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While it might seem like that means a large crop of agave maturing in 2010-2011, right now there's a huge glut of agave, and prices for agave have fallen so low that some independent farmers don't bother harvesting it: it costs more to get it our of the field than they will get from a producer. This author witnessed agave fields in 2007 that had been burned or ploughed under for other crops. I suspect that unless prices rise very soon, more and more fields will remain fallow or be reclaimed for other crops. In the meantime, fewer farmers are planting right now, so any shortage - and its associated crisis - will start to make itself known around 2010-2012 when the available crop will not meet the demand.


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Updated May, 2011

Tequila & Los Altos

Co-centres of Tequila Production

Tequila, seen from Google Earth

Tequila and the western district

Tequila photograph by Doug Menuez from Heaven, Earth, TequilaThe western arm of Jalisco's tequila-producing area is centred around the town of Tequila, a small, rural community of about 24,000 on Highway 15 about 60 km NW of Guadalajara. A total of 36,000 live in the municipal region, which includes the villages of  El Salvador, San Martín de las Cañas, Santa Teresa, Potrero de los Rivera, and El Medineño.


The town of Tequila is  at 20° 52' 55 N and 103° 49' 57 W, and sits at 3,996 feet (1,218m) above sea level.


Driving a short distance from Guadalajara, you start to see the plantations of spiky plants that undulate with the hills. Row after row of blue-grey agave reaches right back to the mountains, even to the edge of the volcano that looms on the horizon as you travel northwest.


Tequila volcano from Highway 15, heading to TequilaThe Tequila volcano dominates the landscape. It is one of several volcanic elements in the area. Another is the Sierra la Primavera volcanic complex just west of Guadalajara.


The Tequila volcano is unusual in that its crater has a well preserved central spine of material which solidified in the central vent of the volcano. As its activity subsided, the spine was later pushed upwards by earth movements until it projected high above the floor of the crater. The peak of the volcano is a 9,580 feet (2,920 m) above sea level, and is popular with hang-gliders.


The church in TequilaYou can also drive up the Tequila volcano to the rim for a spectacular view. The cobblestone road runs through some amazing flora and fauna. The road was built to provide access to a communications tower perched on the rim. It is cold at the top, even in the warm, rainy season.  The road up to the volcano starts by the Tequila railroad station, near the base of the mountain. Ask for directions in town from anybody and you will eventually find the road. Asking for the railroad station is the key.

Welcome to TequilaThe volcanic terrain of the area is also rich in opals. The most notable town for opal purchases is Magdalena, several miles north of Tequila on Hwy. 15. Several miles north of Magdalena look for a town named Tequesquite. From there turn right up a dirt road a few more miles to a small, somewhat remote village called Hostotipaquillo. Along the way you will see hammer-wielding men banging into rocks. These are the opal miners and you can get your best prices from them, or they may direct you to places in town to make your purchase.


The volcano is dormant, and last erupted about 200,000 years ago. That eruption covered the area in rich volcanic soils that enrich today's blue agave: the tierra negra.


Tequila street map - click for a larger imageThere are also archeological sites to visit in the lowlands area. A 217-acre site above the town of Teuchitlán called Guachimontones has huge circular structures on a natural platform overlooking the wide valley. This was a ceremonial center, the heart of the Teuchitlán tradition. This complex society, responsible for the area's shaft tombs, reached its peak between 200 B.C. and A.D. 350, when more than 50,000 people may have lived within 15 miles of the Tequila volcano. At its height, the Teuchitlán tradition was the cultural center of West Mexico, with unique, complex architecture and a trade network that stretched from Guatemala to Arizona.


Mining obsidian near TequilaThe word tequila itself is a mystery. It is said to be an ancient Nahuatl term. The Nahuatl were the original people who lived in the area. The word means means (depending on the authority) "the place of harvesting plants," "the place of wild herbs," "place where they cut," "the place of work" or even "the place of tricks."


Tequila Cascahuin's web site gave a new source for the name: it said the word is a corruption of "tetilla" because the volcano looked like a small woman's breast.


Other sources say it is a corruption of the name of the natives - Ticuilas or Tiquilos.


According to Jose Maria Muria, tequila comes form the Nahuatl words tequitl (work, duty, job or task) and tlan (place). Other sources say it means "the rock that cuts." Walk through an agave field around the town and you will find pieces of raw obsidian - volcanic glass used in the past as cutters, arrowheads, spearheads and scrapers. Obsidian is the 'rock that cuts.' Obsidian is even embedded in some of the town's sidewalks. To this author, 'the rock that cuts' seems appropriate.


All of them are suitable. It is the name of the spirit, the name of the town and the name of the valley.


Jimador statue in TequilaTequila lies in a valley, surrounded by the cliffs and ridges created by the regions geological past. The dominant site on the landscape is the Tequila Volcano: 2,940 m above sea level (9,650 ft).


Santiago de Tequila was founded on April 15, 1530, by a group of Franciscans who arrived on the heels of Conquistador Cristobal de Oñate that year. The natives rebelled against their Spanish overlords in 1541, but that was quelled within the year.


The town became a municipality ("villa") on March 27, 1824, and was elevated to city status in 1874, although its population is still very small today (35,502 in the 2000 census).

