In addition to touring the town of Tequila, Jalisco travelers will love the archaeology site of Guachimontones, Hacienda El Carmen, cooking classes with Maru Toledo, distilleries in El Arenal and cantaritos in Amatitán
- The Legend of Tequila
- The Agave
- How Tequila is Made
- El Teuchitlán
- Ahualulco de Mercado
- El Arenal
The landscapes in tequila country are absolutely stunning and the cultural significance of the agave plant runs deep. The Valley below the Tequila Volcano was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2006 because of the natural beauty and cultural significance. With so much culture it is a shame that the tourist traps are what most international visitors end up experiencing. The pueblos around the Tequila Volcano are spectacular: full of culture and adventure. You need to include these towns on your tour of Tequila, Jalisco.
This is the second part of a series to help you make the most out of your trip along the Ruta Del Tequila in Jalisco, Mexico. If you missed the first part of the Ruta Del Tequila series be sure to check it out here: La Ruta Del Tequila Part 1: Cantinas And Cocktail Bars of Guadalajara
In this chapter we are going to explore the cultural significance of the agave plant, see how tequila is made and explore the changes caused by skyrocketing demand. After that we are going to visit the pueblos in the Tequila Valley with unique cultural significance to the Ruta Del Tequila. Guachimontones, El Arenal, Amatitán, and Tequila each offer a unique glimpse into the culture of Tequila. This guide will help you travel along the Ruta Del Tequila like a local and leave with an intimate glimpse of one of Mexico’s most treasured regions.
The Legend of Tequila
A long time ago some Indians were strolling through the agave fields when surprised by a thunderstorm. The Indians took shelter in a cave to wait out the rain and watch the lightning in the distance.
Next to the cave where they were waiting out the storm there was a pit full of agave piñas. In the early days the Indians used just about every part of the agave except for the the fibrous center of the agave called a piña. The agave piñas were thrown into a ditch with other scraps of wood and debris.
Not long after the Indians had taken shelter in the cave the lightning began to get closer and closer. The lightning struck the pit full of agave piñas starting a fire and cooking the discarded piñas. The delectable smell of cooked agave got the attention of the indians who tasted it for the first time.
The Indians divided up the sweetened pieces of cooked agave between themselves and soon went on their way. One of the Indians left his share of the cooked agave in the cave only to return a few days later. When he returned to pick up the agave a magical transformation had taken place. The cooked agave sugars were starting to ferment into alcohol. Drinking the fermented agave juice gave him a mild buzz and a new industry was born.
Agave, maguey, Metl, and Tocamba all refer to that marvelous tree that is so important to the native peoples of North America. There are well over a hundred different species of agaves and nearly 40 of those species are used to make mezcal. However, only one species, the blue agave Tequilana Weber, may be used to make tequila.
The agave was known as the marvelous tree to the people of mesoamerica because of all the uses they found for the plant. You can make paper out of the leaves, nails and needles out of the points, ropes, clothes, construction equipment you name it. Today the biggest money maker by far is tequila.
The agave is a unique plant that takes a really long time to reach maturity. Some agaves can take up to 30 years to reach maturity. It takes at least 7 years for the blue agave to reach maturity and develop all those sugars that will be turned into tequila. As the agave reaches maturity a stock (quiote) will grow out of the piña and eventually flower. The stock moves sugar from the piña to the flowers making the piña useless for tequila production. Since agaves that have flowered can’t be used for tequila the quiote is removed in most industrial farms.
Most of the agaves on industrial farms are clones. It is impossible to reproduce through pollination if the plants are not allowed to flower. Cuttings are taken from the root stock and replanted just before the rainy season starts to repopulate the harvested agaves. We are going to go into much more detail in the next chapter when we visit Los Altos de Jalisco.
How Tequila is Made
While there are a lot of opinions about the different machines used to make tequila the steps are rather similar. Agaves are selected, cleaned, cooked, juiced, fermented and later distilled and sometimes aged. How you actually go about each of these steps is what sets one tequila apart from another. Not only is this big business but it is also agriculture. Every once in a while there will be a shortage of agave and tequila producers need to make the most out of what they have.
An Agricultural Product
The first step of crafting fine tequila is selecting the agaves. As in all agriculture there is a fine line between ripe and under ripe. The jimador is the farm worker responsible for selecting ripe agaves for harvest. Agaves are harvested to maximize the sugar content. The agave is cleaned of leaves leaving a ‘piña’. If you leave too much of the leaf it makes the tequila bitter.
The agaves are halved or quartered depending on their size and loaded into steam ovens. This is one of the key differences between Mezcal which uses a very different cooking style. The type of oven depends on the producer. Autoclaves are like huge pressure cookers. A diffuser is a machine that accomplishes several steps very efficiently but produces a somewhat insipid distillate. Diffusers are controversial. Some people claim they make the process more efficient while others claim they suck the soul out of the tequila.
