From fields of agave harvested by hand to the roasted hearts of this desert plant fermented into a traditional Mexican spirit, making artisanal tequila is a beautiful thing.
By CINDA CHAVICH
Tequila may bring back scary scenes from college days, but now that we’re all grown up, it seems like a good time to reconnect with the finer side of this classic spirit.
I traveled to the sunny agave fields outside of Guadalajara, where burly men called jimadors still harvest the massive plants by hand and artisan distillers make the real thing by roasting the starchy agave hearts to release their exquisite syrup.
From the cathedrals and artisan markets of the Mexico’s second largest city, to the agave-studded foothills of the Sierra Madre, a trip though this region of central Mexico, just a three-hour drive from touristy Puerto Vallarta, offers a slice of real Mexican life that hovers between the traditional and the stylishly urbane.
The chance to see tequila, created by hand at the source, is far more fun than pounding shots of the cheap stuff on the beach. And watching these hardworking harvesters at work is a view of Mexico that’s a true taste of local life.
Once you taste true tequila, made with 100% blue agave, you’ll never go back. Clear and white, or golden (aged in barrel), it’s Mexico’s answer to single malt.
While cheaper tequila, called mixto, can be made using a minimum of 51% blue agave juice, and other sugars, and Mezcal can be made elsewhere, from other kinds of agave, we’re in search of the real thing in the state of Jalisco, where agave was first fermented to produce tequila in the 16th century.
FIELDS OF BLUE AGAVE
The landscape around Guadalajara makes it perfect for growing the best agave. In the dry rolling foothills of the Sierra Madre they say it’s perpetual spring, and the temperature is perfectly temperate every day.
By law, tequila can only made in one of five authorized regions of Mexico, with Jalisco, home to the eponymous town of Tequila, being the state producing the most tequilas.
Tequila must be made from the fermented juices of the tequilina weber blue agave, a large spiny relative of the aloe vera plant, which can grow five feet tall and is only harvested when mature – at 10-12 years old.
That harvesting is done entirely by hand, which is unheard of in the highly automated world of food and drink, and another thing that makes tequila such an interesting spirit.
We arrive in the agave fields by 9 a.m., but already the jimadors have chopped their way through dozens of the spiny plants, the rows littered with thick green leaves, leftovers for cattle feed, and the giant white pinas, the sweet and precious heart of the plant that looks like a huge white pineapple, split and piled in the sun.
The morning air rings with the thwacking sound of razor-sharp coas, sharp flat shovels the jimadors wield like javelins, shaving away the thick arms of the agave to reveal the massive cores, some reaching 50 kg or more. The work is difficult and hard – the men wear denim to protect themselves against the agave’s thorns and a thick leather guard to shield their ankles from the sharp blade.
The work of the jimador is difficult but respected — not just anyone can come into these fields to harvest agave. The skills of the jimador are passed through families, from father to son, and many families work together.
“I learned from my father, and I might teach my son, but I wouldn’t teach anyone else,” says one harvester, stopping to sharpen his hand-forged coa blade with a file.
The jimadors work in groups —.often siblings or father and son teams working together — and are paid by the piece. By late morning, the sun is hot, and the workday is done but the men will be back tomorrow.
Agave is harvested all year round, the same way it has been here for 400 years.
But fewer young Mexican men are interested in carrying on the family tradition, with its backbreaking manual labour.
DISTILLING AT HERRADURA
Though the brand is now owned by American liquor giant Brown-Forman, Herradura tequila is still made on the original property, a distilling business founded by Félix López in 1870 and which remained in the family for over 125 years.
Workers live in colourful stone houses within the hacienda walls and the family that has owned the land for centuries continues to use the sprawling home and gardens, where massive old trees shade the courtyards and well-groomed stallions stand in the stables.
There is a tequila train from Guadalajara that stops here and, after touring the tequila production facility, we sit in a shady park, where lunch is served and mariachi’s stroll among the tables, setting the scene for a convivial gathering.
While there is a large, modern side to the distillery here, the historic cellars have been preserved and are impressive with their vaulted stone ceilings and copper pot stills, a museum piece in the area where many similar cellars once flourished.
But even the modern tequila-making process preserves the romance. We watch workers pile hundreds of 'pinas' into huge clay ovens, then unload them by hand after they’ve cooked for 24 hours. The sweet, sticky flesh is fibrous and we pull pieces through our teeth to release the pulp, tasting of honey and herbs.
The pure agave juice released from the pulpy mass of cooked agave is fermented here with wild yeasts in large tanks and distilled in a long row of smaller stainless steel pot stills. The pure tequila is then aged in wooden casks or small oak barrels – 11 months for reposado, 25 for the anejo and more than four years for the top Seleccion Supremo, a tequila that tastes like a fine cognac when swirled in a big snifter.
It can all be a bit confusing because every tequila maker has their own aging formula, but by law, reposados must “rest” in wood for a least two months before bottling, while anejos must be aged for a least one year. Tequila aged at least three years in oak barrels can be labelled 'extra anejo' – the rarest and finest premium tequilas. But even mixtos can be reposados and anejos, and wood aging can come from wood chips, so it pays to look for artisan producers who follow traditional methods.
Not all pure agave tequilas are high quality, but the best makers discard the tops and tails of the distillation process, where impurities lie. Mixtos, on the other hand, can legally contain caramel coloring, glycerine and sugar-based syrups, a recipe for a headache.
But drinking less, and better, is always the safest way to enjoy tequila.
You’ll be sipping, not slamming shots of these nuanced, oak-aged reposado or anejo blue agave tequilas — a sure sign of wisdom and maturation.
IF YOU GO:
There are several ways to experience the tequila growing regions of Jalisco on a short trip by bus or train from Guadalajara, including the Casa Herradura luxury train tour. Then visit the local community of Tequila where several brands have tasting rooms and you'll find the National Museum of Tequila, detailing the history and traditions around this unique spirit.
When in Guadalajara, stay in the city's historic district at Villa Ganz, a lovely mansion that's now a comfortable boutique hotel.
SELF DRIVE: From Puerto Vallarta, take the winding mountain road (Route 200), then get onto the four-lane Cuonta (toll road) near Compostela to reach Tequila. The town of Tequila is 60 km from Guadalajara.
BUS TOURS: Try Puerto Vallarta Tours or one of the more extensive day trips to the town of Tequila and environs, such as this Agave Experience Tour.
TAKE THE TRAIN: Take the legendary Tequila Express, a tourist train from Guadalajara (which includes drinks and lunch).
Copyright Cinda Chavich