Tequila the spirit took its name from the town in the late 19th century; before that the product was known as mezcal or mezcal wine and little differentiated products from different regions. In recognition of the importance of the drink to the community, a large statue of a jimador (agave harvester), straddling casks, axe in hand, greets visitors at the highway entrance to the main street. The legend at the bottom of the statue reads, "Amor, amistad, alegra; Destilas tierra mia" - Love, friendship, cheer; you distill my earth."


Mercado in tequilaAnother statue stands tucked away further into the town, off the main street: Mayahuel, the goddess of the agave holds an agave piña in her hand as she blesses passersby.


According to some, the best agave plants grow on the slopes of the extinct volcano near the town. Others say the best tequila is made from agave taken from the highlands to the east because highland agave tend to grow larger and mature more slowly.


Agave hijuelos for sale in TequilaThe National Tequila Fair is held annually in Tequila at the end of November to mid-December (Nov. 30-Dec. 12). There are parades, charreadas (Mexican rodeo events), cock fights, serenades with mariachis, fireworks displays. You may also want to drop by May 13 for the "Day to Feast Tequila."


Many of the 30 or so distilleries in the region distilleries will let you in for a free tour. Others - like Cuervo and Sauza - charge for the privilege. Cuervo's basic tour cost $7.50 US, and a VIP tour is $25, and includes a visit to the family's aging cellar and a taste of their premium Reserva de la Familia.


Most of the larger producers are in the Tequila region, as well.


In 2003, Mexico's tourism office named the city a Pueblo Magico (Magic Town), providing about $544,000 USD for municipal and social improvements. That helped tourism numbers are grow to about 93,000 in 2005, double the number in 2002.

Tequila at nightA plan by the city's mayor, Miguel Marin, to close off one street from traffic, repave the main road and plant trees and flowers in front of some stores has met resistance by some locals, who simply don t want to lose their parking spaces in the name of beautification.

"We need tourism," said Marin, in a newspaper interview. "We need more hotels, more restaurants, more transportation." If visitors stay the night, he said, "they spend more money, they eat breakfast and lunch, they buy souvenirs."

mercado in TequilaResidents, however, don t want to lose the city's small-town charm, even if they embrace the idea of increased tourism.

Tequila is close to several other towns that produce its eponymous spirit: Amatitan and Arenal, both along Highway 15 on the way to Guadalajara. Both towns are home to several distilleries, as well as many agave plantations. Partida and Herradura are both in Amatitan; Don Valente and Mascarillo are in Arenal.


The indigenous people in the Tequila area were called the Nahuatl. Today there are several Web sites dedicated to the Nahuatl, including language classes and dictionaries.

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Arandas and the eastern highlands

Cathedral in ArandasArandas is the focal point for Jalisco's western tequila producers. It is a larger town than Tequila, at 46,000 people, with 80,193 in the entire municipal region. The area is known for corn and dairy production, including cheese, as well as for its tequila.

Arandas is at 20° 42' 19 N and 102° 20' 46 W.


Los Altos - the highlands - is a different region in many ways. Its soils are richer in iron and many fields display the characteristic red earth - the tierra roja - between rows of agave. It is generally said that the best agaves are grown in the highlands. In 1938, Andre Breton wrote in his Souvenir du Mexico, of the "Red earth, virgin earth, impregnated with the most fertile blood, a land where human life has little value and, like the agave that extends to the horizon, it is always prepared to be consumed in a flower of danger and desire."


Agave is planted in denser fields here, too, 3,000-5,000 per hectare, up to double what is planted around Tequila.


Highlands producers claim their tequilas are different from lowlands tequilas. As David Agren wrote in the Guadalajara Reporter, April, 2006, producers say the red soil where the agave is grown gives the agaves different nutrients.

Arandas street sceneAlso, because of the microclimate of the highlands, the nighttime temperature dips considerably, so the blue agave matures more slowly in Los Altos.

Arandas street sceneLuis Alva Mu–oz, a technical advisor for Jalisco's Rural Development Secretariat (Seder) says agaves grown in the Tequila area take seven years to mature, while those in Los Altos grow for eight to 10 years before being harvested.

As a result, he added, agaves from Los Altos have a higher sugar content, which impacts the final products' flavors.


Spirits from from the Tequila area are said to be "drier" than those from Los Altos, which are supposedly more aromatic with more sweet notes.

Santa Barbara hotel in ArandasTwo other tequila-producing towns in Los Altos should be noted: Atotonilco el Alto (population 26,044), southeast of Arandas, and Tepatitlán de Morelos, west of Arandas, (population 82,975).


Arandas began as a trading post and rest stop for weary travellers, run by two feuding families who fought over each other's land holdings. The ongoing feud is actually symbolized in the town's official seal. One of those families was the Camarena family, which still owns and operates several tequila distilleries in Los Altos, including La Altaña (El Tapatio).

Agave decoration on highway to ArandasMaking tequila in Los Altos became legal in 1937, and the Camarena family started producing their own that year, starting with Don Felipe, and carried on through his son, Don Felipe, and his grandson, Carlos.


The distilleries in Los Altos tend to be smaller, family run, and more traditional in their production and crop techniques. As Ana Valanzuela-Zapata writes,


The highlanders are proud, hard-working conservatives, both religious and pragmatic in their outlook on life. Their social ties to one another have slowed the entry of agribusiness entrepreneurs into their homeland, so large-scale industrial agriculture has not gained much of a foothold in Los Altos.





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