Serious Eats: Drinks
Behind the Scenes: Making Olmeca Altos Tequila in Jalisco, Mexico
Note from the Author: On a recent press trip hosted by Olmeca Altos Tequila, I toured the Destileria Colonial de Jalisco to see firsthand how tequila is made.
The Los Altos highlands of Jalisco are known for their iron-rich red soil and high altitude: we're talking about 7,000 feet above sea level. (Take that, Mile High City!) This is where Olmeca Altos tequila is produced, in Arandas, about two hours east of Guadalajara. The distillery, Destileria Colonial de Jalisco, is fairly modern, having opened in 1997 to handle production of Patron, which, thanks to a business dispute, was only briefly produced at this plant.
The distillery makes a few tequilas just for the Mexican market, as well as three brands for export: Olmeca, Olmeca Tezon, and Olmeca Altos. The original Olmeca is a mixto tequila, a blend of agave and sugar. (Need a refresher on tequila production and styles? Check out our primer!) Tezon is a 100%-agave, pure-tahona tequila, which means not only that it contains no sugar but also that it's made entirely from agave crushed by a large stone wheel, as opposed to a roller mill. (I'll explain the differences between tahona milling and roller milling in more detail later. Incidentally, Tezon is not currently available in the United States, but it might return here in the near future.)
Both the entry-level Olmeca mixto and the top-shelf Tezon are popular in Europe, but the two tequilas occupy very distinct and disparate positions on liquor store shelves. Pernod Ricard, owner of the brand, wanted to develop a new tequila to occupy a middle ground in the market between the mixto and the fanciest bottling.
Jesús Hernandez, master distiller at the Destileria Colonial de Jalisco, met with bartenders from England who wanted a tequila that was both mixable and sippable, with an agave-forward profile that also carried lively fresh citrus notes. But they really wanted something a little more affordable than many of the 100%-agave brands that were available.
So Hernandez got to tinkering in his distillery and came up with Altos, which is made from a blend of two distillates: one is the same tequila that goes into high-end Tezon, the pure-tahona juice. The other is crushed using a roller mill, which makes for a more efficient process and provides the citrusy notes those bartenders were looking for. Altos is available in two expressions: Olmeca Altos Plata (an unaged blanco tequila) runs about $20 in the US, and Olmeca Altos Reposado sells for about $25. They're just now ramping up US distribution, so if you can't find it just yet, keep looking.
Want a peek behind the scenes where Olmeca Altos is made? Head on over to the slideshow »