"Why tequila? It's all about the agave," he says. "These plants sit for 6-8 years under the Mexican sun absorbing the sun's energy. It's a very different base product from other spirits."
The fructins in the agave plant are what make it special, and, to Tomas, make tequila (and agave nectar) a better and healthier product than market alternatives. The way he sees it, the energy highs and lows associated with sugar addiction are avoided in agave nectar and agave spirits, because the fructins release energy at a more even pace and are more readily assimilated by our bodies.
"Because of the fructins, the distillation process of tequila is unique. It creates a unique product with different psychotropic effects than other spirits that come from sugar. Drinking really good artisinal tequila-- it creates a different high, it has its own flavor."
Tomas brings what seems to me to be a winemaker's perspective to tequila. He is looking for vintage and field variation. He makes single-field tequilas to explore the terroir that is captured by the agave. And he uses minimum aging requirements in semi-neutral wood because he feels that if you leave the wine too long in oak, "the wood takes over, and you lose the flavor of the agave, which is what it is all about." He described once trying a heavily wooded tequila blind, and guessing that it was a rum because of the intensity of the oak influence.
He is also experimenting with some interesting concepts. Agave harvest time is literally year round. Some harvesters will go into a field and cut the entire field despite variations in ripeness between different pineapples-- they believe this adds some complexity to the distillate base, and it also allows them to plant the field with crops that will replenish the soil in one swoop. Other harvesters will go into the field and only harvest the plants that they believe are ripe. The agave takes about 6-8 years to ripen, so if a harvester is selectively harvesting based on ripeness, it can take them 3 years to finish harvesting the field. The rainy seasons complicate things more. In the Highlands especially, the agaves are less concentrated during and after the rainy season, and they are the most concentrated just at the end of the drought period. Tomas is experimenting with single field tequilas that are harvested right at the end of the drought (before the rains) to see if it makes a more flavorful tequila.
Tomas' son stepped in and described the technical elements of tequila production, from harvesting, roasting the pineapples, fermenting the aguadulce, then distilling the agave "wine" or "beer" into tequila.
Hmmm, this sounds so familiar to the big yeast discussion happening in the wine world. How integral are ambient yeasts to terroir? Mark would argue that they are indispensable.
Mark also spent some time discussing the agave crisis of 2000. Because the agaves were (and really, still are) such a focused strain of monoculture, a pestilence hit and destroyed about 4 out of every 5 agave plants. This happened at the same time when global demand increased for 100% agave products. So suddenly, demand was up but supply was way down.
Part of the problem is that agave plants are halted from flowering and therefore prohibited from sexual reproduction. There is a consensus among growers that once the agave flowers, the quality of the pineapple decreases and it will not make as good of a product. To get more plants growers simply take rhizomes thrown by the agave and replant them (essentially, it's cloning-- or using identical genetic material to grow a new plant). As tequila producers saw the potential end of their business, the agave crisis of 2000 led to deeper studies about disease resistant strains of agave, and now, agave breeders are working to expand the genetic health of the plants by allowing sexual reproduction in some plants to reintroduce healthy genetic material to the strains that could help the agaves grow stronger through genetic diversity and be more disease resistant.
A wine correlation to this discussion would be deeper studies of crossings. With so many of the world's most desired varietals being 300-1000+ year old clones, the wine world has been able to build upon the past to create incredibly focused and beautiful wines, but it has also limited natural selection and genetic diversity to a potentially dangerous end. Most of the wine industry is built upon fragile monoculture. If vineyard owners didn't have the option of inter-species grafting, would winemakers dealing with phylloxera back in the 1890s have experimented more with disease resistant crossings between varietals, much like agave growers are doing today? The idea of introducing new crossings into the wine market seems like sacrilege (especially to the closely monitored varieties in EU vineyards, restrictions of which ironically only apply to the scion), but if we look at what happened to the agave plants in 2000 and admit that a similar tragedy could happen to our vineyards, experimenting with new crossings seems-- to me, at least-- a necessary and prudent safety net. Sure, I love drinking amazing and transcendent wine from 1000 year old varieties full of fragile genetic material as much as the next guy, but I'd hate more to see the loss of the entire species or large portion thereof on which we base most of our wine production solely because we are too snobby about the sticky concepts of "purity" and "tradition" to do more experimentation with crossings. But enough on that, let's end on tequila.