July 24 is National Tequila Day, and while legally only tequila made near the town of Tequila in Mexico can use the name, the agave liquor made in other parts of Mexico is made with the same ingredients and in the same way. Like how champagne can only be called champagne if it’s made in a certain area of France, but other wineries use the same techniques.

LOS OSUNA is a family-owned agave distillery near La Noria in the western state of Sinaloa. The Osuna family started growing blue agave plants and in 1876, they began making 100% blue agave liquor. The factory is small, and the award-winning liquor can be bought in Mexico in Sonora and Sinaloa and in America in only Illinois and California. Not because the citizens of those states are particularly enamored with tequila/agave liquor as compared to any other, but because the factory just can’t make more.

There are two basic types of tequila/agave liquor – 100% pure agave or mixto. Mixto is only required to be 51% blue agave, and isn’t as high quality as the 100% pure agave. With 100% pure agave, it is divided into categories depending on how long it has been aged with each type a darker color than the last. Blanco has been rested, but it has never been aged in wooden barrels. Joven is a mix of blanco and reposado; though it can also be a mixto, so ask if it’s 100% agave. Reposado has been aged in barrels for two to 11 months, añejo has been aged for at least 12 months, and extra añejo has been aged over 36 months. Los Osuna makes blanco, reposado, and añejo.

As a part of the Huana Coa “experience,” I toured the factory after ziplining, which was fun but left me hot and sweaty. So the taste of smooth tequila (excuse me, agave liquor) sipped in the shade was just about perfect.

All photos by the author. Editor’s note: tour and stay was arranged by the Mexico Tourism Board.

1

Blue agave fields

Tequila and agave liquor both come from the blue agave plant. The agave are planted and harvested by hand by jimadores. The leaves of the plant have to be cut off with a coa, a rounded knife at the end of a long pole or hoe. Depending on the soil the agave is grown in and the yeast used to process the liquor, each distillery in Mexico produces a subtly unique product.

2

Award-winning

Daniel Osuna, our tour guide, started with explaining the different types of liquor produced in the factory. The clear Los Osuna Blanco has never been aged in wood. The Los Osuna Añejo is aged for three years, which is why it's the darkest. And the most popular label, Los Osuna Madura, is aged for 9 months. All of the varieties have won awards at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition.

3

Piñas

The piñas, or pineapples, are the heart of the agave. Once the leaves are taken off, this is what's used to make the liquor. It takes about 6 to 8 years for an agave plant to mature and be ready to be distilled.

4

Roasting pits

Four tons of agave are roasted for 40 hours in giant underground pits.

5

Tasting roasted agave

We sucked on small pieces of roasted agave; the juice is very sweet, which is why it's such an ideal plant to use for making liquor. The best time to harvest agave is right at the end of the dry season, because that is when the plants have the most sugar.

6

Old school sugar extraction

This was once used to crush the roasted agave to collect the juice.

7

Modern sugar extraction

Nowadays, they use a machine. The leftover pulp is then used like compost to help fertilize nearby fields.

8

Fermentation

Researchers worked for two years to develop a special yeast for the Los Osuna. The juice ferments in open barrels.

9

Distillation, part 1

The distillation process is in two steps. In step one, the alcohol rises and is condensed and cleaned, and what is left is a 30% clear alcohol.

10

Distillation, part 2

While the first step of the distillation is done with modern machinery, the second step uses more traditional equipment. It ends with a 60% alcohol referred to by Daniel as, "To-kill-you."

11

Aging process

The liquor for the añenjo and maduro is aged in American white oak barrels made in Kentucky. The barrels are reused up to five times for maduro and two times for añejo. It's the wood of the barrels that gives the liquor its color. Some distilleries will use old whiskey barrels to give the liquor a different flavor.

12

Look at the legs

After purified water is added to the aged liquor, the tequila is bottled and capped by hand. It can then be tasted like a wine - swirling it, smelling it, looking at the "legs."

13

After all the work

The end result is a smooth drink, best appreciated like a fine whiskey and sipped slowly instead of as a quick shot with salt and lime.

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