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Tequila is a spirit made primarily in the area surrounding the western Mexican state of Jalisco. It is made from the blue agave (Agave tequilana azul), which is native to Mexico. Tequila is most often made at a 38–40% alcohol content (76–80 proof), but there are also several varieties of tequila produced with 43–46% alcohol content (86–92 proof).
Tequila was first produced in the 16th century near the location of the city of Tequila, which was not officially established until 1656. The Aztec people had previously made a fermented beverage from the agave plant, which they called octli (later and more popularly called pulque), long before the Spanish arrived in 1521. When the Spanish conquistadors ran out of their own brandy, they began to distill this agave drink to produce North America's first indigenous distilled spirit.
Some 80 years later, around 1600, Don Pedro Sánchez de Tagle, the Marquis of Altamira, began mass-producing tequila at the first factory in the territory of modern-day Jalisco. By 1608, the colonial governor of Nueva Galicia had begun to tax his products.
The tequila that is popular today was first mass-produced in the early 1800s in Guadalajara, Mexico.
HOW TEQUILA IS MADE
The process of tequila begins when a blue agave plant is ripe, usually 8 to 12 years after it is planted. Leaves are chopped away from its core by a "jimador" who assesses the plants ripeness. If the plant is harvested too soon, there won't be enough sugars to do the job. Too late and the agave's sugars will have already been used to form a once-in-a-lifetime stem "quiote" that springs 25 to 40 feet high so that the seeds grown at the top of the stem can scatter with the wind. The jimador's task is a crucial one; once he decides that the plant is ready, he wields a special long knife known as a "coa" to clear the core. The cores or piñas (Spanish for pineapple) weight an average of 40 to 70 pounds, and can weight up to 200 pounds. The photo shows a ripe agave, at least 8 year old) that is being harvested. The “piña” in the photograph (third at right) will be visible when all the leaves (pencas) have been cleared.
Piñas are hauled to the distillery where they are cut in half or chopped and put to roast. Starches turn to sugar as the piñas are steam. Modern distilleries use huge steam ovens to increase output and save on energy. Roughly speaking, seven kilos (15 lb.) of agave piña are needed to produce one liter (one quart U.S.) of tequila. Different agaves and processes produce mezcal with different names throughout Mexico: sotol in Chihuahua, mezcal in Oaxaca, and bacanora in Sonora.
For detailed information on the agave, see the Agave Pages and Agavacea.
The roasted piñas are then shredded, their juices pressed out and placed in fermenting tanks or vats. Some distilleries use the traditional method to produce tequila. In this method –artesian tequila– the cores are crushed with a stone wheel at a grinding mill called "tahona" and the fibers are dumped into the wooden vat to enhance fermentation and to provide extra flavor. Once the juices are in the vats yeast is added. Every distiller keeps its own yeast as a closely guarded secret. During fermenting, the yeast acts upon the sugars of the agave plant converting them into alcohol.
Juices ferment for 30 to 48 hours then they are distilled twice in traditional copper stills or more modern ones made of stainless steel or in continuous distillation towers. The first distillation produces a low-grade alcohol and the second a fiery colorless liquid that is later blended before being bottled. Alcohol content may be between 70 and 110 Proof. At this moment the liquor is no longer mezcal but tequila.
All types of tequila start with this colorless distilled spirit. Each type will be called depending on its aging
TYPES OF TEQUILA
Tequila can only be produced in Mexico, in the Tequila Region, and must comply with strict Mexican government regulations. In order to satisfy an ever-growing demand and a multitude of consumer's preferences and tastes, tequila is produced in two general categories and four different types in three of those categories. The two categories are defined by the percentage of juices coming from the blue agave:
Tequila 100% Agave. Must be made with 100% blue agave juices and must be bottled at the distillery in Mexico. It may be Blanco, Reposado, or Añejo.
Tequila. Must be made with at least 51% blue agave juices. This tequila may be exported in bulk to be bottled in other countries following the NOM standard. It may be Blanco, Gold, Reposado, or Añejo.
The NOM standard defines four types of tequila:
Blanco or Silver
This is the traditional tequila that started it all. Clear and transparent, fresh from the still tequila is called Blanco (white or silver) and must be bottled immediately after the distillation process. It has the true bouquet and flavor of the blue agave. It is usually strong and is traditionally enjoyed in a "caballito" (2 oz small glass).
Oro or Gold
Is tequila Blanco mellowed by the addition of colorants and flavorings, caramel being the most common. It is the tequila of choice for frozen Margaritas.
Reposado or Rested
It is Blanco that has been kept (or rested) in white oak casks or vats called "pipones" for more than two months and up to one year. The oak barrels give Reposado a mellowed taste, pleasing bouquet, and its pale color. Reposado keeps the blue agave taste and is gentler to the palate. These tequilas have experienced exponential demand and high prices.
Añejo or Aged
It is Blanco tequila aged in white oak casks for more than a year. Maximum capacity of the casks should not exceed 600 liters (159 gallons). The amber color and woody flavor are picked up from the oak, and the oxidation that takes place through the porous wood develops the unique bouquet and taste.
Although not a category in itself, it is a special Añejo that certain distillers keep in oak casks for up to 8 years. Reserva enters the big leagues of liquor both in taste and in price.
The brand "tequila" is controlled by the Mexican government. Anybody interested in its production must comply with strict regulations set forth by the Secretary of Economy (formerly Secretary of Industry and Commerce) who has delegated authority upon the Tequila Regulatory Council (Consejo Regulador del Tequila) CRT, a private non-profit organization based in Guadalajara, Jalisco responsible for the regulation, verification, and quality certification of tequila. The Council oversees every aspect of production, from agave cultivation to bottling and labeling in order to guarantee consumers of the genuineness of the product.
To ensure that tequila is genuine, it must be produced according to the strict standard NOM-006-SCFI-1994 and must bear the official standard or NOM (Norma Oficial Mexicana) and the Council's monogram "CRT" on the label. Premium Tequila must also have the "100% Agave" markings on the label. Each approved tequila distiller gets its own NOM that ensures that the product complies with the official Denomination of Origin.
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