Tequila: It’s for Savoring – not Slamming
Story & Photos by Dave G. Houser
Although I’ve traveled throughout Mexico for more than 30 years, my interest in tequila never extended beyond an occasional margarita. But it took only a sip of icy cold, crystal-clear El Tesoro de Don Felipe Silver – offered up at a party in Ajijic hosted by Bob Denton, a pioneer exporter of premium tequila – to forever transform my perception of tequila.
This was not the tequila of spring-break binges and nasty hangovers. 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.
It was a simple tasting but it infused me with enthusiasm to learn more – both about the spirit and its namesake town.
Nearly 98 percent of all tequila is born in the agave (pronounced ah-GAH-vay) fields surrounding the town of Tequila, a charming community of cobbled streets and ocher-colored walls about 30 miles northwest of Guadalajara in the state of Jalisco.
Premium tequilas are made from 100 percent blue agave. Liquor distilled from other agaves include pulque, the primitive fermentation still produced and consumed locally, and mescal, a harsh, 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 French wines and cognac are produced and certified under the auspices of the Appellation de’origine Controllée. Top quality tequilas must be made from agave grown in strictly defined zones, most notably Jalisco and small, designated districts within the states of Nayarit, Michoacán, Guanajuato and Tamaulipas.
Top-end demand fostered new category
Until early 2006, tequila was produced and sold in four categories: tequila blanco (white or “silver”), tequila joven adocado (“gold”), tequila reposado (rested or aged a minimum of two months), and tequila añejo (aged at least one year). Now there’s a fifth category, extra añejo, indicative of the international market trend toward top-end brands. This tequila must be aged at least three years.
Agave distillate is naturally clear and colorless. When aged in oak barrels, it achieves added flavor and color. Contrary to popular opinion, however, “gold” tequila does not gain much of its color from aging in oak but rather from the addition of caramel in the production process. To retain is signature clearness, blanco or “silver” tequila undergoes aging in stainless steel for whatever period its maker determines.
“A premium 100 percent blue agave blanco is preferred for mixing margaritas by most sophisticated drinkers,” says Denton.
“Unadulterated by caramel coloring or flavoring, or even the complexities of oak as found in the añejos, a good blanco better complements the bittersweet orange flavor of Cointreau or triple sec and the tartness of freshly squeezed key limes,” says Denton, whose company exported El Tesoro tequila until the 2004 purchase of the brand by American distiller Jim Beam. “In my opinion, the color and flavor of caramel or oak competes with the clarity and bright taste one should look for in a classic margarita.”
Savor it, don’t slam it
True tequila connoisseurs pan the popular ritual of licking a pinch of salt from one’s hand, downing (or “shooting”) a caballito (pony or shot glass) of tequila – then biting on a slice of lime.
“Such a process might well ameliorate the unpleasant impact of gulping down a harsh, inferior tequila,” says Lucinda Hutson, author of Tequila: The Spirit of Mexico.
“In reality, doing shooters is just a popularization of a rowdy machismo ritual born long ago in bordertown bars. Good tequila is for savoring, not slamming,” says Hutson, a Texan who has lived off and on in Mexico.
“Tequila is to sophisticated Mexicans what fine wine is to the French – an integral part of a leisurely meal,” adds Hutson. “Mexicans normally imbibe tequila neat (straight up) in caballitos. Extolling its virtues as an aperitif, they sip a shot of blanco or reposado before eating, or savor one between courses. Afterwards, they often partake of a mellow añejo – as richly satisfying as a fine cognac.”
Most foreigners know about tequila, but few imagine there is an actual place by the same name. It is a town of about 30,000 nestled in a valley beneath a dormant 9,700-foot volcano. Surrounding it are thousands of carefully cultivated acres of blue agave fields blanketing the hillsides. The popularity of the drink and the history behind it has led to the town and environs being declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Red soil grows blue plants
Tequila residents, most of whom are employed in the fields or distilleries, say it is a magical place where red soil grows blue plants and where relative prosperity has always come to those willing to do the hard work required to make tequila.
The town is home to about a dozen distilleries. Predominant among them are the two industry giants, Cuervo and Sauza, whose massive and modern operations (Cuervo still family-owned; Sauza just purchased from Beam Inc. by Suntory of Japan) work on three shifts around the clock to produce the lion’s share of nearly 175 million liters — worth about a billion dollars — of tequila exported annually. Production is expected to increase 20 percent within the decade owing to China’s recent lifting of import controls on blue agave tequila.
According to the best records available, Cuervo is the oldest continuously operating distillery in Tequila. In 1795, King Charles IV of Spain issued a license to Jose Maria Guadalupe Cuervo to produce mescal. Sometime in the early 19th century, production of tequila began.
Sauza has a long history as well, founded by Don Cenobio Sauza in 1873. Both companies offer public tours with tastings for a nominal fee.
At Sauza’s facilities, a visit begins at Rancho el Indio, an 18th century Sauza family farm on the edge of town. Visitors learn about the agricultural side of production, perhaps the most fascinating part of the tequila story.
Plant bears fruit once in a lifetime
The agave plant takes 8 to 12 years to mature and can achieve a height of almost 6 feet. When the plant is ripe, jimadores, or 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 to sever the plant from its shallow roots.
The agave’s pineapple-shaped heart, or piña, weighs 50 to 100 pounds and will ultimately yield 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,” notes Rivera. “But agave bears its fruit only once in a lifetime.”
At Sauza’s La Preservancia Distillery in town, some 400 tons of piñas are conveyed daily into giant stainless steel autoclaves that cook the piñas under steam pressure to begin the process of converting the agave’s inherent starch into fermentable sugars.
Tequila made the old way
The modern Sauza process is dramatically different from methods used at a traditional distillery such as El Tesoro’s La Alteña facility. Set on a high plateau northeast of Guadalajara, La Alteña is one of a handful of boutique distilleries that continue to honor the old ways of making tequila.
La Alteña uses firebrick hornos, or ovens, to slow-cook the agave for 48 hours and then they let it cool for another 24 hours. It’s then placed in one of the few stone crushing pits still in regular use.
A tractor has replaced the mule originally used to pull the massive stone around the circle, crushing the agave into pulp to release the sugary juice. The extract is then ladled by hand into wooden buckets that are hoisted onto the heads of workers to be dumped into a 3,000-liter fermentation tank.
Next, a secret yeast formula is introduced to ensure the consistent flavor admired by the brand’s growing cadre of aficionados. Once fully fermented, the heady mash passes through its two-stage distillation process in vintage copper-pot stills and then is aged and bottled.
Cuervo’s La Rojeña Distillery – old and elegant
Back in Tequila, the town boasts a pleasant plaza lined with laurel trees, an imposing colonial-era stone church, a tequila museum and Cuervo’s elegant visitor center, where guests sign up for a tour of the company’s massive La Rojeña Distillery, the country’s oldest and largest distillery.
A gallery of upscale shops features Cuervo products but also fine art and handicrafts, jewelry, pottery and even a resident Huichol artisan. The delicate and colorful beadwork from these indigenous people of west-central Mexico is much in demand.
I’d seen enough of the distillation process at Sauza, so after perusing the displays and exhibits at La Rojeña, I adjourned for a bite to eat at the stylish La Fonda restaurant adjacent to the distillery before setting off on my return to Guadalajara. My route out of town led me 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 — passing endless rows of agaves — I couldn’t help but agree with locals who consider as magical this place where red soil grows blue plants.
Dave G. Houser has traveled extensively in Mexico for more than 30 years and is co-author of the guidebook Hidden Mexico (Ulysses Press). He currently resides in St. Augustine, FL (www.daveghouser.com).