The Magical 2006 Tequila Tour
A personal reminiscence
Four days, a dozen distilleries, and a bus full of wide-eyed tequila
aficionados. Distilled from my original blog entries, available, with
the associated photo galleries, from
Day 1 - Day 2
- Day 3 - Day 4
By the time I reached Guadalajara, I had been travelling for 12+ hours, I was tired,
stiff, hungry and crusty from a cold that blossomed only a day or so
before my flight.
I love Mexico, I'm
comfortable in Mexico, but my Spanish is clumsy and takes a while to kickstart, so I can't communicate well. Although I enjoy exploring
and I like entertaining new experiences, I didn't know the area, and
I had no familiar touchstones to ground me.
Since I was the last of our group to arrive, I took a cab - an hour's
drive from the Guadalajara airport - to rendezvous with the others. My Spanish was only slightly better than
my driver's English, but I was too tired to make much of an effort
at conversation, so after a few fitful attempts, I lapsed into
silence as we weaved through the city's busy traffic. I had only a
vague idea of how to get to Tequila, and was even more murky on just
where La Cofradia was. I could only watch the scenery slip by the
But somewhere along the highway, about fifteen minutes away from my
destination, it all came into focus.
The landscape had grown hilly the further we retreated from
Guadalajara. The views had also changed, from merely interesting, to
spectacular. Mountains loomed in the distance under the clear sky,
crisply lit in the late afternoon sun. And then I saw them. The
fields of spiky agave - coloured somewhere between a pale azure and
a steely grey-blue. Row upon row, neatly tended and following the
undulating passage of the hills like spiky corduroy.
At that moment, everything made sense. Everything came together.
This was why I was here. I felt my heart catch in my throat. All
those years and this was the moment I'd waited for.
The cabbie slowed, and began the descent from the toll road down
towards the town. At the bottom of the hill, we spotted the Cofradia
sign and the cab turned off to crawl slowly along the rough
cobblestone street. Looking at the stones, my little science brain
muttered "volcanic rock." Of course! There's a volcano here. I
We continued up to the buildings. There everyone was, milling about,
chatting, joking - and all waiting for me. I felt like I was coming
There I was, in Mexico. At a tequila plant in Mexico with
blue agave growing a stone's throw away. And I had this great, big,
silly grin on my face, thinking, "I'm here. I'm really here."
The afternoon was still warm, a lot warmer than I had expected. I
trundled out with the group to watch a jimador slice the leaves off
an agave with consummate ease. The coa was offered around to any
gringo bold enough to attempt it in the company of such a practiced
expert. I heard my name being called, I was dragged out of the
crowd. I didn't remove a foot, managed to keep the sharp blade from
lodging in a shin, I escaped with my body parts and pride intact.
We also got our first close-up look at an agave, and its thick,
straight leaves with their sharp thorns. We sniffed at the edges of
the fresh cuts, smelling the green scents of vegetation and sap. The
link between plant and process was starting to cement itself.
Then we got the tour. My first distillery. It was kind of like my
first marriage, without the lawyers at the end. I was starry-eyed as
we were shown the ovens, the fermenting tanks, and finally the
distillation. This was where it actually happened! Everyone was
glued to our guide, hanging off every word, snapping photographs.
I tasted the sweet baked agave, delighting in the dark caramel
flavour, surprised that it was so good. Most of us weren't quite
sure how to eat it - I saw more than a few people trying to chew the
tough fibres, swallowing them (they would return to their source,
somewhat later, and mostly intact... empirical proof how the agave
fibres were useful for making rope and clothing). The trick is to
strip the soft flesh off with your teeth, and discard the fibre. A
few more distilleries and we'd all be experts at sampling these
slices of cooked agave.
We tasted the first distillate - the ordinario - right from the still,
second distillate - the fresh tequila. The tall tube passed around, each of us
sampling it, becoming a little more intimate with each ritual, passing
through the rites of tequila together.
Cofradia recycles everything. Waste water is returned
to the fields, the pulp (bagaso) from the agaves composted and used
to help fertilise the growing plants. Some distilleries also use the
pulp to make paper. At Cofradia, nothing is wasted. That touched the
environmentalist in me. Cofradia means "stong ties" or brotherhood,
and it suggested to me ties to the land, to the people, to the
Tour over, we were whisked through the company's museum, ogling at collections
of bottles and glasses, then into the dining room where four huge
tables were set up with chairs, each setting with a
flight of tequilas - blanco, reposado and añejo. The tasting had
begun. We were
the first people outside the distillery to sample the new
(excellent) Casa Noble Crystal, triple-distilled blanco.
For the final phase, we were herded into their cellars where,
standing among the barrels of aging tequila, we were treated to
more samples of their excellent tequilas, and delicious Mexican
appetizers including some cheeses I'd never sampled before.
I returned on the bus to my hotel room in the Mision
Tequillan - a nice, small, clean room, and unpacked before I joined a dozen others to
visit a tiny bar off on a sides treet, where we had more gringos than
there were seats available.
First we had to stop in an alley behind the cathedral, where we got
some food from the local street vendors. Since Lent had just begun, there was no
meat (a bonus for me), so I had a "shrimp burger" - camarones a la
diabla - fried shrimp served with lettuce and tomatoes, hot sauce,
on bread. Delicious! Others had the bean dishes.
A few blocks away, the little bar, La Capilla - the chapel - was
right out of an old Pedro Infante movie. Behind the bar was Don
Javier, 83, the owner. Don Javier's grandfather opened the first bar
in Tequila. That original bar featured pool tables, and there was a
photograph of its entrance on the wall. Don Javier's place had
little space for anything as massive as a pool table.
The name is a bit of a joke, by the way. Men could tell their wives
they were off to church when they really meant the bar.
