Church of Santiago Apostol, central Tequila, Jalisco,
than 2 hours by bus from Jalisco's capital city of
Guadalajara, today, the city of Tequila is a World Heritage Site.
Legends and myths envelop the distilled drink of the
same name, and to appreciate the finesse and the fire of
tequila, one must reach deep into the core of Mexico to
Blue Agave, agave tequilana weber azul
Archeologists say that agave has been cultivated for at
least 9,000 years. Legend has it that centuries ago,
a lightning storm caused a fire in the native agave
fields. Plants exposed to the heat of this fire were roasted and split
open. Sweet juices oozed from these cooked and
burst succulents and the indigenous people found them to
be agreeable to their taste. The plant had already been
used to make rope, thread for clothing, with the prickly
points being fashioned into a
sort of nail for construction or used as a needle to sew.
they had food, and surprisingly, a sweet drink called
agua miel or honey water.
Aztecs enjoying pulque
local indigenous people considered this sweet drink from
the agave to be a gift from the gods. After all, it was
discovered after powerful light from the heavens struck the earth causing
the juices to flow. Later they learned
to make a kind of beer from the fermented agua miel,
and that drink was called pulque.
archways reflect the architecture of the Spanish
Tequila is North America's first distilled drink and its
first commercially produced alcohol.
Conquistadores came, they made distilled 'tequila wine'
from the pulque drink of the Aztecs. Don Pedo Sanches de Tagle established the very first tequila
factory at his hacienda in 1600. One hundred-sixty-five
years later, the Spanish
government wanted to favor the importation of Spanish
wines and spirits to the New World, so consequently the
Crown banned all
locally made spirits including this mezcal wine.
Legally, production was halted, but of course the trade
simply went underground.
Ferdinand IV lifted the ban in 1792, but it wasn't until
after the Mexican Revolution from the Spanish in the
tequila regained its prominence.
Jose Cuervo distillery complex in Tequila
first licensed manufacturer was Jose Antonio Cuervo who
received special rights in the mid 1700's from the King of Spain to
cultivate a plot of land in New Spain. His son, Jose Maria Cuervo, obtained the first license to produce mezcal
wine and founded Casa Cuervo, the first official
Mexican distillery in 1795.
1812 when Jose died, his son-in-law, Vincente Albino
Rojas, changed the name of the Casa and increased
production. By the middle of that century, the family
rancho holdings had more than 3 million agave plants.
Today, the largest manufacturer of tequila is Jose
Cuervo, and their export market is huge.
National Museum of Tequila is a must see.
museum, easy to find
Corona #34, this national museum presents the history of the
making of tequila. Providing good photographic exhibits,
a large collection of bottles from the many distinct
styles of the local distilleries, there are explanations
of the mechanics and history of tequila, as well as good
displays of the local culture.
There is a
tequila tasting in the gift shop at the end of your self-guided tour. Certainly worth the 15 Peso admission
fee, and we recommend that you visit!
museum, easy to find
of these individual rooms house displays of the history
of tequila, the first distillers, photographs of the
fields, the jimadores or harvesters working, collector
bottles, antique displays of tools of the trade, live
Blue Agave plants and more.
first thing to greet you is this stainless steel still
with the Virgen de Guadalupe etched boldly on the
center front. Mexicans are still asking those of heavenly
to bless this beverage. On the top sides, Blue Agave
plants are etched in as well.
cart above is an antique. In years past, these carts
would be loaded up with harvested pinas and brought to
the distilleries by mules, oxen or horses. Carts are
still used in fields today, if the terrain is such that
trucks cannot reach the plants.
Agave pinas after being harvested from the field
the spines are hacked away, the
center of the agave plant looks much like a pineapple - hence the word,
pina. In olden days, these pinas would be slow roasted in
a brick or adobe oven for 24 to 36 hours to process the
natural juices and soften the fibers.
consistent, slow cooking temperature of about 150*F keep the agave
from caramelizing which would add a darker color and
Only three or four more rotations
and Billy will have this down!
the pinas cooled for another 24 to 36 hours, they were
crushed by a stone wheel such as the one pictured above.
These stone wheels were driven by mules, oxen or horses
until the fibers were pulverized and in shreds. These
stone wheels, called tahonas, could weigh up to 3 tons.
If you look really hard you can
see the chair she is sitting on. If you cannot see it
perhaps you need more tequila!
is a distinct tequila art culture displaying the
effects, the joy and the history surrounding the beverage.
This art culture is heartily embraced by the locals complete with
Sauza distillery named La Preservancia
is another historic name in the tequila industry. In
1873, Don Cenobio Sauza bought his first distillery and
started making mezcal wine. Some say he was the first to
determine that the Blue Agave was the best maguey with
which to make tequila, and the other distillers followed
was the first to export tequila to the USA when, in
1873, he sold three barrels to El Paso del Norte, The
Passage to the North, or what we
know as El Paso, Texas today.
