I have a special place in my heart for the magical elixir known as tequila. I do believe it's magic because a few well-timed shots of the stuff played a starring role one fateful night, a night when a girl who was my friend became my girlfriend. Next thing I knew, we were moving in together, then circling the globe, then getting married. (Yes, in that order--but it worked out okay. Right Mrs. Marcus?)
If a farmer in Jalisco had put a baby agave plant into the ground on our wedding night, ten years ago, the resulting tequila would just now be coming out of an oak barrel at Jose Cuervo or Cazadores. If that agave fruit had gone into high-end aged version, we'd be sipping it on our 15th wedding anniversary.
The Slow Road to Maturity
In an era where we are always connected and business strategies change in a day, how can anyone depend on a plant that routinely takes nine years to mature?
That's the case with the blue agave. There's a huge bulbous fruit in the middle of the spikes. After it's chopped, roasted, fermented, distilled, and aged in oak barrels, the result is a nice batch of tequila. The only problem is, at least 10 years have passed between when the agave started growing and when we're squeezing a lime into our margaritas. Lucky for us, the Mexican people are a patient bunch.
A decade ago, when the U.S. thirst for quality tequila first started to build, there were reports of mature agave plants being harvested by bandits in the dark of night. The raw material prices had climbed so rapidly that one big agave fruit could be worth $200--several weeks' wages for a harvester at the time.
Farmers rushed to plant this new source of riches, forgetting that it would take many years before the payoff. Then the price went back down again. "Before the agave price shot up because we had a drought and an insect infestation hit at the same time," says Brenda Martinez, of the Tequila Regulatory Council. "Now we don't have either problem and a lot more land is devoted to agave. Some of those farmers are not going to be very happy when it is harvest time."
Sauza alone plants 2,000 to 3,000 acres of blue agave each year to keep up with the cycle. The ones going in the ground right now are for the 2016 batch of liquor.
Sauza's crop of baby agave plants
The Tequila Trail
For the most part, travelers have never been a part of the tequila process. The local tourism and tequila officials have seen what works in Scotland and Kentucky bourbon country though. They're now wondering, "Why not here?"
If they get their way, look for this region to become a hot spot about three or four years from now. In 2006 UNESCO declared the "Agave Landscape and Ancient Industrial Facilities of Tequila" a World Heritage site. This important recognition of the region's unique physical and cultural identity will likely draw the curious looking for something new. A lot of financial commitments are going into forming a "Tequila Trail" and there is a definite air of optimism in the region. Plenty of natural elements are already in place: a pretty countryside, a pleasant climate, and laid-back colonial towns dotted around. Plus a newly excavated set of ruins. (See Mexico's Guachimontones Ruins.)
It doesn't hurt that the distilleries ring Guadalajara, Mexico's second-largest city. This is the birthplace of mariachi bands and Mexican charro cowboys. Most of the Speedy Gonzalez clichés came from these parts, big sombreros and all.
For now, the "Tequila Trail" is more like the "Tequila Treasure Map." Few companies provide any kind of organized multi-distillery tour and the best way currently is to just grab a map and hire a car and driver for the day. Or grab a bus to the town of Tequila and spend the night. Every distillery open to visitors pours three shots for sampling--one blanco, one repasado, and one añejo--so this is definitely not a trip where you want to be driving.
Jimadors and Jose Cuervo
As I head out to the countryside, with someone else behind the wheel, the city gives way to rolling hills covered with wildflowers and blue agave plants. We stop to watch some jimadors at work. If you think your job sucks, come hang with these men for a while.
With a sharp circular blade they whack away all the spiky leaves around the fat fruit--called a piña because it looks like a pineapple. All day they do this out in the sun, pacing themselves to keep from getting fatigued: a slip of the blade or a bounce off a rock can be serious trouble. They then throw the piña, which often weighs 70 to 120 pounds, on a truck to make its way to the distillery. This is some serious physical labor.
"How much money do they make?" I ask my guide Francisco, a Sauza executive.
"Normal is about 150 pesos," he says. "In a seven or eight-hour day, one experienced jimador can harvest over 100 piñas. They get paid on how many they harvest, so someone who is really good can make 300 pesos a day in harvest season."
So the kick-ass workers who really hustle get $30 a day, not nearly enough to buy a bottle of Patrón at retail.
Soon we pass the Tequila Car Wash and the @firstname.lastname@example.org cyber café. We have arrived in the town of Tequila.
Jose Cuervo started producing in this town at the end of the 1700s and Sauza started up soon after. They are still by far the two biggest producers in Mexico, yet they're a block away from each other in this little town.
The Sauza tour is strangely high-tech and efficient, complete with hairnets, booties, and fermentation tanks that are sealed off from the air. I get to drink some roasted agave juice though and then sip some fine Tres Generaciones. The bartender mixes up a tamarind margarita, with a chile mixture rimming the glass, and it's divine.
At Jose Cuervo, they've got this whole tourism thing down, charging an admission fee and running slick tours on a set schedule. Our guide has the timing of a practiced stand-up comic. We get a thorough tour though, complete with some roasted agave to munch on (a taste mix of prunes, honey, and sweet potatoes). And hey, that admission does include generous pours of three tequila types.
Within walking distance is the Orendain distillery. Here several generations of craftsmen have been refining their output over decades. The family is involved in every step of the process, with each member overseeing a specific stage. I share shots with Alfonso Orendain Hernandez, after he pours his Don Eduardo repasado into a hollowed out animal horn--old-school style.