Years later, Don Javier's father took over the operation, and moved
its location. In 1940, Don Javier started working in the bar, the
third generation, and he's been there ever since. He loves the work,
loves his customers, and was extremely gracious - and patient - with
Day 1 - Day 2
- Day 3 - Day 4
On its own, the TV turned on - set as an alarm for the same time
every morning, I later found out - showing an old B&W Pedro Infante
movie, in Spanish. It's a cantina scene, a pretty señorita is
singing, then Pedro, in his charro suit, gets up and sings his own
song. Over at the bar, the bad guys are drinking tequila and
frowning, obviously planning for confrontation.
This seems like serendipity - one of those comic cosmic
coincidences - here I am in Tequila, watching an old Mexican movie
that encapsulates the classic Mexican culture: tequila, charros,
Pedro Infante - does it get any better?
Our driver - Miguel - deftly maneuvered the
large bus through the tight streets of the town, never hitting
telephone poles, trees or any of the numerous parked cars. Off
the main street, the roads are cobblestone - not that
pressed-concrete stuff, but rough, bumpy volcanic rock. I imagined
tire sales are good, here in Tequila.
A short trip down the highway brought us to the agave fields of
Manuel Landeros, agave grower and owner of the hotel.
It was early morning and the sun was rising directly behind the
jimadores who had climbed through the barbed-wire fence to
demonstrate their art on several seven-year-old plants. Manuel stood
outside explaining to the group what they were doing, and how they
removed the hijuelos - pups - for transplanting. I climbed into the field for some
close-ups and a better angle. That was my first lesson in how
important it is to treat the agave with respect.
Agave are very protective. Each leaf is armed with a needle-sharp
thorn at the end, which easily breaks off and lodges in clothing -
or skin. Even on the ground, cut from the piña, these spines pose a
threat, stabbing upwards as you walk over the leaves, poking into
exposed flesh, through socks and even the soles of light shoes.
The edges of the leaves are serrated, with curving spines that grab
and hold clothing if you are careless enough to brush up against
them. And in the fields, where agave are tightly packed and
thousands of leaves poke out like long hypodermics, one has to walk
with an almost Zen-like concentration, aware of every plant and
Equally dangerous are the old, dried-up leaves at the bottom of the
plant. These become curled and stiff and, thanks to the strong
fibres inside, remain on the plant to deter predators who might
approach. When cut from the plant, they remain in a defensive curl,
with spines intact and now even more brittle.
Meanwhile, the jimadores cut a half-dozen or so large plants. Every dozen or so cuts, each man would
stop, take a small file from a back pocket, and sharpen the edge of
the coa with swift strokes, then return the task. I never saw any
women in the fields, and I think most could do the work equally
well, but by tradition it's a man's trade. We would see many women
working in the distilleries, however.
Back in town, we had a couple of hours of free time to explore. I
went off down the side streets, cameras in hand, looking at the houses
and shops, taking photos, and doing what I like to do - wander around
and poke my nose into places off the beaten path.
Tequila - the town - has a timeless feel once you get off the main
street. It's a small town, and feels like one. Men still ride horses
and lead donkeys on the backstreets. There's no sense tourism has
affected the town, but rather that it goes on despite the growing
attention. But on the main street, and along the highway, every
little shop, every corner tienda sells tequila, alongside drinking
accessories - small barrels for storing, caballitos, souvenirs - and
some typical souvenirs like T-shirts, postcards and sometimes handmade
I saw the agave motif everywhere on my travels. It's on benches, on
sidewalks, on walls, on grates and fences. Agave plants are used for
decoration, too, for landscaping and fences. Outside one house,
little hijuelos were lined up on the sidewalk in pots, for sale.
Sight lines along streets look onto distant pastures of agave.
You can't escape the imagery or the plant, but then why would you
want to? It's the icon of the region.
We gathered again at to Mundo Cuervo; every visitor to the
region should visit Mundo Cuervo - an easy walk from the hotel, and
only a block from the zocalo, in the downtown core.
Cuervo takes its tourism as seriously as they take their
international marketing. Mundo Cuervo is designed to impress, yes,
to sell Cuervo, but gently. It's a beautiful place, one that
reflects taste and refinement. After all, Cuervo has 211 years of
history here and they are one of the cornerstones of the industry.
If you've come this far, you don't need the uptempo,
brash marketing that sells tequila in North America. Here you get a
mature, even affectionate welcome to the Cuervo world.
We started off with margaritas and a short video that tells of both
tequila's and Cuervo's past. Then we toured the
hacienda - a large museum with shops, bars,
multimedia presentations, sculpture and art. One of the shops has
beautiful artwork from around Mexico, handmade goods, prints, jewellery - very little that's tequila-related at all. There is a
separate shop for Cuervo-branded items or tequila-related goods.
We learned that for JC's premium tequilas, only
one crushing mill is used to extract the juices from the cooked
agave. For the rest, there are three mills, each squeezing out a
little more of the precious syrup from the pulp. Agaves are roasted
for 36-38 hours here, in ovens with 27-40 tonnes-capacity.
JC still uses copper stills, too.
Cuervo makes three grades of handmade agave paper from the pulp,
calling them blanco, reposado and añejo, depending on the colour.
We were shown a display of the hand-painted cases for the famous JC
Reserva de Familia, each year with its own design and art. JCRF is
aged five-seven years.
The tasting was conducted by Francisco Hajnal, JC's maestro
de tequila - a sommelier for tequila. We sat at two long tables set up
in the barrel room, each seat with a flight of three Gran Centennario
tequilas. Overhead, as he talks, I notice misters spraying to keep the
cellar's humidity high and reduce seepage from the barrels.
Francisco instructed us in evaluating the 'legs' of the tequila ("lagrimas
de la agave" - tears of the agave). He also suggests opening your mouth
a small amount when sniffing, to avoid the tears that alcohol can bring.