The Cooked Agave
Once the agave is cooked you can smell and taste the sugars. The cooked agave is absolutely delicious and I think that great tequila tastes like agaves rather than oak barrels.
The process of extracting the agave sugars from the cooked piñas could be modern or traditional. There are a number of small producers that are going back to ancestral methods. Rather than industrial machinery they are using a tahona like was used a hundred years ago. The tahona is a two-ton stone wheel that rolls in a circle crushing the cooked agave to extract the sugars. The finished product is expensive but tasty.
The next step is to ferment the agave juice in large vats. This is a chemical process where yeast converts sugar into alcohol. There are dozens of variations that will affect the taste of the final product. What kind of material is the fermentation tank made of? Is the agave juice fermented with or without the pulp? What types of yeast are used to ferment? All of these decisions change the flavor profile of the finished tequila. Some tequilas add ‘natural flavor’ to the finished product but we aren’t interested in that stuff.
Lastly, is the distillation process. Fermentation can only get to 15-20% alcohol before the yeast dies and the conversion stops. Distillation raises the alcohol content by separating the water from the alcohol. The still is heated and the alcohol evaporates at a lower temperature than the water. The alcohol vapor is cooled and becomes a liquid again with less water and higher alcohol content. Most tequila is double distilled but I have heard there are exceptions to this rule.
Some people like to age tequila in oak barrels like you would age wine or whiskey. The oak adds a new flavor profile that you don’t find in agaves. This started as a marketing tactic to break into the US beverage market. US consumers were accustomed to drinking whiskey aged in oak barrels and Mexican producers wanted to take a little market share by introducing a similar product. It is interesting that in today’s multinational conglomerate atmosphere that used whiskey barrels are sent from Jack Daniels to Herradura to age tequila.
Again, I highly recommend visiting both a large distillery and a small distillery. The big distilleries have great tours and theme park style manicured grounds. Jose Cuervo has created a really enjoyable experience between the hotel, the distillery, restaurants and events. The smaller distilleries don’t have distribution in the United States. Many are making tequila for their family, friends and community. There are some great small producers making very unique styles of tequila. While you are here, I recommend trying tequilas that you are only going to find in this part of Mexico.
Visit Tequila Jalisco and the surrounding pueblos
The State of Jalisco uses the hashtag Jalisco is Mexico and there is a lot of culture to take in. The prehispanic population was very prosperous. There Spanish colonial legacy is seen in the haciendas and churches. I think my favorite part of Tequila, Jalisco is the ranching culture. The agave plant has been very good to the people here. This is an agricultural community and the people around here have a strong culinary sense of identity.
The best way to visit the Ruta Del Tequila is by renting a car and visiting the pueblos at your own pace. Some of the best landscapes are a little ways outside of the towns and having the ability to stop at the lookout points will give you way better photos. I also like the ability to pull over when I see a busy taco stand. With the exception of some wayward livestock the roads are safe and well traveled. Just make sure do designate a driver.
Teuchitlan & Guachimontones
Teuchitlán is a little pueblo on the other side of the volcano from Tequila, Jalisco. Right above the town of Teuchitlán is the archeological site of Guachimontones. Teuchitlán is located right next to a lake that was an important part of the agricultural system that supported a large population. Guachimontones was a significant prehispanic community that is estimated to have had around 40,000 occupants. The conical shaped pyramids are unique from all the other archeological sites that I have visited in Mexico and Central America.
Many people are familiar with the chinampa agricultural system of Mexico City’s Xochimilco. It is less well known that the same chinampa agriculture system sustained the population here. The Tequila Volcano is long extinct but it left a large reserve of obsidian. That glass like rock was made into all sorts of cutting tools and spear tips that were traded far and wide. Between agriculture and industry this prehispanic community must have been a site to see back in the day.
Ahualulco de Mercado
Hacienda del Carmen
Ten minutes down the road from the Guachimontones archaeological site there is an amazing 17th century ex-hacienda that has been turned into a hotel and restaurant. There is a movement to restore and maintain these old houses as quasi museums. It is fascinating to see how the wealthy lived in centuries past. The Hacienda del Carmen hotel is not cheap. To keep the cost down a little you can make reservations at the restaurant and still get a chance to experience this living history.
Maru Toledo and Las Mujeres del Maíz
Maru Toledo is one of the preeminent voices of Jalisco documenting oral tradition and writing cookbooks. She hosts some amazing culinary experiences highlighting ranch style food. Her recipes and cooking techniques are centuries old. They cook on a wood fired comal and make cheese and vinegar in the old school way.
Maru hosts events every few weeks. Make sure to follow her facebook page to get up to date notifications about her upcoming events. There is talk of opening up the ranch to do breakfasts on the weekends but they haven’t started that just yet.
The first stop on the Ruta Del Tequila as you are heading out of Guadalajara is Arenal. As you approach the town you will start to see small agave farms on both sides of the highway. I recommend skipping breakfast in Guadalajara and getting some tacos in Arenal before your first distillery tour.
