Casa Herradura, Hacienda Style
Welcome to the Hacienda San José del Refugio! The hacienda is situated in the small Jalisco town of Amatitán, less than 10 miles from Tequila. In 1870, the hacienda came into the possession of Félix López and was officially registered as a tequila-producing hacienda. It remained a family business for nearly a century and a half, until Brown-Forman purchased the company and its facilities in 2007. To this day, Casa Herradura retains all the elements necessary to be considered a true hacienda: protective walls, a "great house,” a chapel, housing for the workers, livestock, crops, and a business: tequila!
Fields (and Fields) of Agave
The key ingredient in tequila—well, the only ingredient besides water if you are making the good stuff—is agave. Agave (not a cactus!) is a family of succulent plants (scientific name Agavacea) comprised of over 640 species. However, since 1902 only the blue agave (Agave tequilana, also known as the blue Weber agave) may be used for production of 100% agave tequila.
It should come as no surprise that Herradura has a large blue agave plantation—around 18 million agave plants growing on 20,000 acres. With so many plants in play, they practice field rotation, so at any one time approximately one-third of the land lies fallow. This allows critical nutrients to be replenished before the next growing cycle.
Once the agave is fully mature (typically 7 to 10 years, though it varies depending on weather conditions), it's time to harvest. All of the harvesting at Herradura is done by hand by one of these gentleman, the jimadores. They use a 15 pound tool—the coa—a long wooden shaft topped with a razor-sharp circular blade.
Harvesting these bad boys is no joke—the typical agave weighs around 70 pounds, but they can grow as large as 250 pounds. We got a chance to try our hand at the job and between the entire group barely managed to butcher one plant in about 20 minutes. Herradura's jimadores harvest 120 agave plants in a 6.5 hour shift, which is absolutely incredible.
The agave's roots do not extend deep into the soil, so it's possible for a single man to extract the plant from the earth.
A Close Shave
This is the critical stage of the harvest, where brute strength segues into finesse. Using only the coa, the jimador must trim all the leaves from the starchy heart of the agave. It's a fine line to walk—if you leave too much greenery it can impart bitter flavors to the tequila, but if you go too deep you're literally cutting into the profit!
Ready for Roasting
Finally, the the core of the agave is removed (more bitterness in there!) and the heart is split, which allows for even cooking in the ovens.
The Agave Core: El Codollo
Ruben Aceves, Director of International Brand Development for Casa Herradura, shows us why you need to remove the codollo. See all that resinous goop? Makes for a cool photo but a nasty tequila. But many distillers skip this step as it adds to the harvesting time.
The Final Cut
All dressed up and ready to go! It takes about 12 pounds of agave to make 1 liter of tequila. This fellow should yield around 6 liters.
Cook It Up
Freshly harvested agave await their turn in the clay ovens. Typically, Herradura will process 120 tons of agave every day.
A Slow Cook
While some distilleries employ pressure cooking to speed up the process, Herradura sticks to slow cooking, steaming each batch for 26 hours. This allows the agave to develop a deep, rich, complex flavor. Each oven can hold up to 45 tons of agave at full capacity. Patience is key to this stage of production, along with constant monitoring to ensure the temperature stays consistent.
Cooked agave is DELICIOUS. Chewing on these fibrous sticks releases the magic nectar. The flavor is halfway between roasted sweet potatoes and molasses, with an earthy, funky complexity.
Miel de Agave
The first extraction of agave is the juice that leaks out of the plant during cooking and is collected from a drainage system in the ovens. Called miel de agave, or agave honey, the syrupy nectar is very high in sugar content and has a strong, funky flavor.
After cooking, the agave hearts are shredded into fibers, and sent through 5 sets of mills to extract the remaining juices. They're then sent through the mills a second time and washed with Herradura's local water to squeeze out every very last drop of agave goodness!
Jugo de Agave
The pressed juice from the milling process is called jugo de agave, or agave juice. It's thinner and lighter than the agave honey, with a low sugar content, and little fibrous bits of agave still floating around.
The next step is blending together the jugo de agave and the miel de agave with water to create a juice called mosto that has the right sugar content and flavor profile for fermentation.
Into the Tanks
The blended juice is dumped into enormous stainless steel fermentation tanks. Herradura relies on 100% spontaneous fermentation from the over 300 strains of local wild yeast, which is rare in today's tequila industry.
Yeast Go to Work
This impressive bubbly layer is a sign of a robust fermentation. Herradura doesn't use any agitators or other techniques to encourage the fermentation—this is just yeast doing what yeast does best.
Tasting the Mosto
After about a day and half, the mosto tastes citrusy and fresh, with a strong agave character. There's just a hint of alcohol and a light fizz starting to shape up.
Sugar Running Low...
About three days into fermentation, the yeast slow down as they start to run out of sugars to eat.
Fermentation completed, the mosto cools off and stops bubbling, hence it is rechristened "dead mosto." Offering a bitter, intense, and complex flavor, this juice is ready for the stills!
Still Town, Mexico
Herradura has 57 pot stills on the premises, though they're not always running full time. However, during peak production season these guys will crank out more tequila than you can shake a sombrero at.
Fruit of the Stills
Herradura distills their tequila twice. The first distillation of the mosto muerto results in ordinario, a low-proof pre-tequila. The ordinario is then distilled again to 114 proof and becomes tequila. We had the chance to sample this fresh-from-the-still nectar, and it's absolutely stunning. Citrusy and incredibly soft for its 114 proof, we would drink this stuff all day every day. Herradura is releasing an overproof 110 tequila in Mexico this year, but they really should bring this stuff stateside ASAP.
Milling, Old School
We also got a quick tour of the old Herradura facility, which was still in use up until 1963. This is the traditional way to make mosto—a millstone and some horsepower.
Not a Dungeon
These old fermentation tanks embedded in the floor are quite forbidding, as well they should be. The fermentation process generates enough carbon dioxide and other toxic gases to quickly render you unconscious, so if you fell in it would likely be the last thing you do.
Distinguished Pot Stills
The old distilling room sports a handful of fire-heated copper stills and condensing columns that produced untold batches of tequila in years gone by.
Sssh, Tequila is Sleeping
Herradura's tequilas are aged in former bourbon barrels for a varying length of time. The blanco ages for 45 days, the reposado ages up to 11 months, and the añejo ages around two years. Herradura also makes an extra-aged añejo, Selección Suprema, that spends 49 months in the barrels.
Due to the extreme fluctuation in temperature and humidity that occurs in Amatitán, the barrels get quite warped by the expansion and contraction of the wood. This means that the tequila takes on flavors of the wood much more quickly than, say, a highland Scotch with their mild temperature changes.
Colección de la Casa, Reserva 2013, Cognac Cask Finish Reposado
We finished the day with a tasting of Herradura's latest release, a reposado tequila that gets an extra 3 months of aging in former cognac barrels. The cognac treatment gives the tequila an interesting depth of flavor, and a drier, spicier finish. It's available now in the US at around $90 a bottle.