I have a special place in my heart for the magical elixir known as tequila. For me it is magic because a few well-timed shots of this potion played a starring role in my life one fateful night. That night a girl who was my friend became my girlfriend. Not much later we were moving in together, then circling the globe for a year, then getting married. (Yes, in that order, which seemed to work out well. We're still together 25 years after the wedding.)
If a farmer in Jalisco puts a baby agave plant into the ground on a couple's wedding night though, the resulting aged tequila would just be getting ready to serve at their 10-year anniversary party. It's a long process to get to plant maturity to the finished product. One premium brand from the neighboring state of Guanajuato is called 99,000 Horas for all the hours it takes from first planting to sipping tequila that has been aged in oak barrels for 18 months.
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 sipping tequila. The only problem is, at least 10 years have passed between when the agave started growing and when we're stirring our margaritas. Lucky for us, the Mexican people are a patient bunch.
Back in the early '00s, 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 due to a supply/demand inequality 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 as the supply grew. "Before, the agave price shot up because we had a drought and an insect infestation hit at the same time," said a representative of the Tequila Regulatory Council on my first visit to the area. "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. Most of the plants going in the ground in 2021 are for the 2030 batch of liquor. Judging by the way things are going, there won't be any lack of demand for the finished product.
In 2006 I visited the tequila region of Jalisco state in Mexico for the first time, including the town of Tequila itself. Back then, both the industry and the town were getting revved up for greater things ahead. The industry passed 10 million cases of tequila sold in the USA that year and the export market passed the domestic one in volume for the first time. The national government had just declared Tequila to be an official Pueblo Magico—"Magic Town"—in the early years when there were just a few and that designation actually meant something. Workers were replacing broken cobblestones in the streets, painting buildings, and hoping for a rush of tourists.
A decade later, tequila sales in the USA were up by 50% in volume and the dollar volume was up even more. As tastes got more sophisticated, the premium brands started selling better. Led by heavily marketed brands such as Patron, tequila became one of the fastest-growing spirits in many other countries as well. Celebrities started investing in their own brands, acquisition deals went down for tens of millions of dollars, and suddenly a hundred brands were competing in international tasting competitions.
The trend doesn't show any signs of slowing because of some pesky pandemic either. In 2020, Americans bought 22,712,000 cases of tequila from Mexico. Each case has nine bottles, so that's a lot of booze.
The year I first visited turned out to be a fateful turning point for tourism as well. 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 led to a lot of glossy magazine press for the area and a big increase in domestic tourism.
Eventually Jose Cuervo built a luxury hotel and launched the Jose Cuervo Express train, so later I returned to check that out. When I returned a decade after my first trip on a weekend, the town of Tequila was thronged with tourists and the restaurants and bars had gone from housing a few lone day drinkers with cowboy hats to hosting full buses of revelers singing along with mariachi bands. What was ending up in their glasses was better too.
The distillers have made lots of headway over the years combating tequila's party animal reputation. Conducting an untold number of educational tastings at beach resorts, restaurants, and the distilleries themselves has helped turn the spirit's reputation as a party shooter for college kids to something people with a refined palate will sip slowly and enjoy. As business author Seth Godin would say, it changed the thinking among people with money to, "People like us drink something like this."
It's easiest to think of tequila as coming in two classes and three main types. The two classes are "mixto" and "100 percent blue agave." (Unlike mezcal, which can be made from a variety of plants, all good tequila comes from blue agave.) These are the two sides to this spirit: the cheap headache side and the refined sipping side. The distillers would love to just talk about the latter, but they make far too much easy money from the former, especially from routine Mexican restaurants in the USA.
Mixto roughly translates to, "No self-respecting Mexican drinks this stuff unless it's all that's left in the liquor cabinet." The alcohol is from 51 percent agave and 49 percent whatever else can be converted into sugars. That stuff in the florescent green machines where they serve frozen margaritas? It's the industrial mixto bought in bulk. That Cuervo Gold or Sauza well tequila served in bars around the world? That's a brand-name mixto.
Anyone who woke up with a screaming headache this morning from drinking tequila last night probably had too much of this suspect concoction. No matter what color it is, two of the primary ingredients will usually be distilled sugar and food coloring.
Instead, the designation on the label that matters is "100 percent blue agave." That's the real deal, with nothing added. An apt comparison is whatever the barista at a quality independent coffee shop is serving and what comes out of a coffee vending machine at a highway rest area. That's the difference between 100 percent agave tequila and...not.
Blanco is unaged tequila in its young and exuberant state—straight out of distillation. Some find it a bit too harsh to drink straight, others think it's just the ticket, but this is always a good bet for cocktails. It provides a full flavor of the plant it came from, with no oak tastes interfering. As a bonus, the silver or blanco version will be a few bucks cheaper than the next category.
Reposado, meaning "rested" in Spanish, is the most popular kind of tequila by far 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. There are sometimes 100 brands of this on a Mexican supermarket shelf, but easy-to-find ones of good quality that are exported include Don Eduardo, Don Julio, Cazadores, Azul, Milagro, Clase Azul, and the good brands from Cuervo like Centenario, 1800, and Jose Cuervo Tradicional.
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 or sometimes one with longer barrel aging called "extra añaejo." Jose Cuervo's excellent Reserva Familia fetches over $100 a bottle, for example and some award-winners like Cierto can top $300. Some of the best that win awards on a regular basis though are in the $40 to $60 range on U.S. shelves, so there's very little correlation between price and quality. With the most expensive options in a duty-free shop, the packaging cost the distiller more than what's inside.
