MAKING TEQUILA AIN'T EASY
You are probably familiar with the saying, “That which does not kill us, makes us stronger.” The same could be said of tequila. Because making a world-class tequila is all about building character by overcoming adversity.
It starts with where the blue agave used to make tequila is grown. Unlike the abundant and wheat and corn that can grow anywhere and is used in many of the spirits found at the liquor store, blue agave is native to a relatively small area in Mexico. The plant favors altitudes of exceeding 5,000 ft. and does best in mineral-rich soil.
In fact, for tequila to even be called tequila, Mexican laws state that it must be produced in the state of Jalisco and limited municipalities in the states of Guanajuato, Michoacán, Nayarit, and Tamaulipas.
To say making tequila is a labor of love is an understatement. While the grain used to make whiskey is grown and harvested in a single season, it takes the blue agave plant at least six years to reach maturity and it’s typically another 1-4 years before the plant is harvested for distilling.
When it is finally harvested, it is not done by a massive combine that can clear acres of crops in a few hours. Blue agave is painstakingly harvested by hand. The harvester, or “Jimador” removes the agave leaves with a sharp curved tool called a Coa. He trims all the leaves that protect the heart or piña of the agave until the whole heart is extracted from the ground. Only the piña of the agave plant is used to make tequila.
For Riazul Tequila, the adversity began 200 years before the first blue agave was even planted. The highlands of Jalisco, Mexico, where Riazul’s crop of blue agave is grown, served as a key battlefront in the Mexican War of Independence. The great-great grandmother of Riazul founder Iñaki Orozco served as a high counselor to the Mexican rebel leaders fighting for their country’s independence from Spain.
For her service, she was granted 10,000 acres of land — most of which she gave away to revolutionaries who fought for Mexico's freedom. The remaining 250 acres was handed down from generation to generation and virtually untouched until Iñaki inherited the land in the late 1990s.
Is Riazul better because it is produced on land that once served as a key battleground in the country’s war for independence? Not in the least. Is it better because Iñaki’s great-great-grandmother was a badass woman who played a role in securing Mexico’s independence (200 years ago, no less, when women simply didn’t do such things)? Probably not.
However, it just so happens that the 250 acres that Iñaki’s great-great-grandmother fought for is the highest point in the state of Jalisco where blue agave can be grown. The land sits 7,200 feet above sea level and consists of rich volcanic soil. While they lose many plants due to the high altitude and extreme climate, those that survive possess characteristics that are unique to Riazul Tequila.
The agaves harvested at this altitude contain higher sugar content, resulting in more aromatic tequilas with sweeter tasting notes. Moreover, the agave takes longer than average to mature in these conditions, allowing it to soak up unique aromas and flavors indigenous only to this region.
The longer maturing periods and manual harvesting is not where the labor of love ends. Once harvested, the agave piñas are steamed which initiates the conversion of complex carbohydrates into simple fermentable sugars. Riazul uses slower cooking times that increase the complexity of the fermentable sugars, resulting in a unique and sophisticated flavor profile.
Riazul’s attention to detail and commitment to quality over quantity permeates every other step in the process from extracting the juices from the cooked piñas to the distillation of the tequila.
Of course, the last step in the process, just as it is with a fine wine or bourbon whiskey, is to age the distilled tequila. Unlike many plata or silver tequilas, which are often bottled without any aging, Riazul Plata is barrel-aged for 15 days in oak barrels. The Riazul Reposado ages for nine months in French and American oak barrels. Lastly, the añejo ages for two years in very exclusive cured XO Cognac barrels.
There are a lot of fantastic tequilas out there. Riazul encourages everybody to expand one’s horizons and try new brands, new drinks, and new experiences. But there is something really special at Riazul. More than simply taking pride in its heritage, it goes out of its way to honor that heritage by staying true to the process, paying close attention to detail, and letting adversity shape its character instead of stunting its growth.