My last stop in Tequila is Mundo Cuervo, a sleek courtyard complex containing La Rojeña distillery, a margarita bar, gift shop, and a regional tavern. Juan Beckmann, a direct descendant of José Cuervo (who was granted the first concession by the King of Spain to produce tequila, in 1795), has just released 600 cases of Maestro Tequilero añejo from agaves harvested before the rainy season, when sugars in the plant are more concentrated. The flavor notes are brazenly hot. Beckmann explains, "Some tequilas become extremely smooth with aging, losing the flavor of agave and the earth, but I wanted this one to have greater complexity." Then I ask why tequila is always included in Day of the Dead ofrendas. "People honor the dead by leaving what they used to eat, usually a little bread and a bottle of tequila, on top of their graves," he tells me. "Maybe it’s a way to bring them back."
On my final day, I want to stomp through the rust-red groves, where spiny plants march in formation. Carlos Andrade, my driver, steers east, skirting river-carved arroyos to reach Los Altos, Jalisco’s other major tequila district. We pass cattle pastures and cornfields on either side of the Love Road, a paved route privately financed by a wealthy Mexico City suitor who fell hard for a local señorita. When the couple quarreled, residents begged her to reconcile with him so the new road could be finished. As Carlos tells me this tale, we actually hit a bump in the asphalt. Outside the town of Arandas, in a patch of six-foot-tall agave, mud cakes my white sneakers as I watch a wiry jimador (harvester) chop mature foliage with a wickedly sharp oval hoe. Green sap oozing from the piña, or agave heart, indicates its ripeness, and I can’t help equating this reaping with a certain grimmer process. He heaves the 100-pound heart into the back of a pickup truck and disappears down the row looking for more.
In the next valley is colonial Atotonilco, home to Siete Leguas. The brand is named for Pancho Villa’s horse, Seven Leagues; a tinted photograph of the revolutionary leader riding his steed hangs in El Centenario, the distillery where pit-roasted agave is still crushed with a mill wheel drawn by a pair of dainty mules. Master distiller Fernando González graciously lets me climb a ladder to see his fermentation vats, brimming with yeasty liquid and topped with pulp that smells like ripening apples. His family used to brew for Patrón, but after a licensing dispute, they decided to concentrate on their own smaller label.
González lives across the street from the distillery, in a wisteria-covered brick town house. His two sons kick a soccer ball on the back veranda while their elegant mother, Isabel, prepares shrimp empanadas with fresh salsa for a six-course lunch at the lace-covered dining table. González explains that he is the youngest of seven and jokes that his father was fixated on the number. He reveals that when he was an infant, his mother used to rub a tiny dab of tequila on his gums, an old Mexican home remedy to soothe teething pain. "Tequila is in my blood," he says, laughing. That’s when he breaks out the good stuff, a potent five-year-old house "extra" añejo in an unmarked bottle, reserved for family occasions. It’s as smooth as cognac. After siesta, he generously hands me a bottle of my own. I came to Jalisco for a lesson in tequila; I’m leaving with a nation’s pride and joy.
Shane Mitchell is a T+L contributing editor.