Swirl, sniff, then sip - and hold the tequila in your mouth for 10
seconds, while sucking in a bit of air - breathe out through your nose
tequilas aged in American oak were sweeter than those aged in French
oak, but Cuervo also uses barrels from Jerez, Spain. Small barrels
give lots of control and immersion with wood, large barrels less.
Barrels last 25-30 years, but each has only a five-year lifespan for any
batch of tequila, after which all of the tannins are fully immersed in the tequila. So barrels are used five times before being discarded, or
used for parts.
The large tanks around us hold 17,800 litres. The aroma of aging
tequila is noticeable in the cellar, and Francisco says they lose up
to five percent a year from seepage. Sales, he said, were 80% reposado, 17% blanco, and only
As a closing point, he says when drinking with food, we should start
a meal or appetizers with a blanco or reposado, and end with an
From the tasting we moved to the private
family cellar, where a century of bottles is stored. We descended
into the gloom, passing stores of barrels, their ends signed by the
many visitors - mostly Cuervo's international distributors who
visit. Tourists, we're told, never get in here, so we feel very
special. This is where they store the famous Jose Cuervo Reserva de
la Familia. A few of us received a brandy snifter with tequila taken right from a barrel
of JCRF, and the rest of us tasted the bottled version.
Here we learned how to sniff the brandy glasses to get the best from
the tequila. There are three places in the glass to test - the
bottom (closest to the tequila) has the alcohol; the middle has the
agave, and the top has the wood.
We also learned that the award-winning JCRF is made from very old
agaves - 12 years, quite remarkable - and only pressed once in the
mill, to avoid and bitter juices.
Just before we left, we're given the opportunity to sign a barrel, a
rare honour, since as far as we're told no tourists ever get the
On the way to the building across the road, we paused to look at the
large cage that housed a black crow - a cuervo.
Lunch was provided in the other building, outdoors under a large
covered archway. It was a beautiful spread on a beautiful, sunny
day. There were many Mexican dishes, all right from Cuervo's own
kitchen, both on the table and served from a rich buffet, and even
dishes for the several vegetarians among us. Chiles rellenos,
zucchini & corn, rice, beans, salad were my choices. Dessert was a
kiwi fruit sorbet, beautifully presented.
We sipped margaritas, shots of JC Tradicionel and
agavero liqueur while admiring the sprawling private garden full of
flowers and flowering shrub.
Blue agave adorned the walkways as decorations. It was all beautifully manicured. The place was massive, with suggestions of
more houses and family facilities hidden in the distance by trees or
The generous hospitality and warmth with which we were treated gave
everyone a new respect for Cuervo.
Finally, we headed towards the entrance, taking a last look at the
beautiful showpiece rooms with their museum displays and painted
By the afternoon of day two, we were mellow, full of JCRF and good
We boarded the bus again and headed to Tequileña, a few blocks away
down the narrow cobblestone streets. Tequileña is housed in a former
rum factory. Tequileña makes, among others, Pura Sangre, Patria,
Asombroso and Don Fulano.
Mauricio Amignon of Tequileña greeted us, and gave us a tour of the plant. Tequileña uses a different
oven - really a giant autoclave - not the traditional brick oven.
There are conflicting points of view about these autoclaves, whether
they make as good a tequila as the traditional hornos.
Tequileña also has a tall, stainless steel column still that towers
over the courtyard, a leftover from the rum business. It's again
different from the traditional pot-style stills and copper stills we
saw at other fabricas.
After the tour, we had another tasting, accompanied by Mexican
appetizers - antojitos - and entertainment provided by a mariachi
orchestra that marched into the compound to play for us.
The tequilas up for sampling included AsomBroso's three types, and Tequileña's blend of añejos called Tres Quatro
Cinco (a blend of three, four and five-year-old tequilas).
When first announced, AsomBroso got into a bit of a squabble over
their bottle's shape - accused of looking like a penis, it's
actually copied from a piece of 18th century glassware. The
controversy may have helped them by getting media attention.
AsomBroso took a bold step and aged their reposado tequila in
barrels previously used for red wine. The colour from the wine is
leached into the tequila. The result is a tequila with a ruby-red
highlight, and a somewhat sweeter nose, with a slightly nutty flavour.
We were the first to taste this new 'red' reposado - AsomBroso had
a bit of a challenge getting the CRT to accept that it was
naturally, not artificially coloured. It was released to the world
only that day, so once again we had a historic tasting.
The afternoon ended with a subdued, happy group. We'd had a
spectacular day, been fed and tasted many tequilas, and toured three
sites, and still had something to look forward to.
At 7 p.m., we gathered in the restaurant beside the hotel to
hear a presentation and get a tasting from Penca Azul, another
small, boutique distillery making tequila in the old fashioned way.
Carlos Jose Phillips, whose family (Ruiz) has been making tequila
for more than 100 years, gave us a PowerPoint presentation about the
product, and about the industry. "We want to be the best of the
best," he told the group. "We are true believers that tequila should
be treated like wine. We try to do it as pure as possible."
Carlos laid out a flight of excellent tequilas for us to taste. In
keeping with the historic theme of the trip, our group was the first
to try Penca Azul blanco.
Penca Azul uses only agave that are 8-10 years old, and weigh more
than 50 kilos, which means ripe plants with lots of agave sugars.
They do everything in small batches, with natural fermentation (no
added yeasts) and traditional methods. They don't have a distillery,
yet, so their products are made in another fabrica, which they take
over for two weeks. They do, however, have their own white oak
barrels used strictly for their products.
Penca Azul reposado is aged six-eight months, and their añeo for 30.
They make a very small amount, selling 2,000 cases of tequila in the
USA, saving only five for Mexico (none of which are añejo).
One of the major differences between distillers, Carlos said, is the
water, which affects the tequila. "It makes a big, big difference."
He also noted that, since they are based in the highlands, "there's
a huge difference between what you do in Los Altos, than what you do
down here," (meaning Tequila).
