The rich spirit, made with a centuries-old tahona, helps me pretend I'm in idyllic agave fields—or really anywhere besides my apartment.

By Jonah Reider
August 27, 2020
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Credit: Carly Diaz

About six months ago, I was lucky enough to spend a few nights in Atotonilco el Alto, a small town in Jalisco, Mexico, where the air is heavy and sweet with the aroma of roasting agave. Secret Supper was hosting a mysterious, ambitious pop-up dinner smack in this epicenter of tequila production, and I had to check it out.

Normally, I host a supper club, Pith—dinners for six strangers out of my NYC apartment—so I was eager to see what a multi-course meal for 60+ guests would look and taste like with no running water, gas, or electricity, just enormous wood fire and large ceramic vats.

Because of the pandemic, my supper club has been shut down for months, and traveling is out of the question. But lately, at home, whenever I pour a small glass of the tahona tequila that accompanied the meal, I’m transported right back to those agave fields.

Guests sat on either side of a lengthy candlelit wooden table snaking throughout the agave field. Chef Daniel Nuñez started us off with a soup of slowly charred red peppers and small skewers of smoky, charcoal-grilled beef. Next came golden pockets of tortilla oozing with melted fresh cheese and nutty fried crickets. Then, platters of massive sirloin steaks and pale, creamy squashes roasted over the open fire. At this point, my memory gets a little foggy, for an excellent reason—the crisp, spicy tequila we were sipping with every course. Later, I learned that this tequila had been sourced from the agave growing on site, and it had been processed using an age-old, manual tool: the tahona.

A tahona is an enormous stone wheel carved from volcanic rock. Early tequila manufacturers pulled it using donkeys to crush sweet hunks of roasted agave into a juicy pulp perfect for fermentation. Producers who still use a tahona prefer pulling it with an electric motor. Still, it remains a slow, inefficient, and delicious process, evocative of other artisan stone-grinding processes like Italian olives being crushed into oil or Japanese tea leaves being ground into matcha powder.

Credit: Carly Diaz

Most tequila production uses industrial juicers that discard all the resulting agave pulp, leaving simple sugary juice to ferment in sanitized stainless steel tanks. But after being crushed slowly with a tahona, the agave pulp and juice is typically fermented together in enormous wooden barrels. The fibrous pulp rises to the top, forming a flavorful blanket that prevents aromatic compounds from evaporating throughout the brewing process.

All of this I saw at the Patrón facility nearby, where they craft its Roca line of tequila, exclusively using the tahona and its old-school techniques. Some of the agave they use comes from the family farm where the "secret" pop-up dinner was held. And while this tahona tequila paired perfectly with that menu, it’s now a staple in my home bar, reliably upgrading weeknight dinners.

To pair it at home:

The precise balance of fruit, smoke, and vegetal spice in unaged tahona tequila makes it an excellent match for grilled fish and meats, light and bright salads, and rich stews or soups. Some añejo varieties, aged around three years in oak barrels, have the warmth and texture to rival cognac for after-dinner sipping.

The point is, secure a bottle of tequila crafted with a tahona and any stuck-at-home snack will feel just a tiny bit like a feast in the middle of an agave field. It’s much cheaper than a real vacation, and a lot more relaxing. Drink it slowly—no ice necessary— and punctuate sips with bites of juicy pineapple.