A Visit to Tequila's Mexico Hometown

by Diana Rowe

Tequila — the liquor, not the town — continues to grow more and more popular beyond Mexico, even as along the way it's also pick up a bit of a bad rap (as in, margaritas and shooters, a cheap and surefire way to get — how can I put this — majorly wasted).

And yet…ever more folks are coming to appreciate the spirit’s finer points — there are reposados the equal of any single malt or Cognac, and a lore nearly as varied and distinguished as either. It was this pedigree — plus a taste of the lesser-known color of colonial Mexico — that I was seeking when I set out for this legendary central Mexican town.


This singular liquor is distilled from the cactuslike agave plant, and an officially designated “Tequila Route” passes through various villages that live for agave (including homemade brew in mini-barrels lining shopkeepers’ shelves; sample at your own risk). But it’s in and around Santiago de Tequila (pop. 27,000) on scenic Carretera 15 less than an hour from Guadalajara, that you’ll find more than half of Mexico’s 90,000 acres of blue agave cultivation.

Tequila and neighboring communities like Amatitán and Arenal are this country’s heart — and definitely not tarted up for gringos. This is unvarnished countryside where weathered jimadores (agave farmers) hit the fields before sunrise to beat the worst of the sun’s heat and the dark shadow of the Tequila Volcano hugs hilltops covered with acres of spiky blue agave — an industry that all began when the Spanish conquistadors invented “tequila wine” within a few decades of their arrival.


The town itself consists of stone arches and ochre-washed brick and adobe homes, wedged between several tequila factories, such as José Cuervo’s Mundo Cuervo, a mammoth complex in the town’s center. In traditional Mexican style, the hub of activity is the town square with its typical high-steepled church, vendor kiosks, and permanent neo-classical or baroque buildings.

But soon after arriving, I found myself out in the field, navigating rows of spiky, sharp greenish-blue agave plants and hearing the story of 68-year-old jimador Quirino. He’s walked these lands for decades, harvesting the heart of the agave — yet, despite sun-weathered skin, he strode briskly, and his mind was as sharp as an agave leaf. It’s a labor of both love and sweat, this — from daybreak until the heat gets to be too much — usually around 2 pm. Our early morning highlighted by my jimador collecting wood and building a fire to roast warm quesadillas and freshly-picked ears of corn. Over this earthy breakfast, we sat at a picnic table and enjoyed a panoramic view of agave fields dotted with livestock.


Indeed, for Quirino and the tequila industry’s 40,000 other workers, (mostly farmers and field pickers), tequila’s far more than a simple drink – it’s their history, culture, and legacy. In fact, for many, “Tequila es México.” UNESCO agrees; the area’s been on the World Heritage list since 2006.

As recently as several years ago, tourist accommodations and amenities hereabouts were still barely more than rustic at best, and most travel guides would’ve recommended it as nothing more than a day trip from Guadalajara. But not long ago I discovered one of the latest local offerings, on the outskirts of town run amid 600 acres of agave: the only local hotel with its own distillery, La Cofradía.

Each of La Cofradía's themed rooms (just four of them) features a local artist’s mural and amenities such as A/C, Internet and minibar; rates start at US$150. The highlight here is a night tour and tasting showcasing the distillation and fermentation processes; I tasted the baked agave fresh from an oven and sipped raw tequila dripping from the still. Agave seeped from oak barrels stored in dark, shadowy warehouses, their musky smell surprisingly alluring. And as we sipped the final product, La Cofradía's Casa Noble house, we were surrounded by agave fields and the aroma of fermenting tequila — a heady experience, for sure.


Another great way to go — if you’ve got the dough — is a 10-day/nine-night tequila tour from  Oregon-based company Experience Tequila (from $1,255 per person not including airfare). If on the other hand you still prefer tackling Tequila as a day trip (as many still do), there are plenty of affordable options from Guadalajara, as well as a two-hour train ride called the Tequila Express (adults 950 pesos, kids 550, seniors 850), which includes music and a dance performance, and stops at Amatitán for a tour of the 2,500-acre Herradura spread and factory at the 19th-century Hacienda San José del Refugio.

Alternatively, rent a car in Guadalajara for a 45-minute drive along the well-marked and scenic Mexican highways (just be forewarned that traffic can be tricky for those unfamiliar with Mexican driving). Many use the faster toll highway, but for those preferring the full experience, I’d recommend the slower two-lane as it runs through the smaller towns before reaching Tequila. If you’d like to spend the night in any of them, look for picturesque members of the Haciendas y Casas Rurales de Jalisco.


images | T photographyAlfredo Schaufelberger, bbum, La Cofradía

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