Some travel to Champagne, Bordeaux, or Cognac, seeking enlightenment about elixirs of the same name
But where else to go for Tequila 101 than to Tequila, Jalisco, the Mecca of our Mexican emblematic drink? Some folks don’t even know it is a place. Yes, it is a small town, 50 miles north of Guadalajara. Like many others, the name comes from the Nahuatl or Aztec language: tequil = work, tlan = place. The drink was named after the place almost a century after they started making “vino de mezcal”. So, modern tequila is a sub-class of mezcal.
Although Tequila makes an easy day trip out of Guadalajara, I opted for a three-night stay following the adage that you don’t really know a place until you have become bored there. With my friend Edie Vines, we decided we would wing it and avoid the pre-arranged tours that are legion – the most famous being the Tequila express, a train that runs every Saturday and stops at tequila factories along the way.
There is nothing esoteric about tequila; it is not a steep learning curve to get the basics. Just remember the two criteria: it needs to be made in a municipality approved by Mexican law – 122 in total, most in the state of Jalisco. It needs to come from 100% blue agave. The pineapple-like heart of the seven-year old plant is steamed for 24-hours; the product is then distilled. Voila.
There are three grades: industrial, traditional, and artisanal. And three age-related varieties: white, made in stainless-steel tanks, reposado, which cooks for six months to a year in oak barrels, and anejo resting one to three years, also in oak barrels. Extra old tequila does exist with up to seven years in barrels.
That is Tequila in a nutshell.
After an hour’s ride through lush agave countryside, the taxi dropped us off in the center of town late afternoon Saturday. Mariachi music was blaring forth in every standing room only establishments off the arcaded plaza. Buses were spilling over with tourists anxious to visit one the three main distilleries: Sauza, Cuervo, or Orendain. Between brochures and talking to people, my head was swimming with possibilities which would have to wait to be distilled into an agenda. Tequila sampling meanwhile appeared a reasonable option just to catch up with the ambient semi drunken mood of folks around us.
The next morning early, I am having breakfast in the upstairs of La Paloma overlooking the plaza, facing the Cathedral with the volcano behind me. The sky is an unnatural blue except for the puffy cloud crowning the volcano. The air is crisp at an elevation of 3,900 feet. The heat will come on us around mid-morning. Looking at the people below in typical local dress, at least where the hat is concerned, it is easy to imagine them engaged in one of the many phases of tequila production. I felt ready to soak up the culture while perhaps educating our palate in this land of tradition.
With not the slightest inclination for sharing space with crowds, what were we to tackle among the 20 or more distilleries in town? Wisely, it turned out, we opted for a small museum Los Abuelos which encapsulates the fortunes of the Sausa family and is housed in the original dwelling of the ancestors who two generations ago sold the Sauza empire to the Japanese.
The one heir – and he is single – is in charge of curating the museum, running the original distillery, La Fortaleza, and rattling around his 37acre estate reputed to have a replica of the Golden Gate Bridge.
Unfortunately, La Fortaleza was closed for remodeling; the estate you can espy by twisting your neck as you drive by. Los Abuelos is all very genteel, informative without being tedious, and crowned by a tasting of their limited edition artisanal tequila not sold anywhere else. We tried all three grades, I wondering whether the anejo was of sufficient age to merit an appreciative nod. I felt I had enjoyed better anejo elsewhere, but bought a bottle because it was hand-blown glass.
Situated in a colorful plaza, the museum has the added merit of adjoining the only 5 star hotel and its restaurant. While not always fatally attracted to such places, Edie and I did enjoy a very civilized lunch with…. yes wine, the complete anathema to tequila in this town.
We were really fascinated by the volcano towering nearby at 9,000 feet. Edie hiked all the way to the foot and came back loaded down with magnificent obsidian specimens.
We spent the third day touring the spectacular agave landscapes of the highlands, declared a UNESCO World Heritage site, returning to town for a proper farewell to this “pueblo magico” – one of 83 – where “gastronomy and drink make a colorful routine of life” according to the Mexican government.
In Scott Richardson’s words, “it is a journey into the heartland”. A resident of Rosarito, Scott conducts exclusive trips to Tequila twice a year. Check with him at Baja Wine Tours.