The Three Amigos
To keep it simple, think of tequila in two classes and three types. The two classes are "mixto" and "100 percent agave." They reflect the two sides to this spirit: the cheap headache side and the refined sipping side. The distillers would love to just concentrate on the latter, but they make far too much easy money from the former, especially in the U.S.
Mixto roughly translates to, "No self-respecting Mexican, no matter how broke he is, drinks this stuff." The alcohol is from 51 percent agave and 49 percent whatever else can be converted into sugars. That stuff you see in the florescent green machines in your local cheesy Mexican restaurant? It's the industrial mixto. That Cuervo Gold or Sauza stuff you see your average U.S. bartender serving? That's a brand-name mixto. If you woke up with a screaming headache from drinking tequila, it's probably because you had too much of this stuff. White? Gold? Brown? It doesn't matter. Approach with caution.
Instead, you want something that has "100 percent agave" on the label. It's the real deal, with nothing added. Imagine the taste of your favorite coffee shop concoction compared to what comes out of the pot at your local gas station. That's the difference between 100 percent agave and...not.
Blanco is unaged tequila in its young and exuberant state--straight out of distillation. Some find it a bit too real to drink straight, others think it's just the ticket, but this is always a good bet for cocktails. It gives you a full flavor of the plant it came from, with no oak tastes interfering. Try Tezón to get a taste of what it's like made the old-fashioned way or Cazadores for a mass-market brand that gets it right.
Repasado, meaning "rested" in Spanish, is the most popular kind of tequila in Mexico and has a good balance for either sipping straight or making a margarita. It's generally aged from a few months to a year, with softer edges. Reliable repasado brands include Don Eduardo and Tres Generaciones.
Añejo is like a fine whiskey you sip by the fire, inhaling the aromas and savoring the complexity. The aging brings out tastes of vanilla, cinnamon, and caramel circling around the subtle agave center. Most of the expensive premium brands fall into this category. Jose Cuervo's excellent Reserva Familia fetches over $100 a bottle, for example. Less stratospheric but still excellent bets include Don Julio, Corazon, and Corzo.
The distillers have made lots of headway over the years combating tequila's party animal reputation: the U.S. just passed Mexico as the biggest consumer of the spirit. The image is a tough one to get over though. My photos from college can best sum it up. In every picture that has anything to do with tequila, someone is either grimacing or making a complete idiot out of himself. Judging by those Girls Gone Wild video commercials on TV and the shooters I've seen going down in local bars, the reputation still stands with the 20-somethings.
Into the Highlands
On the east side of Guadalajara, a few distilleries are in an area called Los Altos (The Heights). We drop by the brand spanking new Cazadores visitors' center and a bartender whips up a cocktail of blanco tequila, fresh grapefruit juice, and simple syrup. My new favorite cocktail.
Out here they say the altitude affects the tequila, making it more floral and fruity. They also say the women in this area are the most beautiful in Mexico. I can taste a hint of the first point. For the second, two stunning (and bilingual) young women show us around. In the fermentation rooms here, tanks are open to the air and classical music is blasting out of speakers on the ceiling. "It responds best to Mozart," says Tanya, motioning to the bubbling agave mixture.
Next it's on to Corazon, now being marketed by the same company who got us to drink Jägermeister and pay a premium for Grey Goose vodka. I get to plant my own agave plant here, tagged with my name on it. My own cute little baby plant will grow up to be an strapping adult some day. The Corazon folks promise I'll get a notice when it's ready to harvest and I'll be able to buy a bottle made from a batch with my own plant. Now that's marketing!
We pass hundreds of piñas stacked up and going into the roasting ovens, then watch a man with a pitchfork load up the leftover fibers. These go back onto the agave fields as fertilizer. "We cannot really call our industry organic, because over eight or ten years, there is sometimes a need to fight an insect infestation" says Cirilo Oropeza, master distiller at Corazon. "Otherwise, the whole process is very natural: no chemical fertilizer, no additives-just fermented blue agave and spring water."
These companies take their work very seriously, commenting on their output the way proud parents talk about their over-achieving kids. Some of the smaller producers are taking steps that would surely make an operations efficiency expert cringe.
At the Olmeca distillery, out in the highlands near the town of Arandas, they have a completely separate process for their top brand Tezón. "All the agave is grown on our own soil, we inspect each piña by hand, and it all goes through a separate production path, with its own dedicated tanks," says master distiller Don Jesus Hernandez. "No amount of money could make this tequila any better than it is now--we are that happy with it."
For Tezón, they have even gone back to a very old technology, the tahona wheel. In the old days sweaty men or mules would push the wheel around, crushing the roasted agave fibers and pushing the juice down into a tank. Now a machine pushes it around, but it's a more crafted approach than the typical mechanized slicing and squeezing.
If you find yourself with some extra time in Puerto Vallarta or Guadalajara, get on Mexican time and take a detour out to the land of agave. I came back home with a new outlook on Tequila, but also a new outlook on the meaning of patience.
Editor Tim Leffel is author of Make Your Travel Dollars Worth a Fortune as well as The World's Cheapest Destinations, now in its third edition. He is also the co-author of Traveler's Tool Kit: Mexico and Central America.
See more on this region: Mexico's Guachimontones Ruins
Books from the Author: