ALERT! This content is for extreme tequila geeks only! You have been warned.

The best way to learn is by doing, right? That’s the gist behind our “Lotecito” (small batch) destilado de agave project, which was born amid Covid quarantine but continues on to this day.

As aficionados know, tequila is an incredibly complex spirit, with a myriad of production steps along the way. Each one is capable of altering the final product. So to solve the mystery of exactly how these changes create the aromas and flavors we commonly find in tequila, we purchased a tiny (20 liter) copper pot still and made our own small batch distillate, using cooked agave direct from the ovens of our generous tequila-making friends.

In addition to being a great way to learn about tequila production, this project also turned out to be a lot of fun. So much that we decided to convert our garage at home into a mini distillery. We now have 2 copper pot stills, a variety of fermentation and extraction methods, professional measuring tools, a cooling system for the pot still condenser, and a bottling area.

With this project, we’re learning priceless lessons that only deepen our love of tequila and respect for those who make it. The intent of this production log is to share these lessons with you.

Of course, this project needed a name, so we came up with “Lotecito”, which means “tiny batch” in Spanish. We worked with talented designer Eduardo Mejia to craft the logo and bottle design.

(Disclaimer: Although we talk about the process of making tequila, our Lotecitos are technically agave distillates since they are not made under the supervision of the CRT, therefore they cannot legally be labelled as “tequila.”)

Quick Links:
Lotecito 001
Lotecito 002
Lotecito 003

Lotecito 001

Lotecito 001 bottle

    Agave Source: Ixtlan Del Rio, Nayarit
    Age: 6 years
    ART (sugar content): 22.12
    Weight: 50.7 kilos (1 single agave)
    Cooking: Brick Oven (3 days) (Tequila Fortaleza)
    Yeast: Champagne
    Extraction: By hand, wood post
    – 1. Stainless Steel tanks (2), open air, without fibers
    – 2. Glass carboy w/air lock, without fibers (2)
    Brix of Mosto: 12
    Fermentation time: 8 days
    Amount of Mosto: 83 liters
    Distillation: 2x, copper pot
    1st Distillation: 11 liters @ 23.4% abv
    2nd Distillation: 4.9 liters @ 47.1% abv
    Bottled ABV: 44.4%

We wrote about our first batch in an earlier post, and it includes a video of the entire process.

Some background: We had no idea what to expect going into this. Would we even be able to create something drinkable or would it be some type of toxic moonshine? Thankfully we have many tequila industry friends who gave us advice along the way.

The result was definitely drinkable, and nontoxic. (We had it tested for components like methanol and other superior alcohols and all of the levels were within the industry-standard range.) If anything we thought it might be a bit too clean. We decided that we probably cut too deep into the heads and tails, so next time we would widen the cut.

After talking to some of our industry friends about the brix level of our mosto, we started to think that fermenting at 12 brix was too high. (In many tequila distilleries, fermentation happens anywhere from 8-10 brix.)

The other challenge we faced was yield. Hand-crushing the agaves is probably the least efficient way to extract the sugars from the fibers. With tahona-produced tequilas (the closest comparison) yield is typically 10 kilos of agave per liter. Our yield was higher than that. Perhaps fermenting with fibers could help improve that?

By the way, we did this whole experiment on the roof of our office, and the experience was so much fun that we decided to convert a garage into a tiny distillery. After a few months we had that distillery ready for the next batch.

Lotecito 001 Analysis

Lotecito 002

    Agave Source: Arandas, Jalisco
    Age: 6 years
    ART: 25.3
    Weight: 50 kilos (1 single agave)
    Cooking: Brick Oven (22 hours) (El Pandillo)
    Yeast: Champagne
    Extraction: By hand, wood post
    Fermentation: Stainless Steel tanks (3), with and without fibers
    Brix of Mosto: 10
    Fermentation time: 9 days
    Amount of Mosto: 108.5 liters
    Distillation: 2x, copper pot
    1st Distillation: 15 liters @ 16% abv
    2nd Distillation: 4.1 liters @ 41.9% abv
    Bottled ABV: 41.9%

The goal was to get more complexity, so we made some changes to the process to hopefully achieve it. The changes were:

    – Ferment at 10 brix instead of 12.
    – Fermentation entirely in 40 liter stainless steel tanks (3), open air
    – Fermentation with fibers in one of the tanks
    – Distilled to proof (no water added for dilution later)
    – Wider cuts on the heads and tails

After making the first batch we realized that our distillation cuts were very safe and narrow, so our goal this time was to create more complex aromas and flavors by making small adjustments to the way that we fermented and distilled. (We decided to stick with champagne yeast so we could compare the two batches without yeast being a factor.)

Once we had our plan and mini distillery ready, we arranged to get a cooked agave from Felipe Camerena’s distillery, El Pandillo, where the cook time is just 22 hours. The color of the agave was much lighter than that previous batch from Fortaleza, where the cooking process lasts for 3 days.

Cooked agave from the El Pandillo Distillery

Grover took these 2 halves of an agave directly from the brick oven at the El Pandillo distillery.

One big lesson learned in this batch: It’s too much work for 1 person. Our “crush fit” friends, Andres and Karla, weren’t available to help out, so I (Grover) single-handedly did every step in the process. Crushing the agave took me 3 days, which is entirely too long. The longer the agave is exposed to air, the more chance unwanted airborne yeasts and bacterias can start feasting on those precious sugars.

The first and second tanks went normally, with no signs of any unwanted guests in the fermentation. But by the third day, the final tank was a different story. This was the tank that included agave fibers, and by the time I pitched the champagne yeast I could already see that it had started wild fermentation. I crossed my fingers and hoped for the best, knowing that the results were going to be random.

We ended up with 108.5 liters of mosto at 10 brix that we put in 3 40-liter stainless steel fermenters. With the goal of adding complexity, we decided to add fibers to one of the tanks. Then we pitched the yeast and let them sit for 9 days.

During the course of fermentation the first 2 tanks smelled like a normal fermentation, but the third one (with fibers) was just plain funky, with a cheesy/lactic aroma. We definitely lost control of the fermentation there, but I didn’t know if this was a good or bad thing. We hear all the time about brands claiming “wild fermentation, no yeast added”, so I assumed it would just add aroma and flavor complexity.

Fermentation tanks with agave fibers

One of the 3 tanks had fiber included. This tank also exhibited some wild yeast fermentation.

When fermentation was complete the tanks were distilled separately. Since the plan was to distill to proof, we knew that we needed to start the 2nd distillation with a lower abv than before, so we kept collecting until we reached approximately 8% abv from the still, and an average of 16% abv for the batch.

We combined the first distillations together and the total abv was exactly 16% abv, which we hoped would be low enough to get us to 42% abv in the second distillation without having to add any water.

The second distillation is where it really gets fun since you can experience the variety of aromas coming out of the still. Every few minutes they change, giving you a great education on how the agave can produce such a complex and compelling spirit.

This step took 4 hours to complete, and sampling from the still at regular intervals we were getting a lot of really good aromas and flavors. Melon, apple, butter, cinnamon, wet earth, honeysuckle, mint, green pepper and jicama were all present at one point.

The coolest thing about distilling is that sampling what’s coming off of the still at any given time shows you a narrow band of aromas and flavors. If the final bottled product is like listening to the music from a full orchestra, sampling from the still is like listening to a single instrument. It’s definitely interesting because it teaches you what types of aromas and flavors are created naturally during the distillation process, but it’s not an indication of how the final product will come together.

One thing we noticed right away was that the yield on this batch was terrible, at 12.2 kilos of agave per liter (compared to our target of 10 kilos/liter.) In retrospect, we think that several factors contributed to this.

    1. We lost a lot of liquid because we weren’t able to squeeze it off of the fibers after fermentation
    2. Wild yeast wasn’t as efficient as commercial yeast
    3. The crushing and extraction wasn’t thorough enough, and a of sugar was left on the discarded fibers

The final product clocked in at 41.9% abv, and it wasn’t bad, but you can absolutely detect the influence of the wild yeast. It has a noticeable sharp citrusy/lactic finish that is commonly found in mezcal and raicilla, where fermentation is truly left to the wild.

Any commercial tequila producer would consider this a defect, but if you’re a fan of funky agave spirits, it might be right up your alley.

Lesson Learned: Fermentation is the most important step in the production process. Most people think that distillation (and knowing where to cut the heads and tails) is the part where you can really screw things up, but this batch taught us that the fermentation step can make or break the final product.

Lotecito 002 Analysis

The chemical analysis of this batch was within the safe/legal range, but the lactic “funky stuff” created by the wild yeast shows up in the form of elevated esteres at 126.45 (compared to 61.9 in the first batch), with an industry maximum of 200.

And since we collected more tails in order to get to a lower abv, there was a slight increase in methanol. (Methanol spikes dramatically when you keep collecting after 15% abv from the still.)

I guess you can say that we achieved our goal because there’s a lot more going on in this batch in terms of aroma and flavor complexity. The downsides are that we lost control of part of the fermentation, and our yield was super low.

