The Badass Way Tequila Used to Be Made Is Making a Comeback

Paul Schrodt

A fine tequila can be life-changing. I’ve seen the right bottle convince tequila haters. And I even know someone who swears that he never gets hungover if all he drinks is good quality tequila.

But what makes a great tequila? Many things, as with any spirit. But one secret that’s older than tequila itself may surprise you. Some of the best tequilas in the world are made by crushing the piña, or heart, of the cooked blue agave plant using a giant, two-ton stone wheel called a tahona. It doesn’t just look badass—it makes a badass tequila.

“Even before the word tequila was registered, most of the mezcals were made by the tahona method,” says Antonio Rodriguez, the director of production at Patrón. The process involves crushing the steamed or roasted piñas to collect the agave juice, which is then fermented in large wooden or stainless steel vats, and finally distilled.

Paul Schrodt

While, according to Rodriguez, most mezcals are still produced using tahona, the wheel has all but disappeared among the major tequila brands over the last century. Rodriguez says there are currently fewer than 20 working tahonas in the tequila market. Since it started in 1989, Patrón has been making its tequila with a combination of tahonas and more modern roller mills, which mechanically shred the agave fibers to get their juices.

The simple reason is cost. Tahonas are “at least five times” more expensive than using roller mills, Rodriguez says. They’re slower and have to be carefully sourced from volcanic rock and then handmade. Operating them is tricky, whether it’s with electrical engines, like at Patrón’s distillery, or in traditional fashion, with horses or donkeys that are trained to move the stones around. Siete Leguas, a tahona-made tequila brand you might’ve seen at a bar or in your local liquor store, is actually named after revolutionary Pancho Villa’s favorite horse. The brand puts its employed animals front and center on its label.

Courtesy of Patron

The roller mill is a technical marvel that allows producers to get a whole lot more tequila out of their doors and into cocktails and shots across the border. But it also significantly changes the taste of that liquid gold. Drink a roller mill tequila and a tahona tequila side by side, and you’ll notice the grassy, peppery and citrusy tastes of fresh agave in the former—what we’ve come to know as tequila. There’s nothing wrong with that, but the tahona tequila opens up a whole new world of flavors, including the sweeter notes of cooked agave and a funky earthiness. The mashing of the agave fibers with their juices, as primitive as it is, actually has the edge. It results in a complex, more intense tequila with a higher viscosity. You almost feel like you can chew on it. And it wakes up your palate.

Of all the tequilas I’ve tried, the tahona ones are by far the most interesting. If you’re looking for somewhere to start, you can’t go wrong with Siete Leguas blanco (about $38), which has a richness and depth that could turn just about anyone into a tequila lover. The Siete Leguas reposado (about $43) gets eight months of aging in a barrel, which adds a spicy bite.

As consumers all over the world have become more discerning about their tequilas (hey, even George Clooney got in on the game), Patrón has started bottling its tahona-only tequila in the small-batch Roca (Spanish for rock) line, launched in 2014. At about $70 per bottle, the Roca Patrón Silver isn’t cheap, but it exemplifies everything that sets the old-school style apart. Finished at 90 proof, its robust flavors easily stand up to that extra alcohol, with the sweetness of cooked agave, black pepper and even a hint of mushroom. Drink it neat or, if you’re feeling reckless, throw it in a Margarita or a Paloma. And high rollers should opt for an impossibly smooth tequila Old Fashioned with the Roca Añejo ($90), which is aged for about 14 months in used bourbon barrels, bringing out vanilla and maple syrup flavors. You might experience a side of tequila you never knew existed. And maybe, if my friend is to be believed, avoid hangovers forever.

Watch the tahona at work: