The first thing you notice upon entering the Distillery La Alteña, set just shy of 6,890 feet above sea level in the highlands of the Mexican State of Jalisco, is the smell: warm and comforting, yeasty and sweet, like recently rendered molasses or freshly baked sourdough. It’s the smell of agave azul, steamed for 48 hours and left to cool for 24 more, ready now to be pressed for its juices—the raw material that is used to make El Tesoro de Don Felipe®, one of Mexico’s finest tequilas.
It’s mid-morning and chilly. Gently rolling tracts of blue agave have only just emerged from the fog, like slate gray rivers between tall stands of corn, planted with plenty of manure and compost to restore nutrients to the red soil where agave has been harvested in the previous two years. Crop rotation hasn’t been a common practice in the tequila producing regions of Jalisco for decades; agave azul reproduces easily and its value per pound is too high to waste time. But Carlos Camarena, a fifth-generation tequilero and third-generation master distiller at La Alteña, isn’t in a hurry. “I do not see myself as the owner of this land”—a patchwork quilt of some 1,000 hectares spread over the hills east of the town of Arandas—“rather I consider myself the guardian or keeper of this land and the agave system that lives on it; I want to pass that on to my daughters and future generations.”
When Camarena’s great-great-grandfather first started growing agave in the highlands, the planters working for him laughed. At the time, agave didn’t even grow in this part of Jalisco, preferring the warmer, less drastic weather in the lowlands around the town of Tequila, and farther west toward the sea. “For years people would come and steal the young agaves because they thought they were pineapples!” Camarena says with a laugh. “I still wonder why [he] decided to take that risk.”
Though occasional frosts in the highlands can cause complications for harvests, the colder nights and more dramatic swings in temperature from season to season and morning to night force the plants to work harder as they grow, yielding higher concentrations of sugar. Where good tequilas from the lowlands tend to be herbaceous, the tequilas made in the highlands, and especially El Tesoro, are often more floral, with notes of peach undergirded by a flinty bite of minerals. The latter is contributed both by the iron-rich soil and by the immense stone wheel, or tahona, that the distillery still uses to gently extract the rich, brown juices from its cooked agave hearts without breaking the plant’s fibers. The purest expression of the soil and agave of the highlands comes in the form of blanco, bottled immediately out of the still. Aged in American oak for nine to eleven months, the reposado takes on hints of vanilla and caramel. Resting two years longer in the same type of barrel, the añejo tastes of maple and red fruit and butter. “It’s my pancake tequila,” Camarena jokes.
All of these tequilas are produced using agave that grows on land spread over the hills of the Jalisco highlands, divided between plots that once belonged to Camarena’s great-great-grandfather, and others that he’s acquired in more recent years. In the early days, Camarena’s ancestors sold their plants to supplement bad harvests in Tequila, and it’s still not uncommon for producers from the valley to come here to buy plants. The result, Camarena says, has been the slow erosion of the regional differences in varieties of tequila. But producing tequila made from agave grown exclusively in red highlands soil allows El Tesoro to preserve the character of the region and its land. “Every plot of land has its own charm and you’ll taste that in the bottle,” he says. “Each of our El Tesoro tequila batches has its own personality, but you’ll taste the sibling resemblance. For us that means consistency.“
Camarena, who studied agricultural engineering close to Mexico City, brings rich scientific knowledge to the work, which he deploys in part to better understand how and why his family’s century-old traditions work so well. The skilled jimadors who harvest agave for El Tesoro, many of them second- or third-generation employees and a very important part of the La Alteña community, acquired their skills from their fathers and grandfathers. They select only plants that have reached their full maturity, typically after six to seven years (producers more focused on efficiency might harvest after four). El Tesoro is one of few producers to still use the tahona to press their steamed agave, or use open wooden casks for an entirely natural fermentation. Once fermented, the mash is twice-distilled to a very low proof in copper pot stills of the same design as those used by Camarena’s grandfather, with no water added after the distillation and aging.
Though Camarena is committed to maintaining his family’s tradition of producing the finest possible tequila, that has not kept El Tesoro from innovating. Some of those innovations have focused on flavor, like aging in French oak. While other important changes, like recycling water and using organic waste to create compost, have been focused on sustainability in an industry that for decades now has suffered from too much focus on profit, and not enough on the future.
Since at least the 1930s, when La Alteña began, agave azul has been propagated using the clones that sprout naturally from the roots as the plant matures. This technique speeds up reproduction, allowing agaves to mature faster, and avoids letting the plant come to flower, a process that consumes all the precious sugars and starches that make it valuable for tequila. It has also resulted in a monoculture lacking in genetic diversity, leaving the industry vulnerable to a plague or disease, and starving out the bat species that were the plant’s natural pollinator. “Flying over Jalisco for the bats is like flying over the ocean; plenty of blue but no food for them,” Camarena says.
Today, Camarena allows between two and five percent of his plants to reach full maturity and bloom. For a traditional producer, even small percentages of the crop represent a substantial financial hit. And though it’s too soon to know exactly how successful the project will be in the long run, the results have already defied the expectations of some scientists who believed that, after so many years, it would be impossible for the blue agave to reproduce sexually. Of the seeds that Camarena’s team has collected in the last two years, about five percent have yielded sprouts. “Maybe we’ll see results in 80 or 100 years,” Camarena says, “but this isn’t something we’re doing for our own lifetime.”
In the distillery, watching the giant gray tahona roll slowly over a pit of cooked agave pulp, it’s indeed easier to conceive of this tradition in the scale of centuries rather than years. Tequila is, after all, is made with a plant that matures before it’s even distilled, taking on the flavors of the earth as the agave azul slowly reaches maturity. Time is as essential to the process as precision and care.
Back in the tasting room—an intimate, wood-paneled space that opens on one side to the brick walls of the distillery—Camarena uncorks a bottle of El Tesoro Paradiso®, an extra añejo aged for five years in French oak barrels. The scent of ripe bananas and toffee fill the room. “We have only one raw material, blue agave, that takes years to mature, so when you’re using a natural process, it will go on changing over time,” Camarena says as he sips the golden liquid from a tall, slender glass. “The only constant is variability.”