In my family, farmers became factory employees and then white collar workers. My grandfather was adept at rotating crops and livestock through his meticulously maintained suburban backyard; I struggle to keep a house plant alive. Guillermo Sauza saw his great-great-grandfather Cenobio’s tequila empire whittled down to the family’s agave farm and the mothballed La Fortaleza distillery, turned into a literal tequila production museum. Meanwhile the Sauza brand and distillery continued to grow in the hands of an international conglomerate. When they decided to stop buying agave from Guillermo’s farm in the early 90’s, he made the do-or-die decision to reopen Fortaleza. Determined to use the same methods of production as his tatarabuelo Cenobio Sauza, he was sure this shortcut-free labor of love would produce a superior tequila. It does.
After harvest, the piñas are taken to the distillery’s enormous ancient oven, fortified with meter thick walls and fed by the original steam boiler from 1903. Fifteen tons of agave are loaded by hand (!), and after bolting the door shut they are slow-cooked for 36 hours, converting the plants starches into sugars that form a rich molasses-like syrup. Afterwards they rest for a full 24 hours as the temperature slowly subsides. Compare this to the modern more common pressure cooker method. Using an autoclave producers cut the cooking down to as little as 1/5th the time. I’ve tried to hurry up caramelizing an onion before, it’s not the same. Or as Guillermo likes to say, it’s the difference between baking a potato and microwaving one.
In large-scale tequila production, the cooked piñas go from the microwave to the wood chipper, quickly shredding the plant to bits while separating out every last bit of sugar. At Fortaleza only 100% tahona milled tequila is produced. Over the course of five hours a 3.5 ton stone wheel is rolled around a sunken pit, while workers push the roasted piñas back into its path, gradually crushing the plants into releasing their cooked syrup. The distillery compares the tahona to using a mortar and pestle instead of a food processor. It helps produce a tequila with a rich, complex, earthy roasted agave profile, one with loads of interest and depth. In contrast more efficient milling produces a more citrusy and less dimensional tequila. For me, thinking of that industrialized production triggers memories of Ferngully and its tree shredders, all those plants in pain can’t be good. It's like, "Come on over to this Tahona, baby, and get a nice long five hour massage."
Using a proprietary yeast that has been in the family for generations – and without the help of any chemical accelerators, the agave syrup spends four days fermenting in open-air wooden vats. Afterwards the tequila is twice distilled in 100 year old, handmade, small (like really tiny) copper pot stills to 46% ABV. By distilling to a lower ABV, they preserve more of the agave flavor, while creating a naturally round, full-bodied, rich and velvety tequila. Many producers choose a more efficient distillation, pushing up to 55% ABV or even higher, and in doing so they swap out flavor compounds and texture in favor of more ethanol. They might try to add those things back by bottling with sugar, glycerin, caramel, or oak extract, it’s allowed – but it’s not the same really.
La Fortaleza Distillery, NOM 1493 (What is NOM? It's very useful - see the note below), doesn’t sell their tequila to anyone else, and produces only their one brand. I recommend the whole lineup, though I’m especially fond of the Still Strength Blanco, until recently available only if you went to the distillery in person. With no water added to dilute it post-distillation, it’s the purest expression of their farm, process, and techniques honed over five generations. This won’t be a tequila you need to go nosing after, open it up and these huge beautiful aromatics come rushing out at you. And 6% ABV is no small difference, but I swear it’s even easier sipping than the 40% Blanco. Nestled on the top of the label you’ll find two of Guillermo’s favorite puppers, Sandy and Chocolate, guarding those two tiny Fortaleza stills. That’s true to size, they’re so small!
And I’m probably biased, so here’s a review from Alexandra, who was nice enough to share her thoughts after she picked up a bottle: “I really enjoyed our conversation! It was lovely, almost as lovely as the tequila my husband and I are enjoying right now. Wow! I didn’t think that my enjoyment of Fortaleza Blanco could increase by this many orders of magnitude! Words fail me; if we keep drinking this wonderful spirit all afternoon, words will continue to fail me, especially the polysyllabic ones. Wow! (Proof enough!)”
NOM - Norma Oficial Mexicana (Official Mexican Standard)
Like most of Kentucky's bourbon distilleries, a lot of tequila distilleries are basically huge factories, in which many different brands are made under the same roof (some they even try to make appear as small, scruffy, family made brands). A lot of the Tequila these factories make gets sold to independent bottlers to do with as they wish, and they also produce several house brands, generally at varying degrees of quality and perceived "luxury". Unlike bourbon, though, there is a solid and easily identifiable system in place to find out just where your tequila is coming from. Enter the NOM.
The NOM is the official Mexican standard of tequila that is regulated by the Mexican government, which contains specifications to be followed by all tequila producers. The NOM number that is on every bottle of Tequila tells us what distillery it is produced at, which you can look up at the online database here. For example, if you like El Cimarron, you may also want to check out Don Fulano, both produced at Tequilena Distillery, NOM 1146. Both of those tequilas will be produced with a similar style, probably using the same production methods. But our buddy Fortaleza is one of the weirdos, and does things a little differently.