One of the visually appealing things about Penca Azul is the
handcrafted bottle, made by Hipolito Guterrez, with its artistic
representation of a blue agave in the bottom, and each signed by the
The evening slowly unwound with some members drifting slowly into the lobby, and pretty soon tequila bottles
were coming out, as an impromptu tasting got underway.
Day 1 - Day 2
- Day 3 - Day 4
From the hotel you can hear the church bell strike,
three loud, long whistles - calling workers to a shift at Cuervo. Then the rooster crowed.
Tequila wakes slowly. Stores remained closed and shuttered in the
early morning, and traffic was light on the streets. Vendors were
setting up, unhurried, in the alleyway behind the church, the place
where we'd had out 'shrimp burgers' two nights ago, now selling
bootleg CDs and DVDs, as well as various items - clothing,
jewellery, clothing, as well as some food stalls.
Tequila has also retained a lot of its older buildings, its built
heritage, and it feels like it's been here for a long time, which by
osmosis seeps into the industry that drives the town.
Along the streets, I saw vendors cleaning the sidewalk in front of
their stores; a little water splashed on the concrete, them brushed
away with a broom. Mexicans take such pride in so many things.
I joined a group who decided to eat around the corner at a small restaurant on the main street.
We had a quick breakfast, with delicious eggs, beautiful,
sweet, freshly-squeezed orange juice, and really, really terrible
instant coffee. Then we dashed back to board the bus and head
to Tequilas Finos, at the outskirts of town, beside the railway
Tequilas Finos is actually located in the original, now restored,
train station. Passenger service to Tequila has been suspended
(the Tequila Express tourist train only goes to Amatitan). Since the freight
service didn't need a fancy building, the station ended up as a
distillery. Quite an attractive front, really. The ubiquitous blue
agave was planted in a garden along the front of the station.
The company makes both 100% and mixto tequilas, including Sol Dios,
a Kosher tequila (made since 1999, although I confess it's hard to
picture a Lubavitcher with a caballito...).
Once again we got the plant tour, and for the first time a chance to
talk with a company biologist. He was delighted with our presence,
because, as he said, "There are no Mexican tequila fans like you."
He explained how he uses gas chromatography to create a
"fingerprint" of their tequilas, and how this would be important
when the new requirements came into effect (March 7, which requires
all factories to have their own labs).
Another new regulation requires plants to use only agave with at
least 24% sugars, in part to prevent too-young plants been harvested
(perhaps an issue in the last shortage). Random samples or agave are
shredded, then the juice extracted, and a "copper reduction" method
used to determine the sugar content.
Talking to their biologist gave us a better understanding of the
technical complexities of making tequila, but conversely it also
emphasized how much of it is still an art, despite all the new
We were the first tourists to visit the factory - another first for
our group. We got a chance to see a bottling-label operation in use,
too. Like most of the places we visited, the managers and owners
were proud, to show us every aspect of their business.
Our tour guide was Arturo Fuentes Cortes, plant manager. He told us,
frankly, that producing mixtos, "helps us pay the bills."
At the end of the tour, we went to the board room that looked down
over the barrel cellar, for our fifth tasting, this time for Dos
Manos reposado and añejos. The añejo is aged four years, was very
coppery in colour.
Back on the bus, we headed out to the highway, for a short ride to
Amatitian, a small town just east of Tequila, home of several other
distillers including Tres Mujeres. Our next stop was Casa Herradura, one of the oldest, and largest of the distillers.
Saying Herradura is a world unto itself is not an exaggeration:
Herradura is huge, with 10,000 hectares enclosed in its compound -
so large that you need a map to get around. The fabrica is a short
ride on the highway to Guadalajara in the town of Amatitian, east of
Herradura was still family owned, and still had hacienda status - the
only tequila company to retain it. To be a hacienda, you need to be
fully enclosed with walls, have your own chapel, have cattle, and
have workers living on your property (Herradura still has housing
for 50-60 families on site, some of them 3rd and 4th generation).
The company has 1,400 employees, its own medical services and a
large museum, part of which is the original company distillery - the
fabrica antigua - parts of it 50-100 years old.
The grounds have carefully-maintained trees that are 150-200 years
old, one of the largest private libraries in Mexico (in the former
stables). It has about 25 million agave under cultivation, and
agreements to purchase from other growers, but only if it can select
the agaves in the field.
Tourism is big business for Herradura, too. Every Saturday the train
from Guadalajara brings 400 or so tourists to visit. I had a sense
that Herradura as somewhat of a 'sleeping giant' because it is
currently only using one of three production facilities on site -
but is capable and ready to ramp up production considerably should
the market change. They also have a fourth factory - but it is the
original distillery, now a museum.
Waiters who met us with cans of New Mix - several
varieties - that blend tequila and other juices, such as sangrita,
mandarin, peach and grapefruit.
Ruben Aceves Vidrio, International Sales Director, was our guide for
this stop. He was unabashedly partisan about Herradura, saying,
"We're proud of what we do here." And everything about the place
speaks well of company pride - it was clean, well-kept, and modern
(except where traditional methods have proven themselves). We were
told the company has kept its old ovens because they make better
Herradura is impressive. It's difficult to take in the sheer size of
the place. High overhead, looking like some futuristic tramway, what
seems to be ,miles of stainless steel pipe runs from building to
another, carrying the juices from the crushed agave to the
fermenting tanks, and from there to the stills.
Our first stop was the family's house - old, and looking more like a
well-maintained museum, it is still used on weekends and holidays.
There is even a hacienda chapel attached to the house. We peeked into
rooms as we walked through. In the kitchen, staff are preparing our
lunch. The counter, the walls and the tall ventilation hood are are
tiled - each tile handmade and each one different.
Ruben told us the company had ten
months' worth of tequila sales in its tanks, with about 40,000
barrels in its inventory.
