profound roasted agave taste to the tequila. I feel like a lot of the tequila culture — especially in the US or in Europe — you just don’t get that as much. It’s more alcohol burn than distinct agave. Can you walk us through how you’re able to maintain that strong agave taste?
Of course. One of the things that makes tequila different from other spirits is the raw material and the processing of that raw material. So we feel it’s important that the tequila conserves and projects that raw material: which is the agave. The way we manage to do that is by slowly cooking the agave piñas in ovens. That produces a lot of aromas and flavors. I think when you went through the distillery you could smell that.
Yeah, it’s profound.
It’s a very rich, sweet smell. So that’s where it starts. And then we use the Tahona process, which is a way of macerating the agave.
What is a ‘Tahona’ exactly?
The Tahona is basically a stone mill that circulates around a pit crushing the (baked) agave and separating the fibers. Then we take all of that pulp and fibers and start the fermentation. And by using the pulp and fibers in the fermentation you get a lot of flavors and aromas from the agave itself.
You’re using wild yeasts from the highland for fermentation, is that right?
We’ve experimented with quite a few wild yeast a few years back and we found one, in particular, that was wild in the agave that we liked. It gave us the fresh, citrus notes in the aroma and conserved that sweetness of the agave in the tequila. So we isolated that and then we cultivate it. So we do propagate our own yeast, but it was originally wild and from the agave. So, in essence, it’s wild, but well-maintained and cared for.
Fermentation is a life and death process. Yeast eats sugar to make alcohol from the mash. What happens next?
Okay, in the fermentation is where all the aromas, flavors, and alcohol get produced. Then you have to select what you want to keep and concentrate. And then we distill it. That concentrates the alcohol but, also, you then have a chance to select what you want to keep out of that distillate. Basically, it’s the first thing that comes out in the distillation process would be the heads — more intense aromas, oils, higher alcohols. You want to keep some aromas and flavors, but not be too excessive. It can’t be overwhelming. Then on the tail, in the case of tequila, the methanol concentrations go up, so we also want to limit that amount of methanol in the final tequila. We want the nice and balanced heart of the distillate. And we do the distilling in copper pot stills because that’s the best way to get clean-smelling and clean-tasting distillate.
Copper is reactive and pulls carcinogens out.
How many times do you distill your tequila?
We distill it twice. At the end of the fermentation, we have a ‘mosto,’ or must that’s about 6% alcohol. In the first distillation, we concentrate it to about 22 percent. Then we take that and distill it a second time. At the end of the second distillation, we have about 55 percent alcohol.
What happens next?
We like to store that tequila for at least 30 days to marry and stabilize before we bottle. Then we adjust the alcohol strength with de-mineralized water.
Yeah. So that it stays stable throughout cold storage period.
Then before bottling, there’s barreling — if we’re talking about Reposado or Añejo. What’s your tactic when barreling tequila?
Our strategy in the barreling, in the aging, is to enhance and mellow the tequila. You need the contact with wood to get some color, aroma, and flavor enhancements. And then you need the effect of time. Only time will mellow it down. We could get woody tequila in two months time, which is the minimum for a Reposado. But we don’t want just woody. We want mellow. That’s why Altos stays at least five months — typically seven months — in the barrel. And this is why we get that nice balance of the contributions from the wood and the roundness from the effect of time.
You’re using old bourbon barrels so you get those oaky tannins with hints of vanilla and spices.
That’s right, we do get that.
So being this far south, your weather’s a bit warmer. If you’re up in Islay in Scotland, you need to barrel something for 12 years, because temperature plus time plus humidity will dictate barreling length. What’s the longest that you need to barrel tequila?
The barrels that we’re using for the Añejo, we wanted to see just how far out we can go in time without getting dominated with woodiness.
Or losing it all to the angels!
Yes, we also lose a lot to the angels [the ‘angels’ share’ is the term for alcohol lost to evaporation while it’s in casks]. But what we found is that at 18 months the Añejo is plenty woody. In fact, it’s as woody as a tequila can get. Although that woodiness also translates to a little bit more spiciness, like cinnamon, and it makes it a bit more complex. If we were to go longer than that, I think the wood would dominate so much we would lose the attributes of the tequila. In the case of our tequilas, there’s always a touch of citrus notes, and at 18 months the Añejo still has that citrus note.
Are you trying sherry barrels or port barrels to see what sort of flavors you can coax from the tequila?
This year the team in the distillery went out to look for different types of barrels to see the effect. We experimented a little bit with wine barrels. We tried French oak and then different kinds of wine barrels. So we would take a Reposado and then put it in there for a few months and see what happens. There were some interesting results there.
What’s been your biggest challenge in making tequila?
So far our focus has been on the distillate itself. With the Blanco, the biggest challenge is to make a ‘blanco’ that has a full flavor that’s complex and drinker friendly. That’s the big challenge.
The United States is the biggest tequila market, around 75 percent of all tequila goes to that market. How do you stand out in such a saturated market?
Yes, it has been quite a challenge. We’ve been making tequila for 20 years. There was a couple of products we tried before in the US with some success but nothing like Altos. I think that it’s a matter of timing. The palate of the US consumer has been trained to go for more of the agave flavor recently. The consumers were looking for something with more complexity and more flavor — which is great because they’re drinking better tequila all the time.
As a master distiller how do you love to drink tequila?
For me, it’s a matter of the moment. I enjoy tequilas in different ways. And I have to say, in the last few years, I’ve been a lot more adventurous as far as trying cocktails because I’ve been so pleasantly surprised. Bartenders are so creative right now. They’re making some of their own ingredients and that adds a very nice blend of different aromas and flavors that pay tribute to tequila. So I enjoy cocktails.
Which cocktail is your favorite right now?
I enjoy a nice crafted Paloma, especially on a hot day. That goes down very nicely in the agave fields.
How do you enjoy tequila in everyday situations?
Of course, I enjoy drinking tequila neat. If I’m relaxed, I like drinking it slowly and taking my time to savor it. I especially enjoy a Reposado or Añejo after a nice heavy meal as a digestif.
When you’re drinking it neat, especially the aged, is it good to put in a few drops of water to open up the flavors a bit?
Yes. The 40 percent alcohol by volume is a little high on the alcohol note for being able to appreciate all the aromas and flavors. So if you add just a little splash of water in there, it definitely tones down the alcoholic note and you can focus and appreciate all the other flavors and aromas.