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Small artisanal or boutique distilleries have sprung up, offering premium 100% agave tequilas, but usually with limited (and therefore much sought-after) production. Some pride themselves in keeping to the traditional methods, including using a vintage tahona to crush the cooked agave heads. For many economic and tax reasons, these premium products may only be available outside Mexico.
Updated July 14, 2007
Making your own tequila
Every month I get two or three emails or requests on the forum for advice on how to make tequila, usually from someone who wants to grow a few blue agave around the house and make their own alcohol in their basement or garage. Every month I try to explain to these writers the basics of tequila production, the nature of the denomination of origin and some elements about spirit production. Here are all those questions answered on a single page.
First, you can make your own tequila, but there are three essential requirements you must meet:
Since tequila is a Mexican product, nothing made outside the designated areas can be legally called tequila in any country that is either a member of the World Trade Organization, NAFTA, or has signed any of the other international trade agreements.
If you don't meet these three requirements, you cannot make tequila. Period.
That has not stopped companies from producing blue agave spirits, however. They cannot be called tequila or even use any name that suggests tequila or the Mexican government will appeal to the federal government in your country and start legal action against you (as J. B. Waggoner found out with his Tequemila agave spirit). Blue agave spirits or agave elixirs made outside Mexico - or even made within Mexico but simply not labelled as tequila - are available on the market today.
You cannot call the product mezcal, either, because it is also protected by a similar denomination of origin.
The other consideration is that making any distilled spirit may be subject to stringent federal laws, and require both local registration and approval. While making beer and wine at home may be legal and unlicensed, generally making distilled spirits isn't.
Governments collect taxes on distilled spirits and take a dim view of anyone who makes spirits without paying those taxes. Typically half the cost of a bottle of spirits is taxes, so it's a big source of governmental revenue. A licence is required in most countries - Canada and the USA in particular - to distill alcohol, so the government can be sure to collect those taxes. That doesn't mean you can't do it, but that you must comply with your national regulations to do so.
Another issue is that distillation requires the proper equipment, which can prove rather expensive to the home distiller. And even with that equipment, it can still be dangerous. Alcohol is very volatile and flammable. You have to exercise caution and skill when distilling. Again, doesn't mean you can't do it with inferior or inexpensive equipment, but your results will only be as good as the tools you used to make them. The initial investment in good equipment often deters 'craft' distillers.
Unlike many spirits where you can work from beer, sugar or molasses, tequila has a more involved process because the raw materials are not ready to use right from the fields. You have to figure out a way to cook or roast the agave heads in order to turn the starches into fermentable sugars. A home oven will only it one or perhaps two split agave heads at best, and you will have to cook them for at least 24 hours, tying up your oven all that time. You could, of course, build a larger oven, or even buy a commercial oven to cook more agave at once. But again the cost will deter most individuals.
And even if you do all this, are you sophisticated enough to know how and when to separate the heads and tails from the corazon of the distillate? That's a skill that takes years to acquire.
A final concern is the time it takes to produce tequila. The blue agave takes eight to ten years to mature, but may take longer in different climates outside its native growing region. Even if you meet all the regulatory and safety requirements, and you still want to make your own blue agave spirits, you won't start to see production for at least seven years, assuming you planted the typical one-year-old shoot.
And, of course, you have to ask yourself from where you will get those agave shoots, enough to grow a sufficient quantity to make production worthwhile. Many tequila producers will not sell you the shoots simply because they don't want to encourage competition outside their own borders. However, agave growers may do so because they have a glut of plants and may look to any source of income from them - but you would have to be on site to be sure you are not being sold weak or diseased shoots. You would also have to be sure your local environment met all the agave's needs for rainfall, nutrition and climate. If not, they may not grow as expected, and may require watering or fertilizing.
So while it is possible to make an agave spirit, the time, expense and effort is probably not worth it for most individuals. Better to spend your money on tequilas from companies who already produce quality tequila. And perhaps invest in a trip to Guadalajara where you can visit the tequila producers and the fields to really appreciate the amount of time and effort that goes into the making of the spirit.