If you didn’t remember to bring a hat you should stop and pick one up on your way into town. Don’t worry, you will see the roadside stand as you hit the first speed bumps. If you plan on spending any time at all in the agave fields I can’t recommend a good hat enough. You will thank me later.
Tequila Cascahuín is small, independent distillery making some of the finest tequila in Jalisco. They are using old-school, artisanal methods of cooking, fermenting and distilling. You should pick up a bottle of their high proof tequila plata to bring back to the United States because you will not find outside of Jalisco. Before you visit one of the large, multinational distilleries you need to see how tequila was made in the old days. These guys are preserving the culture and traditions of a time long past.
There are a number of great, home-style eateries in El Arenal but I really liked Carnitas La Fuente. More than a few whole pigs are fried up each day and you pick out the cuts that you like and pay by the kilo. The owner of the place lives out back and will probably walk up and offer you a piece of jicama or an orange. There is a playground for the kids and a very enjoyable space to eat.
Hacienda Tres Mujeres
As you are leaving El Arenal towards Amatitan it is worth stopping at the Tres Mujeres distillery. The hacienda has some excellent scenery and is a great spot to take some photos. They offer tours in English seven days a week and I hear they have an very good extra añejo.
What I love about Amatitan is the authenticity. These are real cowboys and real farmers in the heart of Mexico. While the city of Tequila can feel like a tourist trap Amatitan is down home Mexico. The Herradura Hacienda is located in Amatitan and so is Cantaritos El Guero; two excellent pit stops along the road to Tequila, Jalisco.
One of the world’s most recognizable tequila brands also has a stunning hacienda tour. When it comes to the big name tequila brands there are a couple of options for touring distilleries. You can take the train in from Guadalajara or you drive in and just take the walking tour. There are a couple different price points depending on the tequila tastings that you are interested in. Honestly, the expensive tasting doesn’t seem necessary because I am not that into the añejo and extra añejo tequilas that cost a ton of money.
Tours are in English and in Spanish but make sure to call ahead to get the schedule. Intermediate level Spanish speakers will struggle to understand the technical vocabulary of the distillation process.
Cantaritos El Guero
People don’t drink a lot of margaritas in these parts. What they do drink are cantaritos. A cantarito is a mixture of tequila with grapefruit soda (Freska or Squirt), orange juice, grapefruit juice, lime, salt and a huge clay mug. Even is you don’t drink alcohol the fresh fruit juice mixed with Squirt is absolutely delicious.
The name comes from the clay vessle, cántaro, that people used to keep drinking water fresh in the home. The cantaritos range in size from large to stupidly huge. There are some funny videos on YouTube of people getting stupid. Don’t drink and drive.
The town of Tequila, Jalisco has done an excellent job of creating a tourist destination. From the UNESCO world heritage program to the Mexican Pueblo Mágico program, the community knows how to promote Tequila, Jalisco as a major tourist destination. There are some really special experiences with deep cultural roots if you can sift through the excess.
Tequila may be a victim of its own success. Many of the experiences are expensive. It seems that everyone is trying to jump on the bandwagon without actually contributing anything. I still can’t understand why there are Voladores de Papantla and what they have to do with Tequila country.
Before you go to Tequila make a plan. Don’t let some barker push you into a tour or some restaurant that just doesn’t care. There is exceptional living history to experience with the right recommendations.
Los Azules Waterfalls
Less than two miles from the main plaza in Tequila is a secluded series of waterfalls called Los Azules. The last part of the hike is a little sketchy but the waterfalls are dope. The hike through the agave fields are quintessential Tequila Country.
I highly recommend hiring a guide if you have not been before. Once you start the decent into the falls the path is not 100% obvious. Wear good shoes, bring water and go early because it can get hot.
As you would probably imagine, José Cuervo has a large footprint in Tequila. In addition to the Rojeña distillery there are event spaces, restaurants, retail boutiques and much more. The whole area surrounding the distillery is beautiful and very Instagram friendly. They have done a good job preserving the colonial charm of rural Jalisco. Even if you don’t tour the distillery you need to check out Mundo Cuervo
La Cata Tequila Tastings
If you are interested in learning more about tequila you need to make a reservation at La Cata. There are a lot of subtle nuances between different types of tequila. I don’t think there are many establishments that have a collection of tequila and the knowledge to really show off that collection. If you want to become a real connoisseur of tequila this is where you need to get your education.
Hotel Solar De Las Animas
My wife and I really enjoyed the Hotel Solar De Las Animas. The hotel does a spectacular job recreating the opulence of the hacienda era. The restaurant and bar have excellent food and very good service.
Thanks for reading. I hope that you have found something interesting or just enjoyed the pictures. I really love this part of Mexico and think that you will too. As I mentioned earlier, when you visit you should see a couple of the smaller pueblos. I like to see a big distillery and a small distillery to see the differences. Again, thanks for reading. See you next time.