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On the Tequila Trail in Jalisco

João Canziani Diners at Doña Gabina Escolástica.

Photo: João Canziani

Standing in the courtyard of Frida Kahlo’s Casa Azul in a suburb of Mexico City, I am glued to the spot by a phantasmagoric papier-mâché installation representing the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. It’s the Day of the Dead, and Mexico is in the mood to party. The festivities are marked with colorful paper-cutout flags and a traditional ofrenda (memorial altar) of orange marigolds, votives, and spun-sugar skulls. What I’m most intrigued by, however, are the little vessels of tequila reverently positioned beneath the macabre art display.

Like many North Americans, I was baptized a tequila drinker in a slushy acid-green margarita big enough to bathe a burro. Now I’m on a mission to learn to appreciate tequila the way Mexicans do. At night, I get a tasting lesson from the Four Seasons Hotel bar’s in-house expert, Ricardo Martínez-Melo, who mentions that several of Mexico’s top tequila scions are returning to artisanal production. He suggests that I head for the agave fields of Jalisco, 350 miles west of Mexico City, to meet the next generation of distillers, who are literally tapping their agricultural roots. Consider the state’s significance to tequila culture: the fields, pre-Columbian ruins, and colonial haciendas have just been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site, and the spirit itself was sacred to the Aztecs. Along Jalisco’s Tequila Trail, more than 146 registered distilleries produce 50 million gallons of the liquor a year.What I’m on the hunt for, however, is the Latino equivalent of a single malt—60 percent of what’s exported to the United States is below-premium or even mixto, meaning blended with cane sugar and caramel coloring. Mixto is the stuff that typically winds up in frozen margaritas.

As my commuter flight to Guadalajara begins its final approach, I gaze down on the peaks of the Sierra Madre Occidental and on the fertile Atemajac Valley, which is dominated by Agave tequilana weber azul. One among 136 species of agave (a spiny succulent distantly related to the lily and aloe plants) grown in Mexico, this slate-blue century plant is, strictly speaking, the only kind used to produce tequila.

After landing, I check in at Villa Ganz, a 10-room hotel with an adjoining garden off Avenida Chapultepec. The manager, Sally Rangel, is extremely knowledgeable about restaurants in this handsome commercial district; she steers me to folksy El Sacramonte, where I order cream soup topped with chicharrón (pork cracklings) and chicken stuffed with cactus. My waiter plays mixologist, serving Herradura blanco tequila on the rocks, laced with Squirt, a Mexican citrus soda. This version is too sticky-sweet for me, so I ask for a second, plain blanco with a side of the house sangrita, a traditional blood orange–juice tequila chaser that cleanses my palate after a spicy dish of pork pibil.

The next morning, I wake up with a surprisingly clear head. Double-distilled premium tequila lacks the toxins that lead a road crew of blue devils armed with jackhammers down the brain’s motor-neuron highway. A local assistant to San Francisco–based tequila "ambassador" Julio Bermejo who conducts private-distillery tours drives me northwest on Highway 15 to the town of Tequila. On either side of the hilly road, stands of gnarled mesquite frame the hazy blue farmland that stretches away to the Río Grande valley floor.

As we wind down a canyon road, I catch a honeyed whiff of roasting agave, a scent that pervades the narrow streets leading to the distilleries lining one side of Tequila. In town, adobe houses are painted shades of ocher, pink, and terra-cotta. A modest brick church occupies the central plaza, which is dotted with tourist shops selling casks of bootleg and outdoor stands serving fresh tortillas. On a cobblestoned lane, I stop first at old-fashioned El Llano, where fifth-generation distillers Jaime and Eduardo Orendain craft their label Arette. (Tequileros seem to be equally passionate about horses; Arette was named after a famous Olympic jumper raised in Guadalajara.)

The brothers mass-produce Don Eduardo at a larger, modern plant, but at this original facility—bought by their grandfather in 1926—space is so tight that the Orendains must halt fermen-tation while bottling, because there is no place to store the finished tequila until it is shipped. The white-oak Tennessee whiskey barrels used to mature Arette reposado (rested) and añejo (aged) are stacked in a warehouse across the street. Jaime, a burly man with a trim beard and cheerful grin, leads me to a pine-paneled tasting bar next door, where he lines up several bottles. "Anyone can make millions of gallons of tequila," Jaime says. Arette production, however, is restricted to 25,000 cases per year. As I sip a delicate, smoky six-year-old añejo, Jaime mentions that he collaborated with Georg Riedel to design a tequila flute for the glassmaker’s luxury crystal line—shot glasses aren’t good enough now.

At the end of town, sturdy iron gates with a curlicue sign identify La Villa, the ancestral Sauza hacienda. Driving past walled kitchen gardens and an ornamental lake, I spot workers soaping down a handsome pair of chestnut thoroughbreds. Guillermo Sauza reopened the family estate and named it Los Abuelos (the grandfathers) to honor his forebears. The distillery, relaunched in 2002, is even smaller than El Llano, with a stone milling wheel and two copper stills to brew 300 cases from agave grown on the property. Just inside the wooden doors, a ceramic Virgin Mary hangs on the wall next to a drawing of Mayahuel, the Aztec goddess of agave, whose worship encouraged unlawful inebriation and dancing. (Some things never change.) Opposite this building is a natural cave that doubles as a barrel stockroom and tasting den. I try a sweet blanco with hints of prickly pear. Unaged blancos can be throat-searing, too harsh for the yanqui palate, but Sauza’s version is milder, fruitier—a persuasive argument for small-batch production.

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