The approach to TEQUILA, some 50km northwest of Guadalajara, is through great fields of spiky, cactus-like blue agave. It’s from these rugged plants that the quintessentially Mexican liquor has been produced since the sixteenth century, with the indígenas fermenting its precursor for at least 1500 years before that, a legacy which earned Tequila and its surroundings UNESCO World Heritage status in 2006. The town itself is a pretty enough little place, with its fine church and smattering of bourgeois mansions, but most tourists come to visit the distilleries.
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Visiting Tequila is particularly fun during one of its fiestas: the town celebrates the Día de la Santa Cruz (May 3) with mariachi and plenty of imbibing; and La Señora de la Salud (Dec 8), with rodeos, cockfights, fireworks and more drinking. World Tequila Day (May 27) is celebrated with parades and drinking, but in Amatitán rather than Tequila itself (arguably, Amatitán was the original centre of “mescal wine” production before the arrival of the railway made Tequila its distribution centre and gave the liquor its modern name).
The Tequila Express
One of the best ways to experience the Tequila region is to travel there from Guadalajara by train. This is one of only three train rides left in Mexico (the others being the longer Copper Canyon run and a suburban line in Mexico City). You have to travel as part of a tour package and it’s obviously touristy, but it gives you a chance to learn something of the process and see how the agave is harvested, and includes a meal and samples.
There are two tours: the Tequila Express doesn’t actually take you to the town of Tequila but travels at a stately pace through blue agave fields and stops at Amatitán, home of Herradura’s Hacienda San José del Refugio, a tour of which is included. It runs at weekends and holidays. Alternatively, José Cuervo run their own José Cuervo Express during the day at weekends, or on Friday nights. This takes you to Tequila itself, with a tour of the Cuervo distillery.
José Cuervo distillery
Of all the distillery tours, the slickest is run by José Cuervo in their La Rojeña factory, parts of which date back to 1758. The basic tour makes a quick turn through the factory, where you can taste the raw distillate, then continues to the barrel storage area, where you can try a little of the finished product. Extended tours take in all this, give you a chance to sit down and learn how to appreciate the qualities of the various tequilas and include a margarita and a visit to the old storage cellars – it’s worth the few extra pesos. At the weekend there are even more extended “VIP” tours.
Visitors to Tequila are often surprised to hear that the town’s eponymous spirit is more complex than its reputation lets on. As with alcoholic beverages considered more sophisticated, like champagne, tequila is subject to strictly enforced appellation rules: true tequila must be made from at least 51 percent Weber blue agave grown in the Zona Protegida por la Denominación de Origen – essentially all of Jalisco plus parts of Nayarit, Michoacán, Guanajuato and Tamaulipas. The balance can be made up with alcohol from sugar or corn, but a good tequila will be one hundred percent agave, which gives more intense and flamboyant flavours, and will be stated on the label.
The agave takes seven to ten years to reach an economically harvestable size. The plant is then killed and the spiky leaves cut off, leaving the heart, known as the piña for its resemblance to an oversized pineapple. On distillery tours you can see the hearts as they’re unloaded from trucks and shoved into ovens, where they’re baked for a day or so. On emerging from the ovens, the warm and slightly caramelized piñas are crushed and the sweet juice fermented, then distilled.
Tequila isn’t a drink that takes well to extended ageing, but some time in a barrel definitely benefits the flavour and smoothness. The simplest style of tequila, known as blanco or plata (white or silver), is clear, and sits just fifteen days in stainless steel tanks. The reposado (rested) spends at least two months in toasted, new white-oak barrels. The degree to which the barrels are toasted greatly affects the resulting flavours; a light toast gives spicy notes; a medium toast brings out vanilla and honey flavours; and a deep charring gives chocolate, smoke and roast almond overtones. If left for over a year the tequila becomes añejo (old), and typically takes on a darker colour. A fourth style, joven (young), is a mix of blanco with either reposado or añejo. While the nuances of tequila are slowly being explored by a select few, the benefits of oak ageing aren’t appreciated by all – many still prefer the supple vegetative freshness of a good blanco.