Drinks With... is a regular Alcademics category where I share what I learned when meeting with industry notables.
Last week I asked Alcademics readers what I should ask Francicso Hanal Alfaro, Cuervo's Maestro Tequilero and Araceli Ramos, Director at La Rojeña, the Cuervo Distillery. You answered here and on Facebook. I didn't get to ask all your questions but I learned some really interesting stuff.
Alfaro lives in Mexico City and is also one of the people who helped decide on the Riedel tequila glass that I use nearly every day.
I first asked about the theory beginning to be espoused by Steve Olson and others that distillation predates the Spanish coming to Mexico. The theory is based on some findings of a very old still and some chemical analysis. It doesn't sound like anything conclusive has been proven by archeologists though. But one contributing theory that was brought up at the Agavepalooza session at Tales of the Cocktail is that as the natives were drinking pulque when the spanish arrived, and if you distill pulque you get rubber instead of delicious tequila. Thus it would take a longer time to develop the technology to distill tequila from the hearts of roasted agave plants than the actual time from the Spanish arriving in Mexico to tequila showing up. The technology couldn't have developed that fast, says the theory.
Though Alfaro wasn't familiar with this pre-Spanish theory, he said that natives in the tequila region (as opposed to the areas where they were drinking pulque- uncooked, fermented juice of certain types of agave) were consuming vina de mescal- mescal wine. "Mescal" he said means something like "the thing that is cooking," and thus vina de mescal refers to baked/cooked agave that is then fermented into wine. So if cooking and fermenting mescal is pre-Spanish also, then the theory that it couldn't have been developed between the time the Spanish arrived and the time tequila was known to exist would not be valid. (This is not to say Alfaro was speaking directly to this theory, he just added his thoughts to my question. Hopefully this will advance the conversation.)
Where Does your Agave Come From, and Are you Hurting Small Agave Farms and Families?
Cuervo gets agave from three different types of source. Most is estate owned. The next most is leased land- other people own the land but they own the agave and tend to the land. (Much "estate-grown" tequila from other brands is on leased land.) Third, they buy agave on the open market.
The important point that I hadn't heard before (my kingdom for a few hours with the CRT) is that they said they have to buy some agave from small farmers by law. A recent paper said that because more brands are buying land, they are putting small farmers out of business. (See the question Neyah proposed in the comment here for more information on why this is important.) Yet as I wrote a while back, the reason brands are buying up land is because of the gluts and shortages in the agave market when left to small players- Alfaro brought this up as well. I really would like to know more about this law to better understand the issue.
Cuervo employs 3500 jimadors (the folks who harvest the agave). They also own most of their land in the Tequila Valley (lowlands), but also some in the highlands and some also in the neighboring state of Nayarit. Some of it is in the area close to Puerto Vallarta (thus very low in elevation) and Alfaro says the agaves grow to be huge there.
Though all the talk in tequila these days is about terroir, Alfaro emphasized that no matter where they grow their agave, they use the same fertilizer and even irrigation to keep it consistent between areas. We didn't get into this as much as I wanted as we ran out of time to talk.