Drink Spirits

How Tequila is Made: Behind the Scenes of Don Julio Tequila

Behind The Scenes of Don Julio
Behind the Scenes of Don Julio

Don Julio Tequila is a tequila company navigating through change. After celebrating their 70th anniversary in 2011 (and releasing the very successful Don Julio 70, an innovative anejo claro) , the company lost its namesake, Don Julio (aka Julio Gonzalez Estrada), in March of 2012. Just a year later, parent company Diageo parted ways with behemoth competitor Jose Cuervo, opening the door for Don Julio to become Diageo’s major showcase tequila.

At the helm through all this is Master Distiller Enrique de Colsa, one of the most well spoken, fun, and engaging men in tequila. If the company is going through a big change, you’d never know it from Enrique, who is an evangelist for great tequila and Mexican spirits.  Poised for tremendous growth, this year Don Julio planted over 1.8 million agave plants. Agave plants take seven years to mature, and so the result will be a staggering doubling of the current production levels of  Don Julio tequila.

Although Don Julio may not the largest producer of tequila, it is one of the more important. Don Julio has always been an innovator in the tequila space with a significant influence on other tequila producers. Don Julio’s squat bottle was a major innovation and inspiration for other premium tequila producers (including Patron) to change the shape and image of tequila. The signature squat bottle came about as most things at the company because of Don Julio himself. Frustrated that he couldn’t see across the table to talk to friends and family with tall tequila bottles in the way, he ordered them shortened, resulting in the signature squat bottle, and shaping the look of tequila for decades to come.

In many ways Don Julio tequila is the embodiment of the way Julio Gonzales Estrada saw tequila. Although Enrique de Colsa runs the distillery, he does so with an amazing amount of reverence and respect to the way that Don Julio made his tequila. [Watch our Behind the Scenes of Don Julio Tequila Video to see how it’s all done.]

Agave Plants in Don Julio’s Fields

As with all tequila, Don Julio’s tequila begins in the agave fields. Located in the highland area of Atotonilco, Don Julio grows their agave plants on land they lease. Not owning the land is very important, as it gives Don Julio the flexibility to move around and rotate their crop. Most people think of tequila as something that takes very little time to produce, since the base product, blanco tequila, is a white spirit. Whereas whiskey and cognac take their  time to mature and age in casks, tequila’s major ‘aging’ time happens with the agave plants, which take a staggering seven years to come to maturity.

Harvesting Agave

Each agave plant is harvested by hand, an extremely labor intensive and back breaking process. The agave plant is cut from its roots and then the long spearlike leaves are sheered off, leaving behind an oval center that’s reminiscent of a pineapple. This core is called a piña and it’s the raw material used to make tequila.

Piñas are Trucked to the Distillery

The piñas are trucked to the Don Julio distillery where they are cut into equal sized pieces in order to ensure that they bake evenly. The piñas are loaded into huge ovens called autoclaves where they are slowly baked over the course of several days.

Piñas Baking in Autoclaves

Uncooked, the piña itself isn’t sweet, more like a starchy potato quality to it, but like a carrot, when you bake it, the piña transforms dramatically, releasing sweet agave syrup.

Crushing Piñas and Making Agua Miel

The baked piñas are crushed and doused with water, releasing the sweet agave syrup. This watery syrup is called agua miel, which translates to “honey water.” Don Julio adds yeast to this agave water and it is left to ferment.

Fermenting Agave

In addition to where they grow their agave (the soil and weather conditions of the Highlands greatly impact the flavors of the tequila), the yeast that Don Julio uses is key to creating the signature taste profile in their tequila.

The Stills at Don Julio

Once the fermentation process is complete, the result is a sweet, slightly alcoholic agave beer which is then put into stills where it’s distilled to become tequila.

What comes off the stills is the raw spirit that will become the Don Julio tequila, but it’s not bottled right away. For the blanco tequila, it’s rested in stainless steel tanks where it “mellows” for two months and matures.

Don Julio Tequila in Ex-Bourbon Barrels

For Don Julio’s other products, the tequila is aged in ex-bourbon casks. Reposado is aged 60 days to 1 year and añejo aged 1-3 years. Don Julio 70 is a unique product called añejo claro, which is a tequila that has been aged for several years like an añejo, but has been filtered to be clear. This filtering restores some of the key flavor elements present in a blanco but get hidden behind the oak flavors in an añejo and creates a unique tequila.

Watch our Behind the Scenes of Don Julio Tequila and see how their tequila is made:

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