How to make te­quila, Kiwi-style

The plants re­ally want to hurt you, you harvest by dig­ger, and you bash it about, but the re­sult is worth toast­ing.

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WHO: Terry Knight & Rachel Raine WHAT: Sch­napp Dragon Vil­lage Dis­tillery WHERE: Golden Bay, 100km north-west of Nel­son LAND: 8ha (20 acres) WEB: www.schnap­p­dragon.co.nz

The site of an old vine­yard is now grow­ing the spe­cial­ist agave plants re­quired for mak­ing te­quila.

1. Har­vest­ing is done by dig­ger to avoid in­juries. 2. The plants have to be chopped up to get to their ‘heart’. 3. Chain­saws are the eas­i­est method of leaf re­moval. 4. Terry chops off ex­cess fo­liage with an axe. 5. The ‘hearts’ ready to be cooked. 6 & 7. The hearts are cooked in a steam oven. 8. The soft­ened hearts are then mulched, put through a wash­ing ma­chine and man­gled to break down the fi­bres.

Terry and Rachel’s ini­tial run of just 300 bot­tles went on sale in Septem­ber, a drop in the ocean com­pared to the 96 mil­lion cases of te­quila sold by liquor com­pa­nies world­wide ev­ery year.

Grow­ing te­quila is hard work too, as al­most ev­ery­thing is done by hand. The first step a few years ago was to recre­ate a hot, dry Mex­i­can sum­mer so they could ger­mi­nate the seeds.

“We had to em­u­late a sum­mer in Mexico by putting them in the oven at 40°C, it sort-of cracks them like a gorse seed,” says Terry. “You know how a gorse seed loves to go through fire, then sprout? Te­quila seeds are quite sim­i­lar.”

These days things are a lit­tle eas­ier, with lab-grown tis­sue cul­tures used to cre­ate the 3000 seedlings a year re­quired to plant out 0.8ha (two acres) a year. Terry hard­ens them off in a glasshouse for a year be­fore they are ready to plant out.

“Each year we plant two acres and that’ll give us a re­turn of around about 15,000 one-litre bot­tles a year of te­quila.”

But it isn’t an easy job and it takes time. Imag­ine a flax that’s ex­tremely rigid, grows up to about 1.8m tall over six to eight years, and forms a pineap­ple-shaped ‘heart’ at its cen­tre which can weigh up to 40kg. Oh, and it re­ally wants to hurt you, which has led the cou­ple to a unique har­vest­ing process.

“You should see the prick­les,” says Terry. “We harvest the plant with a small ex­ca­va­tor due to the nas­ti­ness of the prick­les on the plant. They have a two inch (5cm) steel-type of prickle on the end, then they have lit­tle hook prick­les all the way down the sides of the leaves and hook prick­les on the back of them, and the two inch one on the end would go into your bone. They are evil, but we love them re­ally.”

“You treat them with re­spect!” laughs Rachel.

You haven’t worked with te­quila un­til you get a prickle in­jury, and with the hands-on na­ture of the harvest, it’s in­evitable says Terry.

“They feel like they’re go­ing to get in­fected but they don’t, they just have this ache for about 24 hours where they just throb. Like some­one bruised your bone, you get that sort of feel­ing.”

The har­vest­ing process de­stroys the plant, which is why the cou­ple have started a rolling plant­ing regime which will even­tu­ally cover 6.5ha (16 acres). Car­ing for the plants is easy – a spoon­ful of fer­tiliser each year, weed­ing, mulching, no wa­ter re­quired – but turn­ing them into te­quila is an ar­du­ous process. Terry uses a chain­saw to cut off the rigid, prickly leaves to re­veal the fi­brous ‘heart’ of the plant. The hearts are then steam­cooked for three days.

“Then we crush it, mulch it up – I put it through the gar­den mulcher – then from there it goes into a wringer wash­ing ma­chine, then we use the wringer part to break down the fi­bres, then we run it through the man­gle to get the juice out.”

The juice is brewed into a type of beer (known as a mash), the mash is brewed again, then goes through a dis­til­la­tion process. The re­sult: te­quila, 40% al­co­hol by vol­ume.

“It’s a sip­ping te­quila,” says Rachel. “You don’t need the lime, you don’t need the salt, you sip it straight, it’s that clean and gen­tle.”

That’s quite dif­fer­ent to the te­quila

Terry can’t stop cre­at­ing new prod­ucts in­clud­ing a sugar-free health drink (above left), te­quila (above), plus gin, liqueurs from

fresh fruit, and vodka.

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