Highland Vs. Lowland Tequila

One of the more common questions is “what is the difference between ‘Highland’ and ‘Lowland’ tequila. Well, when I was first asked to write about this, I thought “dang, that is an easy topic!” However, writing what I know is almost as complicated as the question in itself.

At some point during the late 1990’s, someone in the United States decided to use these terms - Highland and Lowland, for tequilas that come from two different regions in Jalisco; El Valle de Tequila and Los Altos. Translated, that would be the Valley of Tequila and The Highlands. Part of this “American” terminology makes sense, but the other does not as the Valley sits at around 3500 feet above sea level, which is not very “lowland”. Los Altos by the way, has an elevation of around around 6000 feet. This is an example of how Americans were placing European values/expressions on a New World spirit by using terms that are associated to Scotch. Also, there is a very subconscious thing that happens when we associate “quality” with the words “high” and “low”. Going forward we will use the the correct translations/terms of Valley/El Valle, and Highlands/Los Altos.

The Valley of Tequila is north and west of the city of Guadalajara and contains four towns which produce most of the tequila in this region; El Arena, Amatitán, Tequila, & Magdalena. Also, in this area is the Volcán de Tequila. With a hight of 9,646 feet, this volcano has been dormant for over 220,000 years but its lava contributed to a rich soil content that has great nutrients for the agave. The weather around El Valle is pretty consistent year-round with an average daily high of 87 degrees, and the low being 58 degrees. As you can see, there a difference of almost 30 degrees throughout the day. The rainy season lasts for about eighteen weeks is from late May until early October with an average rainfall of 37 inches.

Sitting about 2500 feet higher in elevation and east/north-east of Guadalajara, the Los Altos region of Jalisco has is about 10 degrees cooler throughout the year. While the region of Los Altos has a rainy season that is comparable to El Valle, it is not uncommon for it to dip in to the 30’s as a low during the winter and in fact has had two snow storms in recent history; 2016 and in 1997. Not much damage was done to the agave in 2016, but the industry did suffer in 1997 as it did kill a lot of agave - during the beginning of the shortage of that era. The iron-rich, red clay soil of Los Altos is vastly different than that of El Valle. With all these variables in mind, the agave receives different nutrients in Los Altos and the cooler time period leads to agave that take about a year longer to mature than those in the Valley. The Highlands also has four main producing towns; Arandas, Atotonilco, Jesus Maria, and Tepatitlan.

And if we could backtrack for a second. Yes, tequila is produced outside of these regions, but that is a very limited amount of product comes from only a handful of brands. Secondly, tequila uses one specific agave called tequilaña Weber v. Azul, aka Blue Agave. This is crop that spends five, six, seven years or more, suffering under the sun - taking nutrients from the soil, air, and water in order to create one of the most complex sugar sources on earth. One that is more flavorful and complex than grapes, sugarcane, or any grain.

Now that we have a basic understanding of these two main tequilas producing areas, let’s talk about terroir. According to Merriam-Webster, terroir is defined as “the combination of factors including soil, climate, and sunlight that gives wine grapes their distinctive character”. While the definition here is being applied to wine, it is applicable to spirits, coffee, fruits, vegetables, and I’ll even argue, water as well as aging of the spirit as terroir simply means “of the earth”, so everything around the production and aging of a spirit; from the air, the soil, the water, the weather, the ambient yeasts, and bacteria, all become a part of the terroir. When you visit producers such as La Fortaleza and La Alteña, you can smell those distilleries in each bottle of tequila that they produce.

It is with these things in mind that become the nuances of tequilas from El Valle y Los Altos. But to really understand the differences of what terroir is for tequila, we need to understand it from the perspective of blanco; tequilas that are not aged. Why? A barrel can easily hide the character of where the agave come from, as well as how that tequila is produced. Hell, it’s even worse when additives are used, but we will get into all of that at some other time. An unaged tequila expresses the agave and the production process. It is here where we can find differences AND similarities of agave from both regions of Jalisco. In general, we will notice tequila that are produced with agave from the Valley to be bigger and bolder with herbal, floral, vegetal, citrus, and earthy aromatics and flavors. Tequilas from The Highlands tend to be a bit softer, more delicate, and tad bit sweeter. After enough practice, you will be able to discern tequilas that are not just from these two regions, but also from each town.

So, is there one region better than the other? No. They are just different. Equal to where the agave come from is the production methods used to make the tequila. If a brand is using an auto-industrial diffusor, the terroir and quality of agave does not matter in the slightest bit, so they are not a part of this conversation. Part of this conversation however, are the brands who use agaves from both regions as it is something that happens due to them looking to make a product that has the characteristics of both regions or due a lack of agave during shortages as we had experienced in the late 90’s as well as what we have seen for the last four years.

So, let’s talk about aging and how that affects the distillate, as maintaining the terroir of the agave in the aging process is a very delicate craft. Depending on the size of the barrel, the type of oak, the level of char, how many times the barrel has been used, and how long the tequila sits in the barrel are all important elements that impact the aromatic and flavor profiles. Let’s say we take 400L of the exact same tequila and place them into two different 200L barrels for the same amount of time. One barrel being made of American oak with a heavy toast will impart super dark colors right and completely overwhelm the tequila and within two years, it will taste like a 6 or 7-year-old rye whiskey. So, at that point, the matter of the agave and production process is meaningless. If the other barrel was once an American whiskey barrel that has been used multiple times over a 10 year period, it will produce a tequila that has an amber hue, and impart lighter flavors from the wood such as sweet butter and spice, soften the boldness of the agave but will definitely allow the agave to stand out and know that what you are drinking is a tequila and possibly recognize if this is a tequila from El Valle or Los Altos.

When producers use quality agave and proper production methods that respect the plant and do not use additives, there are beautiful and amazing tequilas made in The Valley and in The Highland regions of Jalisco. None are better than the next, it all comes down to personal preference. What you enjoy now may be different tomorrow and next year. And because a proper tequila is made from a natural product, the same brand with the same production process will vary from one year to the next. What we’d like to recommend is for you to take the time to taste these different tequilas so you can appreciate the diversity of the agave, production methods, and terroir. If you want suggestions, please email us and we’d gladly point you in the right direction. Let us know what you like and what you want you would like to try. We definitely hope that you can get to Jalisco to experience this yourself, it really is the best education for this subject. Just smelling the air of these towns and in the distilleries will be an amazing experience. Don't do it just once, but as often as you can.

¡Sip. Savior. Salúd!

Discover Highland Tequila Here

Discover Lowland Tequila Here

Aug 28th 2020 Khrys Maxwell

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