By Kim Fuller Published in The Denver Post
TEQUILA, MEXICO — Despite the liquor’s rowdy reputation, the town of Tequila’s central square was quaint, and quiet when we arrived.
Here in the heart of town, late on a Sunday evening in October, a rose-gold sheen began to fall on the Church of Santiago Apostol. Residents were still lingering in its evening shadow. In a nearby alley, taco, posole and churro carts stood in a row, and my group eagerly waited in line for a taste of each. Near our feet, a few stray dogs playfully rolled around and cut the queue of people for their next scrap of dinner.
Like most tourists who venture to Tequila, my group had come to sip the nectar straight from the source. I’d tagged along on an industry-specific tour with a restaurant team from Root & Flower, a small wine bar in Vail with a good taste in craft spirits. (I date one of their bartenders.) Tequila Fortaleza, a smaller distillery in town, had invited restaurant and bar representatives from all over the U.S. for a visit.
The distilleries run through and around the town, but the majority sit on the west end, on expansive land that’s sloped and covered in rows of blue agave. The hills surrounding the town are dotted with the native plant, and though blue agave looks modest in scale from a distance, approaching one reveals that some of the older stalks stand upwards of eight feet high.
The beverage known as tequila is really a variety of mezcal, a distilled alcoholic spirit made from any type of agave plant in Mexico. To be considered tequila, the product must be made either solely or mostly from the Tequila region’s native blue agave. Any tequila labeled as 100 percent blue agave tequila must be distilled entirely from Blue Weber Agave grown in the specific zone of Tequila and several areas around it, and it must be bottled in these specified areas as well.
Our tasting day was a marathon, beginning with breakfast outside at the Tequila Fortaleza hacienda. From there we rode from distillery to distillery in a truck decked out to look like a giant cask on wheels.
Some of the smaller distilleries we visited, such as Tequila Arette, La Tequileña and Tequila Fortaleza, have been family owned for generations and pride themselves in using 100 percent blue agave in all of their tequilas. We were always greeted by the owners, or a whole lineup of generations of family members, who shared the stories of their spirits and offered opinions on how the mass production of tequila has diluted the amount of blue agave used by many large-scale distillers.
Craft distillers are making just a fraction of the tequila on the market. Eduardo Orendain Jr., a fifth generation distiller for Arette, gave us some production numbers for perspective: Last year, Arette made less than 500,000 liters of tequila. He estimated that Jose Cuervo, also made in Tequila, at the La Rojeña distillery, produced about 60 million liters in that same timeframe. (Arette, by the way, was named for the Mexican-bred horse that, in 1948, won Mexico’s only Olympic gold medals in jumping to date.)
Earlier in the day, a guide on our tour of Tequila Fortaleza distillery had told us, “If you’re making 100-percent blue agave tequila, it technically means that during the fermentation process, you didn’t pour a bunch of bags of sugar in it.”
We stood alongside the giant autoclaves used to steam-cook agave in Arette and inhaled fumes off the stacks of tequila-soaked barrels aging underground in La Tequileña. At Tequila Fortaleza, we walked the sprawling property, past countless agave plants, to climb up to a view overlooking town. There was tequila to drink everywhere we stopped, and like wine, every sip seems to taste a little better when you’re standing on the relative terroir.
These were sipping tequilas — silvers, or blancos, that highlight the earthy character of the distilled agave. Aged variations, the reposados and añejos, share hints of the wine or bourbon oak barrels in which they’ve been soaking. The qualities of flavor profiles can be as dynamic as your personal palate, but the robust yet rounded notes that come through with these craft tequilas are undeniably smooth in comparison to the mass-produced tequilas I had taken as shots and mixed into margaritas in college.
Orendain Jr. said the market for people wanting to buy 100-percent blue agave tequila is gradually growing, and that he sees the consumer interest and support for smaller-batch producers like Arette.
Smaller distilleries are also sticking with more traditional production methods, which includes harvesting, cooking and milling the agave before fermenting it. Touring the distilleries, I became quickly aware of another discrepancy in the industry: Some distilleries use a diffuser, a machine that creates a higher yield with less agave. It’s a matter of purity that most distillers will discuss — especially if they don’t use a diffuser.
The debate of what makes a “good” tequila will always be on the table, but the oldest isn’t always the best. Unlike a coveted aged single-malt scotch, the blanco, the youngest and simplest expression of tequila, may be the most revered.
“Sometimes you find brands that produce a great blanco, but the aged products are not so good,” said Gin Schiavoni of Tequila Don Fulano, produced by La Tequileña. “Or vice versa — maybe the blanco is not as good, but they did a great job aging it.”
But it’s still a long process. Even a blanco, which sees no time in a barrel, is about 12 years in the making — agave alone takes at least six years to grow. It all seems worth the wait, though, and after this visit, those shots seem like a waste. Tequila taught me that this spirit is meant for sipping.
Tequila, Mexico is a one-day journey from Guadalajara. Spirit of Jalisco tequila distillery tours offer day trips, a three-day excursion and custom experiences. Fly into Guadalajara and meet a private driver to head to the town of Tequila. Overnight guests will stay at a hotel in town and be escorted in the private vehicle to distilleries tours, agave fields, bars and restaurants. www.spiritofjalisco.com