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Destination Mexico

Tequila Route

The municipality of Tequila could pass for an amusement park for both neophyte and seasoned tequila-tasters. The most famous distilled spirit in México originated in this city and it is home to important distilleries, which have decided to open their doors to anyone wishing to learn the secrets of this traditional liquor made from blue agave.

Por: Roberto Quintero
Fotos: Carlos Gómez

 

The town of Tequila is worth visiting just for its joyful name. Tequila, the home of the beverage most closely associated with México —and one of the most famous liquors in the world— is a colorful and picturesque place located about forty miles from Guadalajara, a city that attracts millions of visitors. This proximity may tempt even the most adamant abstainers to take a side trip to Tequila if they happen to be visiting the capital of Jalisco.

This is especially true since, odd as it seems, tasting exquisite tequila is not the only thing to do in Tequila, although it is undoubtedly the most entertaining. Touring the fields, distilleries, and tequila estates gives visitors a feel for the history, customs, and identity of the people. And in a way, it also provides a glimpse into the national soul; the tour features some of México’s most iconic traditions, including mariachi music and Mexican horsemanship, which were born in Jalisco, just like tequila.

Tequila is an alcoholic beverage with controlled designation of origin. This means that only the blue agave distillate produced in Jalisco and certain municipalities bordering on another four Mexican states (Guanajuato, Michoacán, Nayarit, and Tamaulipas) can be called tequila. This restriction adds a special touch to the experience of walking the intoxicating roads of the Tequila Route, a tourist circuit that covers the Jalisco sites involved in the production of tequila: Amatitán, Arenal, Hostotipaquillo, Magdalena, Teuchitlán and, of course, Tequila.

The first stop was the José Cuervo company’s fields of blue agave, silhouetted against the imposing Tequila volcano that rises like a giant sentinel keeping watch to ensure that everything runs according to plan. This is the ideal place to discover the initial stages of the tequila making process and the origin of the distilled spirit, because this brand is steeped in history. Mr. José Antonio Cuervo received the first concession to manufacture the distilled spirit in 1758, from the chief magistrate of Nueva Galicia. The beverage had certainly been consumed since pre-Hispanic times, although no one is entirely sure of its origins. It is said that many centuries ago, a storm battered the fields and lightning struck the heart of the agaves, burning them and turning them into honey by cooking the starches. A native tasted a piece of the plant and, finding it sweet, discovered a new use for it. He also carried away the rich honey, which fermented over time; when he tasted it, he realized that it had acquired a different flavor. It made him feel happy and lightened his spirit, so the substance immediately came to be considered an alcoholic beverage and a gift from Mayáhuel, the goddess of fertility.

Before the conquest of the Americas, tequila was drunk only by indigenous chiefs and priests at religious festivals and events. However, modern tequila is the result of a distillation process introduced by the Spaniards, who distilled the original beverage to purify it and obtain a stronger product: mezcal wine or aguardiente. They encouraged the production of agave and laid the foundations for the manufacture of the product that now typifies this area.

Once agave is planted, it must mature for at least six to eight years. Then it is harvested by a jimador, as Mexicans call a farmer who grows agave. After the plants mature, it is time for the jima: extraction of the agave pineapple, the raw material for tequila. Only the heart of the plant is used, because it has the greatest concentration of sugars; it is removed and the leaves are cut off, leaving the heart clean and ready. The pineapples are gathered and transported to distilling plants to begin the process of transformation and preparation of the final product.

We accompanied the pineapples to the center of Tequila, site of the main square, the parish, and Mundo Cuervo: the José Cuervo company’s visitor center, which offers an amusing and innovative tourist experience centered around the famous tequila, introducing visitors to the manufacturing process and showing them how to hold a professional tasting, as well as allowing them to sample delicious local dishes and enjoy mariachi and folk dancing performances. On weekends, it is possible to travel from Guadalajara to Tequila by train, cutting across the fields and delighting in the beautiful view of the Agave Landscape (placed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2006) from the José Cuervo Express. We cannot forget about the souvenir shop, recommended by guides as the best in the town. It is a definite threat to judiciousness, requiring visitors to make enormous and unsuccessful efforts to not spend all their money in one shop.