At the nursery we saw where young agave plants are being grown to
try and create better, stronger plants. Herradura is the only
company sponsored by the government to do this work. But unlike the
traditional method of transplanting pups (hijuelos), Herradura is
cloning plants from leaf cuttings.
Ruben talked about Herradura's past,
its production, and its future. Herradura was the first company to
make reposado. They were the first to make an extra-añejo. A
percentage of each load of agave is sent to their lab for analysis,
and can't be used until the lab approves it. "We're in the vanguard
of these things," saids Ruben.
We stopped to watch a jimador show his skill, and give the groups
the opportunity to give it a try. The trick is to trim the leaves
close to the body, to avoid any bitter juices when baking. Then the
top (corta) is cut out - this is the place where the quiote emerges.
We're told it too is bitter.
A good jimador can cut 130-150 piñas in a six-hour day, for which
they made about $16-$18 a day in 2006. Herradura also buys agave from other
growers, and pays more than the going rate - $2.50 a kilogram in
they get the right to choose the plants in the field. The rest are
usually sold to other companies for about $2 a kilo.
We saw reddish- brown spots on many of the the plants, signs of age.
An ideal amount of this aging is about 10%. More than that,
the plant gets too dry and doesn't produce the juices necessary for
The agaves are roasted in the ovens for 24 hours. Each of the 15
ovens in front of us holds 40 tonnes of agave. They're all
hand-loaded, and hand-unloaded - we' saw the men inside passing the
baked agave heads out to the workers outside.
For the first three hours of cooking, the juices from the outside,
and the leaves are bitter. They flow to the bottom of the oven, and
are let out. After three hours, Herradura shuts the valves to keep
in the best juices. Ruben is critical of the modern autoclaves used
by come competitors.
The pulp is milled, then re-milled to get the juices fully removed.
The juices are piped to one of 29 giant stainless steel vats, where
natural yeasts take over and start the fermentation. Nothing is used
to accelerate the process.
An active tank is alive, bubbling with CO2 being released. We put
our hands close to the surface and felt the warmth of the activity
over the must. When fermentation is complete, the must is dead - but
contains a claimed 9% alcohol (much higher than the usual 4-6%) - and is piped to one of the
stills in another building.
The first distillation is the ordinario, or tequila primero,
generated by heating the must at 90C. The second distillation is done at
95-100C, then diluted with water to bring the proof down. The heads and
tails are removed in both distillations. "We're the only company to do
that," Ruben said.
He called the quality of water used here, "tremendous" because they
have their own wells. "There are no impurities in it at all."
Herradura has two large barrel warehouses, and one small one. Each
of the white oak barrels from Kentucky holds 192 litres.
We walked back over the cobblestone streets to the last stop on the
tour - the old factory. Maintained as a museum, it's a fascinating
look at the old, traditional practices. The fermenting vats are actually
pits in the floor. The old copper stills remain polished and stand like
silent guardians in the dim light. It feels a bit like a chapel in the
old plant, where memories are carefully preserved.
Afterwards, we were led outside through the stunning
gardens with ponds, albino peacocks, lime trees and ferns, to the
tables where lunch was being served. Again, it was the royal
Lunch was a beautiful buffet with traditional Mexican dishes. We had the
chance to sample not only their tequila at lunch, but several other
products they distribute. A table of products shows off the
companies they distribute - many of which have agreements to
distribute Herradura products elsewhere in the world.
At as final touch, Ruben handed out certificates from Herradura
testifying that we had all been there and seen the process of tequila in
members took advantage of the opportunity to visit the Herradura
shop and pick up some bottles, as well as souvenirs - branded hats,
T-shirts, dress shirts and drinking glasses among other items for
sale. The larger companies all have company stores like this.
On the way back into Tequila, I got the bus to stop at a
particularly photogenic spot where I saw a solo tree in a field of agave, with a volcano in the
Our seventh tour, at the end of day three, was
Los Abuelos is located not far from Tequilas Finos where we had
been earlier in the day. From the train station, you can see the
house - La Casa de Cielo - at the top of the hill, surrounded by the
agave fields. But the narrow streets - where two cars had difficulty
passing - and lack of suitable places to turn around presented a problem
to the large bus we occupied. Once again our driver proved his skill -
he blithely turned the bus around at the bottom of the hill and backed
up the rest of the way.
Los Abuelos is owned and operated by Guillermo Erickson Sauza, one
of the families that made tequila what it is today. The company,
Sauza, had been sold several years ago to a foreign company, but
Guillermo had kept some of the land, and decided to set out on his
own to create a traditional, small-scale tequila company. The
family's plant at this site had closed in 1968, but Guillermo
acquired it and kept growing agaves. In 2004, he started producing
his own tequila.
The compound's road is lined with various
fruit and flowering trees, including pomegranates. There are 3.5 kms of
cobblestone road on the estate.
On both sides of the road were agave fields, and a very large pond, large enough to
have a small island on it, with a remarkable suspension bridge that
spanned the 200 or so feet from the shore to the island. The island
is La Isla de Amistad - the Island of friendship. When the Tequila
Express ran, it was a stop on the tour.
There's also a small farmyard - more like a miniature petting zoo -
with turkeys, chickens, ducks and goats in it. It was clean and
Guillermo greeted us with Christine, former manager and personal assistant to
Guillermo's grandfather and father. Guillermo proved a gracious host
and tour guide, speaking fluent English.
As we walked, he pointed out some of the 250 different species of
flowering tress planted on the estate by his grandfather, giving us
the names and origin of all of them. He pointed out the pochote tree
- the buttercup tree - with its large yellow flowers, the tacoma
with its pink blossoms, the bahinia tree, also called the Hong Kong
orchid, as well as three varieties of avocado tree, macadamia nut
trees, even lichee nut trees.
Some of the flowering shrubs and bushes have
grown so large that they reach over the road and form a natural
bridge. Walking past them brought wafts of their sweet perfume at
Los Abuelos has its own microclimate. The agave needs sun, heat
and good drainage to grow properly. Guillermo told us that agaves
growing close to the stone walls and fences that border the fields
did better and grew larger because of the reflected sun and heat.
That's one of the reasons to weed the fields- weeds cause shade.
Another problem is a beetle that bores into the plants. Guillermo
said it causes about 5% loss every year that has to be
In February and March, the pups - rhizomes - at about 1.5 years old,
are removed from the mother plants, cleaned up and left to dry out.
The leaves are also trimmed.
The distillery proved to be the smallest operation we had seen to
date, with the oldest equipment in use. The boiler, for example, was
made in New York in 1905 - a century ago, but still kept in use. The
oven is small - it can take 15.5-16.5 tonnes only. Agaves
are cooked for 24 hours, then left to cool for another 12 hours. One
cooking produces 1,500 litres of miles, which Guillermo said was
rated 14-17 brix of sugar. In 2006, Los Abuelos had cooked 14 loads since
the distillery opened.
In the centre of the tiny distillery is a working tahona. Not
a museum piece, it still had agave pulp in it. This one wasn't
stone, however, but made of four different types of wood (white and
red oaks, rosewood and another). The post that holds it to
the centre pivot is called the esteche - it's a single piece of
tree. Guillermo explained that, when properly set up and operated,
the tahona moves in and out of the well on its own. However, he
admitted it took some time to figure it out because few people had
the skills to operate it these days.
The advantage of the tahona, he told us, was that the 'stone'
doesn't rip up the agave fibres like the crushing machines. Los
Abuelos was the only place we saw on our tour that use the tahona
full time - most companies have them as museum pieces.
The fermenting tank is the old, original wooden tank. Guillermo told
us that making wooden tanks is a lost art, and costs today about
five times what stainless steel costs to make. The juices ferment
for four to five days and when they're done, have about 5 brix of
sugar in them (the industry standard is 1 to 4, he said).
The old stills are still working, too. The first one holds 400
litres and produces tequila ordinario at 20% alcohol. The
second is smaller, at 250 litres. It makes tequila at up to 43%, which is cut back to 40 %.
The economics of tequila are interesting. Guillermo told us that of
30,000 litres of liquid produced from the ovens, there are only
10,000 left after the first distillation, and 2,500 after the
Guillermo uses handmade bottles, each individually
blown by craftsmen. Even the tops - looking like miniature trimmed
agave heads - are handmade. Because of the hand-crafted nature, each
bottle is unique, slightly different from the others. They're heavy
We entered the caves, built into the hillside under the house.
Guillermo hopes to use them as the company's barrel cellar once he
gets the proper, non-explosive lighting system in place (his barrels are currently
stored nearby in a small warehouse). Los Abuelos ages its reposado
11 months, and its añejo two years.
Our tasting took place in the dark caves, lit only by hundreds of
candles. Tables had been set up and a
flight of tequilas laid out. In the romantic candlelight we were
also serenaded by a guitarist-singer, his music echoing off the walls in the confined
space. There were also some plates of appetizers on the table.
After the tasting, we received a private tour of the Sauza
family museum, in downtown Tequila, and joined Guillermo at dinner in
the museum's courtyard. His mother also joined us, a rare honour.
The small gift shop in the museum also sold artwork, clothing, books
and, of course, tequila.
Back at the hotel, I joined a few of the members having a taste in
the lobby again.
Day three ended on a high note. The friendly reception and the
genuine warmth from Guillermo had really topped off the day.
Day 1 - Day 2
- Day 3 - Day 4
I was up at 5 a.m. on Saturday, showered, dressed and out for early
breakfast with a few bleary-eyed compatriots. Morning was cool,
refreshing, but not cold. I topped my scrambled eggs with a nice
green salsa made with tomatillo, avocado and cilantro. We got onto
the bus and headed for the highlands, taking our last look at the
town of Tequila.
The ground along the highway is rocky, strewn with volcanic rock,
some ridges jutting out of the soil like giant knuckles. The pointed
leaves of the agave poke up everywhere, in the most unlikely places.
Precariously steep hillsides sport tiny pastures of agave, while
large fields retreat into the morning mist.
The views are spectacular at times, with the valley laid out below
us, the road crossing small canyons, and carving right through the
shoulder of the mountain. The geography of the region, with its
creases of mountain and valley, creates several micro-climates
within the overall environment. An early morning mist hung over some
low areas, softening the vista.
Tequila - the place and the drink - is not a single
experience. The industry is divided along and east-west axis, with
Guadalajara as the pivot. While the historic focus is on Tequila and
its environs, the highlands differ in many aspects; geographically,
environmentally and in production methods.
Our first stop was Espolon (Destiladora San Nicolas), a small
distillery tucked off the highway on a small cobblestone back-road.
We headed into the farm country, way off the beaten path, where the
blue agave grows in brick-red soil.
The bus pulled up to a surprising modern-looking plant, a few
kilometers outside of a pueblita. We were greeted by Cirilo Oropeza
y Hernandez, the plant manager. We
learned Espolon started making 100% agave tequilas in 1998.
Espolon's processes were similar to those we'd seen before, but the
plant looked shiny and new. Cirilo told us they use a large cutter
to quarter the agave heads before cooking, and the resulting must is
fermented for 72 hours. Both Espolon and Corazon tequilas are made
here, but with different profiles.
There are 12 large fermenting tanks, each with a capacity of
61-62,000 litres. Over the noise of the plant we could hear strains
of classical music being pumped through speakers. Cirilo explained
the music helped enhance yeast growth. "Yeast sways to the rhythm of
He also told us Espolon hires mostly women - 80% of his
workers were female. Cirilo believed women made better workers in
many jobs, and were more detail-oriented than their male counterparts.
In the lab, Cirilo showed us samples of the yeast (levadura) used,
small whitish clumps in a petri dish - this is the natural yeasts
taken from the agave and grown on cultures. They take the yeast four
times a year, once in each season, and the yeasts are kept separate.
Throughout the tour, I felt Espolon had a scientific and technical
focus ion production.
Espolon distills two and three times. The second distillate is tested
and analysed in the lab to see if the quality is sufficient, and if
anything in the production process needs to be adjusted. If
required, a third distillation is done.
Cirilo told us Espolon uses new barrels for its añejo (the opposite
of Herradura), then reuse them for their reposado. The result is
that the two are similar in colour.
The tour over, we were led to the cafeteria where antojitos were
laid out on the long tables, along with numerous bottles of tequila
for our tasting. We asked about the plastic pour spouts on the
bottles, and were told they were the industry's response to
counterfeiting, to prevent the bottles being refilled. We'd heard
tales of bottles of premium tequilas being spirited out of the
distilleries to be sold in local bars, so the stoppers were only a
We climbed back aboard the bus and headed into Arandas.
We passed several fields full of mature agave, but in disrepair,
overgrown with weeds, untrimmed brown leaves, and quiotes aplenty.
Many had leaves grown so long and tall they touched one another, and
all sense of planted rows was lost.
Arandas is larger than Tequila, with a reputation for being more
lively, with a good night life. It has a beautiful, gothic cathedral
that dominates the landscape, and seemed more lively and more bustling than Tequila.
We were met by Carlos Camarena Curiel, the owner
of El Tapatio. He led us along the back roads, until we finally had to stop and get out. From
here, the remainder of the trip was not possible in a big bus. We
boarded waiting pick-up trucks and cattle trucks, to complete the
El Tapatio's distillery - La Alteña, or lady of the highlands - is
hidden down a narrow, bumpy country lane between fields of agave.
From the outside, it is plain, almost nondescript. But for
aficionados, their tequila isn't. Some of El Tapatio's products -
their El Tesoro de Don Felipe añejo for example - are the holy grail
for serious tequila drinkers.
Carlos gave us the tour without the
obligatory jimador. At the ovens, Carlos explained his workers cut the quiote
stalk from the female agave, and from the male they cut the
"cebolla" from the top - an area equivalent to the quiote's
base. This was
the first I'd heard that agave have male and female plants, and
despite being shown both, don't think I could easily recognize the
difference without a lot more practice. Perhaps removing the top
section from both eliminates the need to determine gender.
The first juices from the baking agave are called "bitter honey"
because they contain wax and dirt that runs off the plants. After
two hours in the ovens, Tapatio removes this juice to keep the rest
from being bitter. Then the heads get cooked another 36 hours. The
long cooking breaks up the inulin - long chains of starch molecules
used to store carbohydrates in plants - into fermentable sugars. The
yeast, Carlos explained, can't digest the long chains to excrete
alcohol and CO2.
At this point, we met up with Ron Cooper from Del Maguey mezcals,
who had come along to join us for this part, and would later present
his products at our farewell dinner that night. Ron brought with him
two other men - Francisco "Pancho" Martinez, his manager (and a
master Zapotec weaver), and his Zapotec mezcalero for Chichicapa
mezcal, Faustino Garcia Vasquez, who was on his first trip outside
Oaxaca. Both men were very interested in the equipment and spent a
lot of time examining it and talking about it with each other.
Then we were shown the tahona. El Tapatio still uses the old stone
wheel to make their El Tesoro tequilas, but uses the more modern
shredder for their Tapatio brand. Ron mentioned the tahona is still
used for mezcal in Oaxaca. 30 years ago, Tapatio replaced the
traditional mule to pull the stone with a tractor for health
Carlos explained the tahona put more fibre into the wort, and some
wet pulp was carried into the tanks for the fermentation. It gave
the tequila a much stronger agave flavour, he said, and that's what
they wanted. Since El Tapatio añejo seems thinner to me than El
Tesoro añejo, I began to believe the tahona's contribution to the
taste was significant.
The must ferments for 72-96 hours in small wooden vats, the time
required depending on the season (longer for winter). No commercial
yeast is used, just the natural wild yeast from the agave, isolated
and reproduced. Carlos said they were still using yeasts his
grandfather cultivated 70 years ago, some kept frozen to preserve
them, but others kept alive by adding liquid to the culture.
Tapatio doesn't use any accelerators to speed up fermentation. "It's
an entirely natural process, we don't use any shortcuts."
The vats were made of pine by Carlos' grandfather, and painted by
his father. Every eight to ten years, the vats need to have parts
replaced or renewed. Carlos said he preferred the natural wood look,
and was letting the paint wear off on its own. He prefers wood over
stainless steel because it is a natural isolator from the
environment. besides, it's traditional. "We don't want to lose our
roots. We come from five generations who raised agaves or made
tequila. We want to preserve those roots."
Tapatio grows its own agaves, too, and doesn't use any pesticides on
the fields. The agave fibres are used as natural fertilizers, and no
chemicals are used. Even their labels are put on with flour and
water, not a commercial glue.
Once the fermentation is finished, the mosto is dead. Carlos likened
it to a diamond, "We can make a diamond shine, or we can destroy
it." And to make it shine, they distill it. The heads and tails are
removed from the distillate because they contain "superior alcohols"
and compounds from fermentation in the heads. The tails have
methanol and compounds with heavier molecular weight. The middle -
the heart - is the best.
The heart creates ordinario, about 25% alcohol. This is
re-distilled in smaller copper stills, because copper interacts with
the tequila and adds flavour, about 2 ppm. But as a result, copper
sublimates, and parts need to be replaced as the metal gets too
thin. The stills work at 85-90C to recover the most alcohol, and
almost none of the water.
