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Who Makes the Best Tequila?

Text and Photos ©2010 by J. Pint

Photo Gallery

María Fernanda Jiménez at the swinging doors of “Old Nick’s Bar” where you can sample the products of Casa San Matías after touring the distillery.

Luis Miguel Amador and Raquel Ruvalcaba checking whether all the bitter-tasting spikes have been entirely removed by the jimador.

Ingeniero Jorge Padilla samples the sweet mezcal fibers at one of the San Matías ovens. He says, “The best quality tequila comes from ovens like this, not from pressure cookers.”

Visitors check out fermentation pots: champagne yeast is used in the fermentation process and the resulting alcohol is then distilled twice.

Raquel Ruvalcaba of Casa San Matías shows businessman Javier Alvarez Caloca of Guadalajara how to place a white napkin behind a Riedel Glass in order to properly describe the color of a certain tequila.


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Where Do They Make the Best Tequila?

 A Visit to Casa San Matías

By John Pint

In previous articles I have reported the results of my search for the birthplace of tequila, which happily brought me into contact with numerous brands of Mexico’s national drink that I had not previously heard of. This line of pursuit naturally led to a new question, “Which tequila is the very best?” Well, having been born in Milwaukee might qualify me for voicing an opinion on what makes a good beer, but I naturally turned to my Mexican relatives for opinions on what is the best tequila—and who among them could possibly know more than my father-in-law, Francisco Ibarra, who recently celebrated his 102nd birthday?

“The best tequila,” he told me, “is the one my son Julio brings me from Arandas.” Well, that tequila comes in an unmarked bottle and isn’t available to the public…but I found it interesting that Papá Ibarra’s favorite came from a town far away from the Amatitán-Tequila area where most distilleries are located.

Now it just happens that Arandas is over 2000 meters (6562 feet) above sea level, while the Valley of Tecuane—where the blue agave (Agave tequilana Weber) is said to have originated—has an elevation of about 1000 meters. Could altitude have anything to do with the production of the best tequila?

I was musing upon that very subject when my wife Susy and I were introduced to several people who work for San Matias tequila distillery, located near Tepatitlán in Los Altos de Jalisco. They’re the makers of Pueblo Viejo, one of the most popular brands in the state. “Come up for a visit,” they told us. “You’re going to have a unique experience.”

Well, we have visited a good number of distilleries, but never one in Los Altos, so we accepted the invitation and one day found ourselves bouncing along the cobblestone road leading to a pueblito called Ojo de Agua (The Spring), just 17 kilometers south of Tepatitlán and 60 east of Guadalajara. It had rained the night before and as we splashed through a big puddle, our new friend Marco said, “See how red the water is? That’s the color of the earth here in Los Altos: an intense red which comes from iron and other minerals in the soil—and this is one of the factors that give our tequila a different taste.”

As we walked into the distillery wearing hard hats, I could see a huge heap of agave hearts (piñas) near a row of steaming ovens and I imagined there was little I would learn about the process that I didn’t already know. Well, I was wrong.


What a surprise! Our guide turned out not to be a local youth trained to explain things to tourists, but Ingeniero Jorge Padilla, one of the world’s great experts in tequila making. At every step of the production process, he would point out the small things that have turned San Matias into one of Mexico’s top four plants in terms of quality (according to Food and Drink Quarterly). For example, I imagined that the jimador chops off the spikes of an agave because those pencas are nasty and dangerous. “No no,” said Don Jorge, “the pencas are filled with bitter-tasting fats and have no sugar at all. They have to be cut off flush with the surface of the piña. If one of them sticks up a bit, the jimador has not done his job correctly.”

Next I discovered that cooking the piñas the old-fashioned way in ovens results in a certain wonderful taste that many tequilas no longer have because their producers have switched to the cheaper and much faster autoclave, a device originally invented to sterilize equipment with high-pressure steam: a sort of giant pressure cooker.

Next we reached the point where water is sprayed onto the sweet, chopped up agave fibers prior to squeezing out the sugary juice. “This isn’t just any water,” said Don Jorge. “The founder of Casa San Matias moved the distillery from Magdalena to Ojo de Agua exactly so the water added to the process would be this delicious spring water. What a difference it makes in the taste.”

By the way, here we learned exactly what the designation “100 percent agave” means. This simply refers to the sugars used in the fermentation process: one more factor that affects taste as well as quality.

Later, when we entered the room where countless gallons of tequila were reposing in oaken casks, I discovered that all those barrels come from Milwaukee, so at last I found out what really makes San Matias so special. I was now convinced that these people were putting their heart into what they were doing, but “the proof of the tequila is in the tasting.”

This took place after the tour in a special house cantina called El Chamuco (Old Nick’s Bar) where a young lady named Raquel taught us the secrets of La Cata (Spirit Tasting). We were given several tall, slim Riedel glasses, specially designed for tequila tasting, which helped us note the color of the liquid (golden? Amber? Coffee-colored?), its aroma (apple? Caramel? Peach?) and of course, its taste which connoisseurs might refer to as “smoke, pepper, earthy agave” or even “burnt cardboard.” The unusually tall glass allowed us to note the speed at which “legs” would form after swishing the tequila round and round. “The speed of the falling drops tells you about the body or density of the liquid,” said Raquel. “For some strange reason, men prefer to call them legs while women usually refer to them as lagrimas (tears).”

At that moment, who should walk into the room but the owner of Casa San Matias, Carmen Villarreal, the only woman in Mexico running a tequila distillery on a daily basis. Mrs. Villarreal took over the business in 1997 after the death of her husband, Jesús López who was a fighter for honesty in the tequila business. In the following years, she brought to fruition several of her husband’s projects, such as ultra-premium, ultra aged, Rey Sol Tequila which comes in a bottle designed by Sergio Bustamante and a price that matches (around 3,000 pesos). Another dream of Jesús López was unusually smooth tequila that might appeal especially to women. This his wife brought into reality in 1999 as Carmesí (Crimson), an amber liquid aged for eleven months.

Of the three tequilas we tasted under the tutelage of Raquel, Carmesí was the winner in my book and in describing its taste, I wrote “dangerous” because it is soooo smooth you could easily drink a lot more than you should. I later learned that Carmesí won first place for tequilas reposados by the Mexican Academy of Tequila, as well as the gold medal in the International Review of Spirits. So, perhaps my skill as a tequila taster is developing in the right direction.

My writings, however, could not, possibly match the rich and sensual description of Carmesí given by Tastings.Com—but be careful; after reading it you may be unable to resist running out and buying a bottle:

“Carmesí: Golden yellow color. Aromas of sassafras, honeyed tropical citrus, pepper oil, and suede follow through on a round, supple entry to a dry-yet-fruity medium body with praline, yellow pepper, and brown spice notes. Finishes with a nice, peppery snap and hint of wet stone. A smooth, flavorful reposado that will pop nicely in cocktails.”

You may enjoy watching a lively  video of warm and charming Carmen Villarreal and Master Distiller Mario Echanove discussing tequila tasting on Fox News. Private tours of San Matias distillery can sometimes be arranged by calling 36 15 04 21 in Guadalajara. Public tours are planned for the future.

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