These days, Sauza owns around 300 plantations of agave and is
the second largest manufacturer of tequila.
Our tour guide at Sauza distillery, Karina Sanchez
We arranged for
a private tour of the Sauza distillery, and Karina was
our guide. Behind her you will see a commissioned oil
painting that depicts the history and stages of
production in which tequila was made centuries ago.
After being cooked in ovens, and crushed by the
tahona, what was left of the pina was transported to fermentation
tanks. The resulting juices were distilled to make
If you look
closely at the fermentation tanks in the painting above, you will see one
worker transporting the crushed agave into the tank, and
another worker in the tank itself. Centuries ago,
fermentation was done through bacteria, and the manner
in which this bacteria was introduced into the vats was
by having workers come in from a day in the fields and
stand in the juices. The bacteria from their bodies mixed
with the agave sugars and began the distilling process.
distillation tanks today
course, today, yeast is used for the fermentation
process, and emphasis is placed on sanitation of the
product and worker safety.
has a distinct manner in which it processes its tequila,
different from the methods of ages past. Instead of
roasting the pinas in an oven to release the sugars of
the agave thereby giving a smoky taste to the resulting liquid,
Sauza decided to keep the unique flavor of the agave
plant itself. At this stage, the Sauza distillery shred
their pinas and through steam and hot water, juices and
sugars from the pinas are released. This
non-roasting approach is
considered a high volume method of production.
Entranceway out of the distillery and to the original
home of the Sauza family
Quinta Sauza was built in 1836. Today, it is protected
by World Heritage restrictions, where nothing is to be
modified. It reflects the home as it originally was
Running fountain in Quinta Sauza
is a curious historical fact about this home. The last
woman to live here had no children to whom she could
will her estate.
Approaching the Cuervo family, she offered to sell her
property to them, but was rebuffed. Apparently the rival
tequila family thought the Sauza holdings could be
purchased cheaply at auction since there were no direct
business plan backfired, and the home and gardens were willed to
Today, this prized piece of land sits in the Center of
the Cuervo landholdings. The Cuervo family is the number
one tequila manufacturing distillery in Mexico. Sauza,
producing 23 million liters per year is the number two.
the barrel maker
Tradionally, tequila was kept and transported in
barrels. In the late 19th century, Cuervo was the first distillery to put tequila
into bottles, but the barrel maker is still very much in
demand even today.
tequila is clear right after distillation and any
subsequent color is derived from aging in wooden barrels
or from additives.
shows his imported French, Canadian or American barrels
Reposado or anejo tequila is aged in white
oak barrels stored in warehouses. This aging
process smoothes out the fire of tequila and imparts a
Gonza's son cutting wooden pieces from used barrels
white oak barrels from North America or France are
broken down, sanded and cut into smaller strips.
closer look at hand cut wooden pieces for smaller
these barrels have previously stored wine or other
spirits, they have already been cured. Gonzo sanded and
chipped away at a sample piece of wood, and the scent
coming from the wood was very aromatic.
Nothing is wasted
order for the narrow pieces of wood to bend properly
into the barrel shape, the inside of each strip is chipped
away at its center making the wood easier to form a
quick hammering and steel bindings
Wooden strips are fit into steel circular forms and
pounded into a tight fit.
Barrel strips softening in hot water
next step is to place the barrel into hot water to
soften the strips so they can be bent into a round shape
Notice the fire under the steel drum filled with water.
the partly finished wooden barrel has been soaked and
softened, steel cables are wrapped around it. The steel
cables are tightened and the remaining end of the barrel
becomes narrower so that the last steel form around the
barrel can be put into place.
chips smoke the insides
lip of the barrel completes the form. Then the dried
barrel receives another touch: burning wood
chips. This will add color and flavor to the stored
burns a design into the barrel top
Barrels are made into popular 1 liter, 2 liter and 5
liter sizes. Larger barrels for distilleries are made as
well. Designs are burned into the wood by hand.
Barrels almost ready for us
hole is drilled into the center of the barrel to fill,
where the tequila will be 'rested' (reposado)
or aged (anejo).
Gonzo's barrel factory
and his family have been proudly making barrels for five
generations. He told us that he also makes these large
barrels (pictured above) for the local tequila
distilleries in the area and he has a thriving business.
example of one famous distillery using these white oak
Stunning surroundings of Cofradia distillery
Founded just over fifty years ago, Cofradia is a newcomer
to the world of tequila and is now the 7th largest exporter
of this distilled beverage. The name 'Cofradia' means
Carlos Hernandez, the founder of Cofradia
Agave pinas being harvested in the fields
order to be labeled 'tequila' there are certain
requirements to be filled according to Mexican law. The
key distinguishing identity is that it be made from 100%
agave. Some bottles will put 100% agave azul,
which means it is made from agave tequilana weber azul.