Before the mid-2000s, travelers had never been a part of the tequila process. The local tourism and tequila officials saw what was working in Scotland and Kentucky's whiskey making areas though and started wondering, "Why not here?"
It helps that the distilleries are not far from 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. So all those Mexican traditions get mixed together with tequila into one boisterous experience.
When I first headed out to the countryside from Guadalajara on that first trip, the city gave way to rolling hills covered with wildflowers and blue agave plants. My group stopped to watch some jimadors at work—the men who harvest the fruit of the agave that is roasted and distilled.
Anyone who thinks their job is tough would be humbled by spending a day at work with these tough guys. 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 lead to serious injury. Then someone has to 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.
I asked a Sauza executive who was guiding our group how much money these guys make, knowing I sounded like an ugly American but using journalism as an excuse, notebook in hand. "In a seven or eight-hour day, one experienced jimador can harvest over 100 piñaas. They get paid on how many they harvest, so someone who is really good can make 300 pesos a day in harvest season."
At the time that came out to about $27, so the kick-ass workers who really hustle don't earn enough in a day to buy a bottle of Sauza's top brand, Tres Generaciones.
Jose Cuervo started producing tequila in this namesake town at the end of the 1700s and Sauza started up soon after. They are still the two biggest producers in Mexico, yet they're a block away from each other in this little town.
The Sauza tour was strangely high-tech and efficient, complete with hairnets, booties, and fermentation tanks that are sealed off from the air. I got to drink some roasted agave juice though and then sip some fine aged tequila. The bartender mixed up a tamarind margarita, with a chile mixture rimming the glass, and it was divine.
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 got to share shots with family head Alfonso Orendain Hernandez, after he poured his Don Eduardo reposado into a hollowed-out animal horn—old-school style.
At Jose Cuervo, even back in 2006 they had this whole tourism thing down, charging an admission fee and running slick tours on a set schedule. Our guide had 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). The tour production is the same today, just busier, and thankfully that admission includes generous pours of three tequila types.
I made my way back to the Cuervo distillery again several years ago, this time arriving on the Jose Cuervo Express train from Guadalajara to Tequila and then back again that night. It was a decadent day since we started with a margarita in hand, sipped a bit of tequila on the way there, had a full tasting at the distillery, then had waiters slinging drinks again on the way back. I slept very well that night back in my Guadalajara hotel.
Apart from all the free-flowing booze, the train ride felt special regardless because of the novelty and the scenery. There are very few passenger trains left in Mexico, so getting to take one through the countryside is a real joy, especially when you can look out the window and see the agave fields rolling by, mountains in the background.
On the east side of Guadalajara, a few distilleries are in an area called Los Altos (The Heights). We dropped by the Cazadores visitors' center and a bartender whipped up a cocktail of blanco tequila, fresh grapefruit juice, and simple syrup. A healthier version of the Paloma, which is usually made with grapefruit soda.
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. Now that I've done lots of research on both over the past 15 years, both may be fair boasts. I can usually tell if a tequila brand came from the highlands at first sip and smell. On the second point, it felt disconcerting when two stunning young women who looked like fashion models showed us around the distillation facilities. That kept happening at other stops in Los Altos too. Apparently a fair number of German immigrants came to Jalisco in earlier centuries, their bloodlines leading to current Mexicans with blonde hair and green eyes.
In the fermentation rooms at Cazadores, tanks were open to the air and classical music was blasting out of speakers on the ceiling. "It responds best to Mozart," said our guide Tanya as she posed and pointed, motioning to the bubbling agave mixture.
We later made our way to Corazon, which at the time was being marketed by the same company who got us to drink Jägermeister and pay a premium for Grey Goose vodka. (The brand is now owned by Sazerac.) I got to plant my own agave seedling in the ground here, tagged with my name on it. My own cute little baby plant grew up to be a strapping adult before I ever saw it again. I've sipped Corazon a few times since and wondered if my piña made it into that batch, despite the long odds.
We passed 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" said the master distiller. "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 had 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," their master distiller told us. "No amount of money could make this tequila any better than it is now--we are that happy with it."
Like some of the few small, independent distilleries that have managed to resist the temptation of riches from one of the big conglomerates, Tezón used 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 handles that in most places to allow larger production, but it's a more crafted approach than the typical mechanized slicing and squeezing.
This month I'm passing through Jalisco twice while headed to the Pacific Coast of Mexico, spending a night in Guadalajara in both directions. No train ride this time as we keep our distance. But I'll try a few other tequilas while in place and watch the agave fields out my window when I'm driving, wondering when their distilled fruit will make it into a bottle—and where that bottle will end up around the world.
Editor Tim Leffel is an award-winning travel writer and blogger. He is author of several books, including The World's Cheapest Destinations, Travel Writing 2.0, and A Better Life for Half the Price. See his long-running bargain travel blog here.
The Unveiling of Mezcal: Visiting Oaxaca's Artisanal Distilleries - Lydia Carey
The Threat of the Mariachi - Luke Armstrong
Crossing the Mole Barrier in Oaxaca - Darrin DuFord
Alert in the Americas: Inside the Farms Growing Our Coffee - Tim Leffel
See more travel stories from Mexico in the archives
Books from the Author:
Buy A Better Life for Half the Price at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
Buy The World's Cheapest Destinations: 26 Countries Where Your Travel Money is Worth a Fortune at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
Buy Make Your Travel Dollars Worth a Fortune: The Contrarian Traveler's Guide to Getting More for Less at your local bookstore, or get it online here: