This post is from my first visit to the town of Tequila in 2006, before it really took off. The Tequila region of Mexico was just coming off the announcement that it got a UNESCO World Heritage designation and was starting to gear up for more visitors. Consider this a snapshot before the big crowds arrived, especially from within Mexico.
As I write this I’m drying out a bit after a week of touring Tequila country. There really is a town called Tequila, where a few distilleries such as Sauza, Don Eduardo, and Jose Cuervo are located. (The pic to the left is a Cuervo worker chopping up agave hearts before roasting.) But the whole region is agave territory and I was holed up in Guadalajara—Mexico’s second-largest city. Most of the iconic images of the country come from this area: mariachi bands, charro Mexican cowboys, big sombreros, cacti dotting the hills. And the national drink—tequila.
In 2005, the U.S. passed Mexico as the leading consumer of tequila. Plenty of the cheaper stuff has always been downed by shooter-slamming 20-somethings and patrons of restaurant chains who are sucking them down from the frozen margarita machine. The main reason for the swell in demand, however, has been the rising demand for quality 100% agave tequila.
After drinking more than my fair share over the past couple of days, I can say for sure that you really do get what you pay for. Most of the spirit’s negative connotations come from memories of college parties and shots downed with a wince. The difference between that stuff and aged “anejo” tequila is like the difference between Miller High Life and Samuel Smith or Rogue beer. Between Gallo white zinfandel and Opus 1. Rotgut vodka and Grey Goose.
Watch for this area of Jalisco to become a hot spot in the glossy travel media about three or four years from now. Some of the elements are already in place: distilleries to visit, beautiful landscapes, pretty town squares, interesting local crafts, and the newly excavated Guachimontones archeological zone. Of course the glossies won’t come calling until a fancy schmancy hotel is open nearby (update, that happened about a decade later). Plans are moving to the development phase for one with a spa, golf course, and all the rest. Meanwhile, there’s plenty to pick from in Guadalajara (about an hour away) and some budget places closer to the land of agave fields.
Mexico and Tequila
Tequila and Mexico go hand in hand and in many ways the rise of good tequila parallels the rise of Mexico’s economy. A lot of standards regulation and process improvement over the years has led to a spirit that is far better now than it was in the days when nobody outside Mexico would think of drinking the stuff straight in a snifter.
You can still buy the lousy stuff for under 10 bucks a bottle at your local store, but the people cranking out that low-quality tequila are doing it to meet demand, not because they like to drink it themselves. They’d much rather talk about the 100% blue agave brands that can stand up on their own–no mixing, no bite of a lime after a shot to kill the taste.
If you want to make a good impression next time you’re mixing up a batch of cocktails, get 100% agave blanco (not aged) or repasado (aged a few months) tequila and you’ll all taste the difference. Or spring for the anejo category–aged longer–and it’s a surprisingly smooth spirit to sip on its own, with all the complexity of a good cognac, bourbon, or scotch.
If you find yourself in Guadalajara or near Lake Chapala, take some time to get into the countryside. The hills are covered with agave plants and there’s a dormant volcano looming over the town of Tequila, which is a nice place for a stroll. At some distilleries you need to make an appointment to come take a tour and do a tasting, but at others you can just drop in anytime.
The Jose Cuervo operation is a slick tour with an admission fee, but others are informal affairs where whoever is there shows you around and then you belly up to the bar for a sampling and comparison.
Tequila tourism is in its infancy, so it’ll be a long while before this is as popular as notable wine regions or the highlands of Scotland. But that means few tour buses and plenty of bargain accommodation, so head there now and beat the crowds.
If you’re ever down this way, check it out before the hordes arrive next decade. The making of tequila is a fascinating process and this is a spirit with a strong sense of place.
See my full feature story here: On the Agave Trail in Mexico.