So, the plan for the next batch was to work on those 2 issues, and we came up with an ambitious plan for how to do it.

Lotecito 003

    Agave Source: Amatitan, Jalisco
    Age: 6 years
    ART: 23.04
    Weight: 51 kilos
    Cooking: Brick Oven (3 days) (Cascahuín)
    Yeast: Tequila & Rum
    Extraction: By hand (wood post) + high pressure water + sugar cane mill
    Fermentation: Glass carboys w/air locks (8), without fibers
    Brix of Mosto: 10
    Fermentation time: 7, 8, 9 days
    Amount of Mosto: 120 liters
    Distillation: 2x, copper pot
    1st Distillation (rum yeast): 9.725 liters @ 16.21% abv
    1st Distillation (tequila yeast): 9.56 liters @ 15.93% abv
    2nd Distillation (rum yeast): 3.25 liters @ 48.6% abv
    2nd Distillation (tequila yeast): 3.275 liters @ 48% abv
    Bottled ABV: 44.1%

Our goals here were to maintain complete control of the fermentation, and to improve our yield.

Fermentation Control:

    – All fermentation would happen in glass carboys with airlocks, preventing any type of airborne yeast from getting into the process
    – The whole agave piñas were washed down with a high pressure water sprayer prior to crushing. We did this so that any airborne yeasts could be washed off before we filled the fermentation tanks.
    – We heated the water used in the fermentation tanks to nearly 90 degrees C and added the fibers to this to soak for at least an hour. The idea was like cooking sous vide, any bacteria that may be present wouldn’t be able to survive that temperature for that period of time.
    – Enlist the help of Karla and Andres (crush-fit!) so that we can get the extraction process done as fast as possible
    – And finally, use 2 different strains of commercial yeast (tequila yeast, and rum yeast). Both of these strains were designed with efficiency in mind, but we were also curious to see what the differences would be between them, when all other conditions were identical.

Improving Yield:

    – The heated water should also help to dissolve the sugars on the fibers before we even touch them, so the hand rinsing part of the process should be easier and more efficient
    – Did you notice that we used a high pressure water sprayer to clean the agaves? Well, we thought we should use it again later in the process to blast the last bits of sugar off the fibers that our human hands can’t get to. (Yes, that’s what a diffuser does!)
    – We purchased a small hand-cranked sugar cane mill to squeeze as much of the liquid off of the fibers as possible
    – Use more heads in the process, and distill to approximately 48% abv, and add dilution water later as needed

This plan worked! Our yield was amazing, at 7.82 kilos of agave per liter! We were shocked at this level of efficiency, and actually still are. The high pressure water on the fibers combined with the sugar cane press was the golden ticket. We were surprised how much sugar came off the fibers after a double hand rinse.

The cooked agave came from the Cascahuín distillery, where they cook for 2 days, and then rest for 24 hours before extraction begins. (We love the slow-and-low approach they take, and it makes a big difference in the quality and amount of sugars you can get from the agaves.)

The result was a super clean product, possibly too clean.The lab report shows that the esteres level was super low, at 8.16 (!) compared to Lotecito 002 at 126.45.

Lotecito 003 Analysis

The wider cut on the heads created more floral notes, and this is evident in the chemical analysis as well. Superior alcohols are 427.327, which is high (the maximum legal level is 500.)

We distilled the different yeast types and then combined them later. There were differences. The tequila yeast had a cleaner aroma that was more subtle. The rum yeast brought some complexity, with a slight cinnamon note in this batch.

When we first sampled this batch we thought it was overly floral to the point of distraction. So we let it rest in glass for 3 months before trying it again. This did the trick! A resting period makes a big difference in the final product. Prior to resting it’s common for tequila to feel spiky, almost as if the microscopic compounds are fighting with each other, resisting.

Eventually they learn to play nice with each other and combine into one harmonious product, but it takes time. This is something that you cannot rush!

In the end we liked the control we could achieve with the closed glass fermentation, and will continue to do this with future batches. But we will also place at least 1 40-liter tank outside so we can blend some open air fermented distillate into the final product.

We also think we need to go back to 12 brix for fermenting. This should give us more alcohol to begin with, which should give us a little more leeway when cutting the heads and tails. When creating super small batches we’ve learned that the cuts can be a more critical issue that’s not as prominent when distilling larger batches in a commercial distillery.

However, it does feel like we are getting close to an acceptable profile! We will make those slight adjustments for Lotecito 004, and update this post.

Inside the Lotecito Distillery

Could this be the smallest distillery in the world?