In wine, the word terroir is used to describe the taste characteristics and flavors imparted by the land and environment from which the wine was produced. However, the French term, which loosely translates to land and ground, can also be associated with spirits like tequila. Most know that tequila is made from the agave plants that reside in the Mexican state of Jalisco, but it’s much less well known that there are two distinct types of alcohol produced here: highland tequila and lowland tequila. To understand the difference between the variations, we spoke with Jose Valle, head bartender at Mezcal bar at the Drift Hotel in San Jose del Cabo, Mexico.
“The terms highlands and lowlands refer to the respective regions of Jalisco where the agaves used for tequila are grown,” Valle explains. In this sense, the difference between the two may seem simple. But just like in wine, the terroir of each region plays an important role in the distinct tastes each agave can produce.
Highland tequilas are made from agave plants grown in the highlands of Jaliscan, more commonly known as Los Altos. Located approximately 7,500 feet above sea level, the red clay soil of Los Altos is natively called tierra roja and is rich in iron. “Here the agave is grown in what is considered a high-stress environment because it is closer to the direct heat of the sun,” Valle explains. This affects how plants grow and ultimately determines the flavor tones they will produce in tequila. “Highland tequila has a more fruity flavor that can be attributed to the sweetness of the agave,” he adds.
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Just below Los Altos is El Valle, or Tequila Valley, where lowland agaves grow. As Valle notes, “It’s important to remember that although the valley is at a lower elevation than Los Altos, it’s still quite high.” Rising between 3,500 and 5,200 feet above sea level and averaging around 3,870 feet, El Valle contains a natural element crucial to its terroir: the Volcán de Tequila. Although the volcano is no longer active, it is the largest contributor to land in the lowlands and creates the mineral-rich volcanic soil known as tierra negra. “The minerals in this soil give the agave an herbal flavor as well as an earthy tone,” says Valle.
Regardless of where agaves are grown, the rules and regulations that govern tequila mean that the spirit-making process is the same. But to taste the real refinement that each terroir brings to tequila, it is better to look for a tequila blanco; Lowland tequilas tend to have a green, vegetal taste that can range from herbs and pepper to florals and citrus, while highland tequilas are milder with just a hint of sweetness. “For this reason, highland tequilas are often considered the better of the two,” says Valle. Nevertheless, it is important to keep in mind that the quality of the distillate is not justified by the location and that the distinction between highlands and lowlands simply represents the environment from which the agaves come.