In order to be sold as tequila, it must be made only
from this particular succulent, approved by government
inspectors to insure purity, and be bottled in Mexico.
the bottle is not labeled 100% agave, they are
considered 'mixtos'. Up to 49% of the alcohol can be
made from other sugars such as cane sugar. They have
less taste than the agave sugars, and caramel and almond
essence can be added for both color and flavor.
Mixtos are generally used for Margaritas and other mixed
drinks. They are not sipped straight since their flavor
is not prized.
Closer view of harvested pina
agave tequilana weber azul has a lifespan of 8-14
years, depending on soil, climate and cultivation
methods. It grows in developed fields on high plateaus
in mineral-rich red soil and volcanic earth. There can
be 1,000 to 2,000 agaves growing per acre.
Blue Agave takes from 8 to 12 years to reach the stage
where the sugars are suitable for fermentation. The more
mature the plant is, the better its natural sugars.
Jimadore working in the field
Today, most fields are still hand cultivated.
Traditional methods are passed down from generation to
generation and some fields have three generations of
harvesters working them.
Notice the shin guard that this Jimadore is
wearing. Perhaps experience has taught him something.
Those tools are razor sharp.
paid by the pina
harvester was a bit shy but it's possible that he didn't
want to be disturbed in his production. He told us that,
depending on the size of the plant, he could harvest
100- 200 pinas in a day.
mature pina can weigh from 80 to more than 300 pounds.
Jimadore slicing tool cut through the succulent
stalks like a knife though softened butter. We had never
seen anything like it. There was no hacking, no jerking
motion, no repeats; just smooth swings one after
another which removed the blue-green pencas.
Finishing one row, beginning another
can be a long day in the fields. Row after row is
harvested and the Jimadore is paid by the pina.
Fields are not irrigated. The agave plants depend
entirely on the rainy season for their moisture.
Irrigation experiments were tried, but the larger plants
did not result in producing more agave sugars, so the
technique was abandoned.
Individual coas are kept razor sharp
left to grow in the wild, mature agave plants produce a
tall stalk with a flower on the end. These flowers are
pollinated by long nosed bats to produce seeds so the
plant can reproduce. As long as the shoot is growing,
all the nutrients and life of the pina is being
used up to support the flower.
other words, as the stalk and flower live, the pina
is why the stalks on the agave plants in the orchards
are cut before they take the nutrients from the heart,
and the hearts are harvested at that time.
Another method of reproduction of this succulent are the
shoots that the plant sends out when they are between 4
to 6 years old. When the shoots are about the size of a
leek, they are transplanted, and the agave fields are
tries his hand at pina harvesting - picking up
some extra cash in retirement
the plant is ready for harvesting, the carbohydrate-rich
heart is cut from its roots. The
Blue agave must be replaced with new shoots and the
cycle begins again. In another 8-12 years that next crop
will be mature.
it takes so many years to harvest the pinas for
tequila-making, alternate crops like corn and beans are
often planted in between the rows of agave plants. This
helps to rejuvenate the soil as well as bring in backup
income from the fields.
of the trade
harvesting of the agave plant is still done by hand. In
this manner, the size of the pina is controlled
which is necessary to facilitate its consistent cooking
in the ovens. Pinas of differing sizes
cause some plants to be overcooked while others are are
guide, Alejandro, demonstrates the pina size that
This series of machines shreds and
crushes the pina after cooking
the pina is harvested, it is brought to the
distillery, baked, then crushed, shred and drained of its
juices. This modern machine is a bit like a wood
generations in the tequila business
Vincente Orendain acquired a distillery from Jose
Antonio Cuervo in the 1830's. Through the generations,
the Orendain family has bought and sold their factories
and modernized them.
Tequila Orendain is the third largest exporter of
Lano is a boutique distillery that sells several brands
of tequilas, including 100% agave azul.
is the distillery and the tanks are modern stainless
guide at El Llano proudly explains the distilling
Different bottles, different styles of tequila, same
distillery that we visited made numerous
labels to sell their product, some with as much as 80%
of their tequilas being
are blancos and platas, mixtos, reposados and
anjeos. Each style appeals to a different type of
customer and their preferred taste.
Different brands, different flavors
symbol of Mexican national pride, the production of
tequila is now a thriving business, with most tequila
being exported around the world. There are 911 different
domestic brands of tequila, plus 158 labels used for
do you know what kind of tequila to buy?
Part III, The Taste of Tequila!
you want to know more about the city of Tequila, Jalisco,
more stories about places of interest in Mexico,