Rock On: How the Historic Tahona is Reemerging in Modern Tequila
Frankenstein is making tequila. Not the monster, of course. He already has his own shot (not to mention an off-menu seasonal Frappuccino at Starbucks). We’re talking about Frankenstein the machine—a pieced-together wonder of engineering built by tequila royalty Felipe Camarena, which he uses to make G4 Tequila at Rancho El Pandillo in Jesús María, Mexico.
Frankenstein is a new take on an old technology. Made from salvaged parts, it’s a steam roller with metal knobs welded around a cylindrical body, which spins on an old railroad car axle. The whole contraption is set above a narrow stone channel, where it rolls over roasted agave hearts, crushing them to extract their juices—the key ingredient in 100 percent agave tequila.
Frankenstein is a one-of-a-kind innovation, the kind of machine you’ll only find making artisanal tequila like Camarena’s G4. However, it’s based off a design that dates back to the early days of tequila: the tahona.
At its most basic, a tahona is a doughnut-shaped hunk of volcanic stone. Traditionally pulled around a shallow pit by a team of donkeys or mules, its job is to grind the roasted agave hearts and separate sweet juice from tough pulp. It’s a slow, laborious process, and today, most distilleries have discarded their tahonas in favor of more efficient gear. However, a small but highly regarded group of brands are bringing the rocks back into the distillery and bringing stone-ground tequila to the forefront of the industry.
The Way-Back Machine
While the tahona has long been retired from most modern distilleries, it’s not actually the most ancient technique for milling cooked agave piñas.
“The oldest method is what you still see in very traditional mezcals, which is crushing with mallets or axes,” says Clayton Szczech, Director of Tequila Experiences at Spirit of Jalisco, which leads multi-day tours in tequila country.
While Szczech says the precise history of the tahona isn’t well documented, the word comes from the Nahuatl language spoken by the Aztecs. However, use of a large stone to crush agave for fermentation likely didn’t begin until after the arrival of the Spanish and their animals in the early 1500s. “It’s hard to imagine [the tahona] pre-dating the conquest because there were no animals to pull it,” Szczech explains.
Whenever the tahona was initially employed, it likely was dragged by animals and produced a mash of juice and pulp that was thrown into some kind of pot or vat for fermentation. The practice of fermenting with fiber has largely disappeared from tequila, but at one of 7 Leguas’ two distilleries in the highlands of Jalisco, a traditional stone tahona is still pulled by two mules with the resulting mash fermented, fiber and all.
In the town of Tequila, Guillermo Erickson Sauza — great-great-grandson of Casa Sauza founder Don Cenobio Sauza — uses a technique only slightly updated to make his Tequila Fortaleza, an artisan distilling success story.
“It’s preserved really close to a 19th century production process,” says Szczech of the valley distillery, where agave hearts are milled with a tahona pulled by a small tractor while a pair of workers rake the mash with hoes. The biggest innovation in use at the small factory? Pumps. “When they’re milling at Fortaleza, they’re using a lot of water,” explains Szczech, adding that the juice and water mix is pumped directly into open wooden vats for fermentation, where a proprietary yeast works its magic.
Szczech’s valley tour stops at Fortaleza to see history in action, and his highlands tour hits 7 Leguas, La Alteña Distillery, Símbolo Distillery and El Pandillo, four places he says are unique in the tequila industry. “It’s less of a broad overview and more a gallery of oddballs that make really good juice.”
All four of them use some version of the tahona in their production, from the hyper authentic set up at 7 Leguas to G4’s tahona-inspired Frankenstein, to the mechanical version created by master distiller Pedro Hernandez Barba at Símbolo, which makes Suerte Tequila.
“When it came time to build the distillery, he did a lot of research and spoke to a lot of people in the industry that he knows,” says Suerte co-founder Laurence Spiewak. “Everything he heard pointed toward using brick ovens and using traditional tahonas.”
The rock in question was actually pulled from the ground where the distillery was constructed, then shaped into a rough circle. “Two craftsmen came and spent two months hand-chiseling our tahona into a perfect wheel,” Spiewak recalls.
When Barba decided he wanted the rig to run electronically, he had an engineer design a mechanized system with clock-like gears in the center that rotate the 3,000-pound stone on a metal arm.
“That’s really our brand in a nutshell,” Spiewak says. “Truly authentically processed tequila in a modern package.”
Can you taste the difference?
“The real answer is we don’t know,” says Szczech. “If we have maybe seven distilleries using a tahona in some way shape or form, that’s not a valid sample set.”
However, he’s quick to add, that those companies using the tahona have some commitment to quality at the expense of efficiency. “Suerte vs. Fortaleza—they taste nothing alike,” Szczech says. “They don’t have a whole lot in common except that they’re good.”
The stones are significantly less efficient than modern machinery like roller mills, and the handful of distilleries using tahonas represents just a tiny fraction of the industry willing to sacrifice productivity for traditional processes.
“We’re not looking to create efficiency,” says Suerte’s Spiewak. “Our distillery is actually somewhat inefficient, and we’re actually proud of our inefficiency. With inefficiency comes quality.”
Stone-crushed tequilas do seem to be a growing sliver of the market. Fortaleza, which has an illustration of a tahona on its labels, has been a huge success, showing a demand for high-quality, hand-made tequila and the power of buy-in from bartenders and the craft cocktail movement.
“Even the giants have had to take notice of what Fortaleza’s done,” Szczech says.
And they have. Patrón, which has long used tahonas in some of its production, rolled out the 100 percent stone-crushed Roca line last summer.
“We’d consider making compromises, if we could hand-make them,” says the Roca website, where a short video shows their mechanized tahona at work, rolling over the rust-colored agave fiber. Szczech estimates the machines likely cost hundreds of thousands of dollars apiece, which means his gallery of oddballs aren’t the only ones betting that high-end handcrafted tequilas are worth the price of production.
Asked why he keeps making tequila the old-fashioned way, Fortaleza’s Guillermo Erickson Sauza answers: “In five years maybe nobody cares about craft anymore. I don’t think that will happen. So 1. there’s a good market here. And 2. I like doing it. I like drinking my tequila. I do drink lots of it, and I enjoy doing this. I enjoy doing it the old way. I’m kind of like a caretaker of history."