Article and Photos by Allie, Liquor Department Associate
Although National Margarita Day passed us by back in February, we wanted to save our special “tequila & mezcal” feature for May, the month of Mother’s Day and margaritas. In continuation of our “Women in Distilling” series, we’ve split our attention on two great industry pioneers.
The storied history of Casa Herradura begins in Jalisco, Mexico in 1870, along volcanic lowlands famous for its blue agave crops. According to Emily Bell at Vinepair, thanks go to Gabriela de la Peña, who grabbed the reins of leadership in the 1950s and helped bring the hacienda into the modern age. In 1974, Herradura began making big waves for tequila with its development of the now-popular Reposado style, a major feather in de la Peña’s proverbial cap. She made history a second time in 1995 through the development of Extra Añejo tequila, although it wasn’t officially recognized as an official style until 2006.
Near the end of Gabriela de la Peña’s tenure, chemist María Teresa Lara López began working for Herradura in 1987. She recently retired in 2017, but her time and hard work earned her the title of first female Master Distiller of tequila — no small feat in the midst of ongoing growth at the hacienda. Some of her major contributions to the brand include Directo de Alambique and Herradura Ultra (Sherry, 2016).
Today, Herradura remains one of the top-selling tequila brands in the world, and for excellent reason. Their extensive website explains the basics of their process: they steam harvested hearts of Blue Weber agave in clay ovens prior to milling, natural fermentation, distillation in copper stills, and ageing in American white oak barrels. Even more fascinating is that the hacienda produces their own barrels, an industry first and one they alone can currently claim.
A common question we receive on the liquor floor is this: “What’s the difference between mezcal and tequila?” Unfortunately, a common misconception exists that mezcal is simply an inferior form of tequila, when nothing could be further from the truth.
While both spirits find their roots in agave, tequila can only distill from the hearts, or piñas, of the Blue Weber species. Karen Newman with Wine Enthusiast elaborates on the differences: “agave that’s earmarked for Tequila is steamed in ovens, while the plant is often roasted in underground pits for mezcal, which can provide a distinctive smoky note.” Historians also note tequila’s relative youth when compared to the presence of mezcal by a count of centuries, though only in the 20th century did it arrive in large scale in USA markets (Newman, 2019).
With that said, mezcal has a rich and distinctive flavor that goes far beyond the smokiness, as evidenced by this month’s other feature of Doña Vega. Founder Sonya Vega-Auvray specifically wished to improve upon the modern misconceptions by adding finesse and complexity to her company’s spirits. Smokiness in her espadín expression takes a backseat to fresh cracked pepper and light fruitness; the fresh brightness is such that it would make an incredible margarita or paloma instead of your favorite tequila.
In addition to her own steering of the company and its unique blends of Oaxacan mezcal, Doña Vega’s production team also enjoys the leadership of a fifth-generation female mezcalera and her three daughters. Their website further states that making the mezcal involves distillation in copper stills in small batches, as well as storage and maturation in oak barrels. Despite its relative newness in the market, Dona Vega remains a brand to watch for its exceptional quality.
Sources and Further Reading:
(1) Bell, W. E. (2020, March 13). 14 Things You Should Know About Herradura. Retrieved from https://vinepair.com/articles/herradura-tequila-guide/
(2) Herradura. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.thespiritseducator.com/herradura
(3) Herradura. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.herradura.com/
(4) Newman, K. (2019, August 28). Breaking Down the Difference Between Mezcal and Tequila. Retrieved from https://www.winemag.com/2019/08/27/difference-mezcal-vs-tequila/
(5) Norton, E. R. (n.d.). Dona Vega: Our Story. Retrieved from https://mezcaldonavega.com/our-story/
(6) Top 10 female master distillers and blenders. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.thespiritsbusiness.com/2016/03/top-10-female-master-distillers-and-blenders/10/