“Summer doesn’t begin until I’ve sipped a margarita on a deck.”

My friend and colleague Justina Barrett has adhered staunchly to this simple philosophy since she reached drinking age. While the official beginning of summer has passed, and most have indulged in their own season-marking tradition already, the time is still ripe for discussion of the main ingredient of a margarita – tequila.

With that in mind, we visited the highlands of Jalisco, Mexico, specifically the Milagro distillery, to see how tequila is made.

Milagro was founded by two college friends, Danny Schneeweiss and Moy Guindi, with the idea Mexico’s national beverage was not reflecting the contemporary scene of their native Mexico City properly. Beginning with a shared love of the drink, they searched for an appropriate estate in the Jalisco highlands and began conceiving how to reinvigorate old world techniques with new world sensibility. Today, the duo controls everything from the farming to the bottle production, making the brand perfect fodder for a step-by-step tequila production guide.

All tequila begins (and ends) with a single ingredient – agave. The blue agave (agave azuel) is the species employed in tequila production. Selection and extraction comes down to the skill of the jimador, the farmer responsible for cultivating the plant. Pedro, shown here, is the Milagro jimador. The brand grows its own agave, keeping most in house and selling off some surplus.

Using a Coa – which is a sharp-bladed spade – Pedro removes the agave from the soil and trims the pina in preparation for baking. Maturation of both farmer and agave is important – a skilled jimador must apprentice for three years, while an agave plant is not ready until it reaches seven years of age.

After harvesting, the agave plants are baked in clay ovens. This process takes 36 hours and pulls the sweet, natural taste of the agave out.

In order to fully extract the agave juices, the cooked pinas go through a milling process. Shredding and pressing the pina draws out the agave juices, providing the base material – known as masquow – required for fermentation and distillation of tequila.

Fermenting begins immediately following the milling process. No surprise, this portion of tequila production turns the sugars of the masquow to alcohol. Milagro, like most manufacturers, adds its own “secret” yeast.

Next up, the fermented liquid is ready for distillation. Milagro triple distills and for the third and final round uses a proprietary stainless steel pot still. At the end of this process, we are left with the silver tequila, which is the base for all aged and joven tequilas.

Aging. Milagro ages all silver, repesado and anejo tequilas. Select Silver is aged in French oak barrels that sit for 45 months,  Repesodo rests for 10 months in American oak barrels, while Select Barrel Reserve Reposado spends the same time in French oak. Anejo spends 18-months in American oak, with the Select Barrel Reserve mingling with French oak for three years. In each case, the barreling adds depth of flavor to the fresh  out the sill liquor (i.e. silver tequila) and provides distinct, individuality to each of the final Milagro offering.

Milagro bottles are all handmade. The Select Barrel Reserve bottles are hand-blown and feature unique agave plants. Core bottles are hand-painted.

While the bottles are terrific, the aim is to empty them – so let’s finish with a cocktail recipe that proves tequila isn’t just for freezing or shooting.

The Veracruzana
2 parts Milagro Reposado
¾ part Agave Nectar
1 part Fresh Lime Juice
4 Pineapple chunks
2 Basil Leaves

Muddle fruit and herbs in a Boston shaker glass, then add other ingredients and shake vigorously with ice. Strain into a rocks glass with fresh ice and garnish cocktail with a pineapple wedge and basil. For the Connoisseur: Go one step further by adding three dashes of Angostura Bitters and top with ginger beer in a highball glass.

Enjoy the rest of summer.

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