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Making industry inroads for women

Mexico’s only female master tequila distiller lets her products do the talking. Steve Coomes reports

Maria Theresa Lara Herradura Tequila

Herradura’s newest collectible tequila, Coleccion de la Casa, Reserva 2013 – Cognac Cask Finish Reposado, is an easy sipper, but it wasn’t simple to produce, said master distiller Maria Theresa Lara. Holding court in the Casa Herradura tasting room at the distillery’s Amatitán, Jalisco, Mexico estate, Lara called the double-barrel matured spirit an example of the hardest, yet most rewarding part of her job.

Asked by an American reporter why she chose cognac barrels (Herradura released a port cask-finished Coleccion in 2012), Lara shrugged her shoulders and said through a translator that it began with a question: “What would happen if we moved our 11-month-old reposado from American oak barrels to cognac barrels?” Would the finished spirit adopt favorable flavours from the French casks, she wondered, or would the tequila’s own contribution be overpowered? And could she strike a beneficial balance between the two that would not only taste good, but, ultimately, sell to a growing tequila fan base?

Time, testing and tasting revealed those answers.

“As we aged it a little more, we lost the agave flavour,” Lara said, adding that making small batch products is more technically challenging than large batches. “And as we tasted it every 15 days, we saw changes every time. (We determined) we wanted only some characteristics of the cognac barrel, not everything. We wanted to protect the product, not manipulate it.”

Lara, along with Herradura’s tasting, panel decided a two-month rest in cognac barrels shared too little with the tequila, while four months was too much. A three-month rest, Lara said, “brings up a lot of oak, agave and vanilla characteristics, things we liked.

“We did not want to have a product flavoured highly with cognac or wine. We didn’t want to lose the organoleptics of the tequila. I wanted to make sure that it didn’t overpower the agave.”

Smiling confidently and gesturing toward a bottle at the center of the 12-person table, she added, “This is what we chose.”

Since distiller-speak typically is more complex, her casual descriptions of such an exacting art may have been simplified in translation. What’s undeniable is Lara has the head for the complexity of large scale tequila distilling.

She has a bachelor’s in chemistry and a master’s in quality, and prior to working for Casa Herradura, she worked as manager of water quality for the city of Guadalajara and was director of chemical control for a pharmaceutical company. It was there she took a course on fermentation in the production of tequila, an event that sparked her interest in the spirit. 

She joined Casa Herradura in 1987 as lab manager, followed by multiple duties that led to her promotion to master distiller in 2009.

Lara conceded she doesn’t know what role, if any, gender played in her career, but she takes pride in knowing she’s making industry inroads for all women.

“Since it is rare to hear of women holding important roles in tequila production and much less of women being tequila master distillers, men are oftentimes surprised upon meeting me because they think the role of master distiller should be held only by men,” Lara said. She sees more women getting involved in the industry, but still none approaching her level. “At least within the tequila industry, I notice that I am respected and well known among my colleagues and counterparts.”

At a lunch served outside on the grounds of the expansive estate, Lara returns to the fun side of the business, calling her work on Herradura’s collectible tequilas, “unique and exciting!  I’d never had a line that had a limited edition and my name and signature on it!”

Though poured with multiple tastes of other Herradura spirits, the cognac cask finish paired particularly well with the afternoon’s menu that included clam ceviche, roasted quail and braised lamb. Lara agreed that the cognac finish is a versatile product that retains its own personality.

“This has a great body, and you can smell the wood, the vanilla, the caramel, some citrus, cinnamon and dried fruits that come from the barrels,” she said, alternately swirling and nosing her glass.

When a reporter at the table asked, “What are you going to do next?” she smiled with narrowed eyes, hinting at a coy answer to come.

“It’s a secret,” she added, grinning widely. “We have to see what we’re playing with coming up. We need to see what we have each year in our basic elements: water, agave, fermentation. Things are always changing, and our tequilas change with them.”

All photos by freelance food and drink writer Steve Coomes

21 November 2013