Nowadays, many tequila companies welcome tourists and offer a similar tourist product, providing a wide range of choices. Still, José Cuervo stands out from the rest in having been the first —and for many years, the only— one to open its doors to visitors. Even more importantly, the oldest tequila dynasty possesses a unique jewel that overshadows the competition: the La Rojeña distillery, founded in 1812, the oldest in México and Latin America. With two hundred years of continuous production, Mundo Cuervo is also a trip through time.

A fascinating process unfolds inside the historic distillery. The agave pineapples are steamed in stone ovens for 48 to 76 hours to transform the starches into fruit sugars. Then the pineapples go to the mill, where a machine crushes the fibers to extract the juice. The juice is prepared and sent to the fermentation tanks, where the action of natural yeasts turns the sugar into alcohol, resulting in a mixture that is 9% alcohol on average. To make this fermented juice into tequila, the juice is put into a still and heated to evaporation temperature, thereby concentrating the alcohols. A double distillation is performed to yield a liquid that is 55% alcohol. This distilled spirit is diluted with water to bottling strength, which is generally 35% to 40% alcohol. This mixture is white or silver tequila. Mature tequilas such as reposado (lightly aged) and añejo (fully aged) are produced by aging white tequila in barrels of white French or American oak for at least two months for reposado and one year for añejo.

Now that we were fairly clear on the process, despite the confusing effects of the multiple tastes required for in-depth study, and the extra drink to make the knowledge stick, it was time to leave the lively center of Tequila and head for the countryside. We journeyed to a beautiful estate —in a gorgeous natural setting, of course— that combines the rural ambiance of country life with a hint of luxury that bestows a chic air. This is the home of the La Cofradía tequila factory, a new brand that has achieved a strong market position in a short time.

Curiously enough, the various tequila enterprises cover the same ground, but in different ways. It is like leaving a large themed amusement park and going to a convent lost in an agave valley. This is a sanctuary that enshrines the spirit of tequila, a concept that distinguishes the strong La Cofradía brand. The difference seems to lie in the attentiveness: while any number of tequila factories welcome visitors, here they provide a warm, unique, and very special experience.

This was certainly true in our case. Our host was factory owner Carlos Hernández himself, who focuses the tour on the divine origins indigenous ancestors attributed to this alcoholic beverage. Here, ritual and mysticism reign: imbibing tequila is much more than just having a drink —we enjoyed many tequilas and I swear that each was different. It is celebration and togetherness, where blessings are exchanged. No sooner had we arrived than Carlos taught us to embrace the thirty properties of tequila. After our tour of the factory, he awaited us in the cellar to show us the tequila prayer. At the end of our time there, he did not see us off with a simple handshake, but with a ritual: we joined to form a circle and asked the spirits to allow tequila to bring us together again soon.

Besides the distillery tour, the La Cofradía tourist center offers an interesting visit to its own ceramics factory, called Arte en Fuego (Art on Fire), where artisans design, craft, and hand-paint bottles for the tequila. There is also the Tequila Site Museum and the Taberna del Cofrade, an immense entertainment space where mariachis and folk dancing complement the delectable traditional Mexican cuisine and a large variety of house cocktails made with tequila. They also have their own boutique hotel: the first hotel in a tequila factory, for those who would like a total experience.

After an intense day of soaking up one of the pleasantest aspects of Mexican culture and tradition, we were deposited back at our hotel by our kind, responsible, and wise guide. We had returned safely…and much happier than usual.

 


* This report was made possible by support from the Guadalajara Convention and Visitors Bureau:

www.guadalajaramidestino.com

* During our stay in Guadalajara, we were provided with lodging courtesy of the Hotel Victoria Express:

www.victoriaexpress.com.mx

* Our guide and consultant for tours in Guadalajara was Mr. Vicente Rangel from the company Sin Fin de Servicios: http://sinfindeservicios.com