Tequila - A spirited town

T Updated

An appreciation for the fiery liquor inspires a trip to the Mexican town that produces it.

Long before Spanish conquistadors marched into northwestern Mexico, indigenous Nahuatl Indians had discovered the bacchanal benefits of fermenting the sugary juice in the heart of a ripe agave cactus. That milky, pungent drink known as pulque was the forerunner of tequila.
Although I've traveled throughout Mexico for more than 25 years, my interest in tequila rarely extended beyond an occasional margarita. But it took only a sip of icy cold, crystal-clear El Tesoro de Don Felipe Silver to transform forever my misperception of tequila.

This was not the tequila of nasty hangovers and spring-break binges. The handcrafted elixir touched my tongue with an exhilarating warmth and complexity that I would have expected from only the finest of French cognacs. It was at once bold and peppery, yet smooth and sublime, with a slight hint of fruitiness.

One taste, and I wanted to learn more -- not just about the spirit, but also its namesake town.

Roughly 98 percent of all tequila is born in the agave (pronounced ah-GAH-vay) fields surrounding the Mexican town of Tequila, a charming village of cobbled streets and ocher-colored walls in the state of Jalisco.

Laws govern production

Premium tequilas are made from 100 percent blue agave. Liquor distilled from other agaves includes pulque, the primitive fermentation still produced and consumed locally, and mezcal, a harsh and fiery cousin of tequila distilled mostly in the state of Oaxaca and famous -- or infamous, perhaps -- for the worm (an agave grub) usually inserted during the bottling process.

In 1978 the Mexican government established a set of laws to govern the production of tequila, much as the French Appellation Controllee oversees the production of cognac. Top-quality tequilas must be bottled only in Mexico and are made from agave grown in strictly defined zones, most notably the state of Jalisco and a few other small designated districts scattered nearby.

Until early 2005, tequila was produced and sold in four categories: tequila blanco (white or "silver"), tequila joven abocado ("gold"), tequila reposado (rested or aged a minimum of two months) and tequila anejo (aged at least one year). Now there's a fifth category, extra anejo, indicative of the international market trend toward top-end brands. This tequila must be aged at least three years.

True tequila connoisseurs pan the popular ritual of licking a pinch of salt from one's hand and biting on a slice of lime before downing a shot of tequila. The process may help people gulp down an inferior tequila, said Lucinda Hutson, author of "Tequila: The Spirit of Mexico."But in reality it's just a popularization of a rowdy machismo ritual born long ago in border-town bars. Good tequila is for savoring -- not slamming," said Hutson, a Texan who has lived in Mexico off and on for years.

Taking in Tequila (the town)

Like Oporto, Curacao or Champagne elsewhere in the world, Tequila, a town of 55,000 residents, claims a dubious honor: Most foreigners know the name, but few imagine it is an actual place.

That's a shame, because Tequila boasts a pleasant plaza lined with laurel trees, a hulking colonial-era stone church, a tequila museum and Cuervo's elegant visitor center, where guests can sign up to tour the massive La Rojena Distillery, oldest and largest of its kind.

A gallery of upscale shops features not only Cuervo products, but also fine art and handicrafts, jewelry and even a resident Huichol artisan. The delicate and colorful beadwork from the indigenous people of western central Mexico is much in demand.

In the valley of a dormant 9,700-foot volcano, Tequila is surrounded by thousands of carefully cultivated acres of blue-green agave fields that blanket the hillsides. Most residents work in the fields or distilleries, which number about a dozen.

Predominant among the group are two industry giants, Cuervo and Sauza, whose massive and modern operations run around the clock to produce the lion's share of nearly 210 million liters of tequila exported annually.

According to the best records available, Cuervo is the oldest continuously operating distillery in town. In 1795 King Charles IV of Spain issued a license to Jose Maria Guadalupe Cuervo to manufacture mezcal. Sometime in the early 19th century, production of tequila began. Sauza has been making the stuff since its founding by Don Cenobio Sauza in 1873. Both companies offer tours with tastings for a nominal fee.

Turning agave into liquor

At Sauza's facilities, a visit begins at Rancho el Indio, an 18th-century Sauza family farm on the edge of town. Here visitors learn about the agricultural side of production, perhaps the most fascinating part of the tequila story.

The agave plant takes 8 to 12 years to mature and grows almost 6 feet high. When the agave plant is ripe, jimadores (harvesters) march in platoons through the fields using a coa -- a sharp, half-moon-shaped metal blade with a long wooden handle -- to hack off the long barbed spears and sever the plant from its shallow roots.

The agave's pineapple-shaped heart, or piña, weighs 50 to 100 pounds and will ultimately yield an average of five to seven liters of tequila.

"In less than three minutes, a jimador can harvest an agave that took 10 years to mature," says Sauza tour guide Jose Luis Rivera. "Grapevines may take as long to produce good fruit, but they do so every year. But agave bears its fruit only once in a lifetime."

This fact hit home some five years ago when a skyrocketing demand for tequila overtook growers who simply couldn't supply enough agave. Production was cut back, more than 30 million agaves were promptly planted, and the price of tequila increased as much as 20 percent worldwide.

At Sauza's La Preservancia Distillery in town, some 400 tons of piñas are conveyed daily into giant stainless-steel autoclaves that rapidly cook the piñas under steam pressure to begin the process of converting the agave's inherent starch into fermentable sugars.

Back in town, after a tasty meal at La Fonda restaurant adjacent to the Cuervo visitor center, I set off to return to Guadalajara, where most visitors choose to stay. My route leads past an impressive bronze monument to the hardworking jimadores and a string of rickety tourist stands selling souvenirs and cheap tequila in fake oak barrels and plastic jugs.

In the countryside again and passing through endless rows of agave, I can't help but agree with locals who consider the area magical, a place where blue plants sprout from red soil.


The National Chamber of Commerce of Guadalajara operates the Tequila Express, a one-day train trip from Gaudalajara that includes a walk through the Tequila Museum and two distillery tours. Tickets are available through several cultural agencies in Guadalajaraand online at www.tequila express.com.mx. A few tours are available from Puerto Vallarta, too (go to www.vallartaonline.com and puertovallarta.net/tours). For more information, contact the Mexican Government Tourist Office at www.visitmexico.com.

Most visitors to Tequila make their base in Guadalajara. Mexico's second-largest city retains much of its colonial charm, even as its population approaches 5 million.

Customs and traditions dating as far back as its founding in 1532 by Spanish conquistador Nuño de Guzmán are well preserved and perpetuated here, where the siesta is an institution and the fiesta an art form. It is the capital of the state of Jalisco -- birthplace of mariachi music, charreadas (rodeos), the Mexican hat dance and, of course, tequila.

At its historic heart, Guadalajara is a city of parks and monuments, shady plazas, gracious colonial-era buildings and flower-filled courtyards. Allow a few days to explore the old city center and also the nearby suburb of Tlaquepaque, whose artisans produce some of Mexico's finest crafts and folk art.

By Dave G. Houser, Primary Color
Dave G. Houser is a writer and photographer who lives in Ruidoso, N.M., and travels frequently in Mexico. 

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