The large stills here are about 600 litre capacity, the smaller ones
350 l. His grandfather's stills are still in use where possible,
although parts have not been made for the past 40 years. So Tapatio
is cautiously testing a new tequila using a new, larger still, and
may soon release another 100% agave tequila using it - the size of
the still, Carlos warned, imparts a different flavour.
The heads and tails are also removed in the second distillation
here, leaving a tequila that's about 80-83 proof. This is unique, the
only distillery that distills to that proof - most distill to 100-150
proof, then dilute with water. But Carlos' grandfather told him he
didn't care if it was holy water being added.
Since the barrels lose alcohol, however, Tapatio distills some
tequila to 100 proof twice a year, to add to the barrels to restore
the weaker tequilas to their original proof.
Once again we were struck at the combination of scientific and
engineering expertise these distillers possessed, in parallel with
their artistic ability to make a good tequila.
Tapatio produces about 300,000 litres of tequila a year, and sells
about that amount. However, they have 1 million litres in storage at
We went into a small shed where a large wooden barrel holds the
reposado. Carlos poured some into a traditional cow's horn,
explaining how the horn developed into today's caballito. It was
used so customers couldn't put their drink down and linger at the
taverna - the old name for a distillery, a century ago - so they
moved through faster. He filled up a horn from a spigot on the tank
and passed it around to the group.
The we had lunch, a nice spread of traditional Mexican dishes, like
a field worker's lunch.
After lunch, we looked into the barrel cellar, built in 1957. Carlos
told us the red soils were the result of a high iron content in the
soil, but also in the water. The barrel cellar was below ground
level, and below the water table. There was a pipe from which the
natural, pure spring water leaked out, leaving a rusty stain on the
wall. We tasted the water from the pipe and the mineral content was
The local pueblita is called El Nacimiento, meaning The Spring, or
more literally, where water is born from the earth. The local water
imparts some of its flavour to the tequila.
While most of the barrels are white oak, their Paradiso is aged in
Carlos said there was an eight-month window of opportunity to
harvest a ripe agave, before it aged too much and began to rot in
the field. But in fields where people took better care of their
plants, more damage from the fusarium fungus was evident. So careful
balance must be maintained in the care.
He told us the average sugar content of agaves in the highlands was
26-27%, compared to 23-24% around Tequila, while in Tapatio's fields the average was 27 to 30%.
We headed into Arandas to complete the tour.
Tapatio's bottling plant, and its second storage area, is almost
right downtown. It was Carlos' grandfather's house, converted to
serve the company. At the front there's a n an office with a small
store where visitors can buy some Tapatio products. A framed
photograph of Don Felipe Camarena (1927-2003) greets everyone
entering the house.
In the basement, we absorbed the rich agave aromas that permeate the
cellar, expressing themselves gently from the hundreds of barrels
stored there. Here, under the house, Carlos said, they have an
evaporation rate of only 2-3% a year, sometimes less,
compared to 8-10% above ground.
Carlos had 15-20 red-oak barrels lined up, separate from
the others in the cellar, each sealed by the CRT for the past five
years. Carlos used a screwdriver and a shovel blade to pop
the cork out of one of the barrel, then he siphoned some of the
contents into a bottle, while his niece handed out tiny plastic
Another historic moment: not only were we the first people to taste
this añejo, but because it was only a small batch, it
may not be enough quantity produced for commercial sale. It may only
ever stay within Carlos' family and private circle. What an honour
for all of us, perhaps the highlight of the trip!
He held the bottle up to show us. It was dark copper, with brass
highlights. He swirled the bottle, and examined the 'legs.'
"Tequila, like a woman, should have beautiful legs," he said. The
long legs should be continuous, and not break quickly, to show the
tequila has retained its essential oils.
Then he poured it into our eager cups.
There was a reverent silence as we enjoyed the tequila. Then
everyone began talking at once, expressing their appreciation of
this wondrous spirit, trying to describe it.
We retreated upstairs. Carlos' niece brought a bottle
of El Tapatio Excelencia - a similar, five-year-old añejo, aged in
white oak - so we could compare the two. This was a new product,
too, and not on the market yet, so our historic event was doubly
The bus left Arandas in the late afternoon, heading back to
Guadalajara and our last night as a group.
We got to the hotel Tapatio in Guadalajara about 30 minutes late -
and missed Ana Valanzuela, who had come to meet us for the dinner.
Fina Estampa had provided a special treat for us - bottles of their
reposado or blanco, with our names individually engraved on the
Ron Cooper set up his Del Maguey mezcals and during dinner led the group on a
tasting of all of his products. Having sampled these exquisite
mezcals in the past, I was appreciative of his spirits, including the rare
triple-distilled Pechuga and Tobala (wild, shade-grown agaves). I was
pleased to try his Crema de mezcal, made by adding
aguamiel to his Minero mezcal.
Ron used the traditional clay mezcal cups - fashioned after a small
half-gourd - for our tasting. He explained that the espadin agave
used is sweeter than the blue agave, and is genetically the 'mother'
or ancestor of the blue agave.
He also gave us a brief talk on the process of making mezcal and how
it differs from tequila. One of the traditional practices is to put
the cooked heads in the shade for seven days to begin fermentation
naturally, before they are ground by the tahona. Mezcals are not
aged in wood, but stored in stainless steel tanks, to retain their
In the end, the first forum tour was more and better than I had
imagined it could be. I was sad to be going home, but I was also
exhausted. I owed a great deal of gratitude and appreciation for Harry (Reifer)
and Blanca, for their generosity in getting me on the trip, in their
patience and friendship, and especially to Harry for his leadership
- for organizing the tour, for guiding us and making sure we got on
the bus on schedule, and for making sure we had a sample of a full
range of experiences, from the largest to the smallest distiller,
from Tequila to Aranadas.
Day 1 - Day 2
- Day 3 - Day 4
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