For more than a decade now, tequila has been crushing it. Sales of Mexico’s native spirit have doubled since 2005, with the biggest strides coming in the premium category. Credit the birth of the craft cocktail movement, the power of modern marketing or George Clooney’s chiseled jaw (see: Casamigos), but one thing’s for certain: There has never been more good tequila on the market than there is right now.
And while advancements in technology have certainly helped the agave spirit keep pace with our unquenchable thirst, the truth is that some of the best tequila today is made more or less in the same labor-intensive way it was a century ago. In fact, there’s a micro-movement among a few artisanal brands that are embracing pre-industrialized methods of production, even if it means putting quality ahead of efficiency. The symbol for this movement? A 3,000-pound rock.
Agave piña (image: Jake Emen)
Meet the tahona, a Flintstone-size volcanic stone wheel whose job is to crush the roasted agave hearts, separating the sweet juice from the pulp. Traditionally, teams of burros would drag the tahona over a circular pit filled with agave, but these days, most distilleries use a mechanized roller mill that rapidly shreds the plant, extracting all the liquid and sugars necessary for fermentation. Quicker and cheaper? Yes. But is it better?
“Tahona tequila tends to have a smoother and sweeter profile,” says Mariana Sánchez Benítez, the production supervisor at Patrón, whose premium Roca line is 100 percent tahona-made. “It’s a very, very slow process. Efficiency suffers, but we can retain the flavors we want.”
And what are those flavors? We sampled fresh distillate from Patrón’s roller mill products and tahona-made products, and the difference was striking. The roller mill juice was sharp and citrusy, with lemon and lavender notes while the tahona tequila was rounder and richer, showcasing more of the agave along with a cast of earthy and vegetal notes.
But don’t take our word for it. A small but well-respected group of tequila makers are reintroducing tahona-made tequila to the market, meaning there’s enough out there for a discriminating drinker to sample. Below are some of the top artisanal brands rocking the rock. (Some quick advice: To experience the full range of characteristics in these throwback tequilas, stick to the unaged, or blanco, expression.)
The love child of Guillermo Sauza, a fifth-generation distiller whose great-grandfather was the first person to export tequila from Mexico, Fortaleza (originally known as Los Abuelos) turns out tiny batches of artisanal juice from estate-grown agaves that are tahona-crushed and fermented in wooden vats. What pours from the hand-blown bottle is a spirit that’s bright and clean with lots of nutty, fruity aromas.
It doesn’t get more old-school than this family-owned distillery, located in the highlands of Jalisco, two hours from Guadalajara. Named after Pancho Villa’s horse, Siete Leguas still uses a mule-powered tahona to crush agave, which is later fermented, fiber and all. The result: a full-bodied tequila with hints of stone fruit and white pepper.
Produced in the remote highlands of Jalisco by El Pandillo, G4 sounds more like robot cologne that a traditional tequila. But with the help of a 19,000-pound steamroller turned tahona (nicknamed Frankenstein), master distiller Felipe Camarena churns out an amazingly rustic product that’s intensely herbal with floral and citrus notes that follow through to the next sip.
It took a team of craftsmen two months to hand-chisel the tahona used to crush Suerte’s plump agave hearts. Master distiller Pedro Hernandez Barba then linked the 3,000-pound wheel through a mechanized rotation system (not unlike a clock’s gears). In the glass, you’ll find earthy, almost briny flavors that finish long with hints of pepper and citrus.
Since day one, Patrón has used a mix of roll mill and tahona-made tequila, but in 2014, the mega brand introduced the Roca (“Rock”) line, and the reviews have been solid. “It resembles the old tequila—what people used to drink,” says Francisco “Paco” Soltero, Patrón’s director of strategic planning. The new product is more complex than its traditional counterpart, with strong baked agave flavors softened by subtle notes of vanilla.
The Camarena family has been in the tequila game since the 1800s, and it has the production methods to prove it. The Highland agaves used to make Tapatio are cooked in small masonry ovens, then pulverized by a tractor-pulled tahona before slow-fermenting, along with the pulp. The result of all this hard work? A tequila that’s bold, spicy and highly sippable.