by Chris Raven
A loud thud wakes me up before my alarm. Hearing a muffled scream I swing my legs off the bed and listen intently; silence. The person is now either dead or asleep. Showered and dressed, I grab my Mexico guidebook and skip down the stairs and over to Lula sat cosy behind the hotel reception desk. Lula smiles and nods a hello. She is so incredibly chilled out and wise; like an old Native American chief smoking a peace pipe in a wigwam. Nothing is a problem. Lula asks me where I'm going. “To Tequila town!” I sing, sliding my room key across the reception desk. She nods, that’s her response; a slow nod of acceptance.
This is the second time I've been to Mexico. My first visit was in 2001 after a road trip with my brother across the USA in a rusty brown Aerostar. We bought it in Seattle and drove to California and the Mexican border. In Tulum, I can vividly remember drinking lots of Tequila in some bar and doing the “Mexican Hat Dance” with a girl called Bonny. The Yucatán was fun.
It’s a beautiful sunny morning in Guadalajara and a great day to smell the blue agave. Strolling down Calzada Independencia Sur, I watch the busy Saturday morning street life buzzing all around me, from groups of mariachi musicians in traditional costume waiting for business at the roadside, to guys with baseball caps selling mobile phones, sunglasses and heaps of clothes on rugs outside the many ‘Eat as much as you like’ Chinese buffets. At the terminal, I leap aboard a rather tired looking bus and greet the cheerful driver who has a black eye.
Crunching the gears, we zoom out of the city and pass through Zapopan where I see the Volcán de Tequila (Tequila Volcano) looming in the distance, with blue agave plantations clinging to its slopes and kissing the horizon. It is here where it all began; it is this actual volcano and the surrounding soil that gives the blue agave its full intake of volcanic minerals. The rather sweet smell of the nectar in the air is surprisingly strong, and smells almost stale. It was the Toltec Indians over two hundred years ago, who first made candy from the agave sugars, and this gave the Spanish the brilliant idea of brewing alcohol from it.
The bus arrives in Santiago de Tequila, a town in the state of Jalisco about 60 km from the city of Guadalajara. Named “Pueblo Mágico" (Magical Town) by the Mexican federal government, Tequila is a World Heritage Site founded in 1530 by Franciscan monks, and a small town where the lives of 27,000 residents revolve mostly around the production and sale of tequila. I wander around the sweet-smelling streets lined with colourful buildings, and ignore the tourist shops selling over-priced souvenirs and bottles of tequila. A huge parade fills the main road with children dressed like adults sitting on the hood of slow moving cars, and weaving around the crowds I duck into a side street and stumble across a couple of distilleries. After watching huge machines squeeze the juices from the fibres of the agave planet, I realise they all appear closed to visitors, so I check out the Jose Cuervo's La Rojena distillery near to the Church of Santiago Apostol. It's housed in a beautiful restored building with curved arches at the entrance and, walking past a huge statue of a Raven (Cuervo’s trademark), I step inside an ‘Americanized’ gift shop that’s full of Jose Cuervo tequila bottles and merchandise.
Greeted by two Mexican girls with smiles that radiate from their angelic faces, they introduce me to the many brands of Jose Cuervo tequila on offer. Knocking back a free shot of “Platino”, my eyes somersault in their sockets as the peppery liquid hits the back of my throat. There’s a pleasant citrus taste and flowers at the very end, most enjoyable. Huskily thanking the girls for the free taster, I wipe a tear from my eye and decide to go on a mission and find out how they created this beast that needs to be tamed; actually, forget taming it, let it run wild.
After watching a short promotional video, my bilingual guide hands me a hair net and leads me through the tequila-making process. Due to the dangerous levels of alcohol vapours in the air, we’re told to turn off our electronic devices for fear of the place exploding into a fireball. The production of tequila is divided into seven steps: harvesting, cooking, extraction, fermentation, distillation, ageing and bottling. First, the raw material is steamed for 36 hours, so the nutrients can crystallize into sugars, and then a mechanical crusher separates the fibre from the juices. It is then fermented for seven to twelve days in stainless steel tanks and distilled and purified until the sugars are transformed into alcohol. The tequila is then stored in white oak barrels. The amount of time it ages will determine the tequila’s characteristics, type, odour and taste. The longer the tequila ages, the more colour and tannins the final product will have. It’s then bottled and distributed around the world. It’s fascinating, and the guide explains the differences between the various types of tequila - from Cuervo Black sitting in charred barrels to Especial Silver where the barrel process is skipped for a crisper taste.
The guide leads us through to the tasting room and a small bar, where a girl named Katerina shakes me up a free margarita. Flicking a huge sombrero on my head, I jump onto a barstool and watch her carefully pour the Jose Cuervo Gold, Cointreau, and lime juice into a shaker, a couple of ice cubes, and then she gives it a good shake before pouring it into a cocktail glass with salt around the rim. A slice of lemon and there you have it. With a smile she slides the tequila drink over to me, it tastes amazing. We chat for a while and Katerina tells me about the harvesting of the tequila. The heavy blue agave core or heart called ‘piña’ (Spanish for pineapple) is the raw material for making tequila. The skilled harvester or “Jimador” spends hours in the plantations removing the agave leaves with a sharp curved tool called a Coa; not an easy job. They then trim the two hundred plus leaves that protect the piña of the agave until the whole heart is extracted from the ground. Only the heart of the blue agave plant is used to make tequila. Fifteen pounds of blue agave piñas are required to produce one litre of delicious tequila. She tells me that as many as three hundred million agave plants are harvested in their plantations each year. That’s an astounding amount, and each bottle is handmade, numbered, dated and sealed in wax. She offers me to taste the amber agave nectar. It looks like slices of fudge and tastes of caramel. I wonder if using this nectar is healthier than sugar. I wash the sweet nectar down with some margarita, and thank Katerina for making such a fine cocktail.
With a skip in my step, I return to the gift shop and buy a bottle of Platino on my way out, and restrain myself from purchasing a Jose Cuervo t-shirt. Despite the rather Americanized feel, it has been an interesting experience learning about Jose Cuervo’s seven stages of making tequila. Until recently I didn't even know tequila was from a town called Tequila, and that you can only call it “Tequila” if it has been produced in the town of Tequila. So, the next time you’re enjoying a shot of the hot stuff in some bar, or sipping a margarita on the beach, be proud in the knowledge that you know where and how Tequila is made.