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Extra añejo is the new tipo 5, in the 2006 NORMA. It is tequila which has been left to mature for at least three years in oaken wooden containers having a maximum capacity of 600 liters; the commercial alcohol by volume must be adjusted by the addition of water. Also called vintage. Because this was only introduced in 2006, it is still a rare product. Many producers are storing añejos for later release in this category. Initial tastings of these extra-aged tequilas suggest they will be rich, complex, and delightful - with highlights of chocolate, caramel, leather and wood.
Updated May, 2011
The Magical 2006 Tequila Tour
A personal reminiscence
Four days, a dozen distilleries, and a bus full of wide-eyed tequila aficionados. Distilled from my original blog entries, available, with the associated photo galleries, from the forum.
By the time I reached Guadalajara, I had been travelling for 12+ hours, I was tired, stiff, hungry and crusty from a cold that blossomed only a day or so before my flight.
I love Mexico, I'm comfortable in Mexico, but my Spanish is clumsy and takes a while to kickstart, so I can't communicate well. Although I enjoy exploring and I like entertaining new experiences, I didn't know the area, and I had no familiar touchstones to ground me.
Since I was the last of our group to arrive, I took a cab - an hour's drive from the Guadalajara airport - to rendezvous with the others. My Spanish was only slightly better than my driver's English, but I was too tired to make much of an effort at conversation, so after a few fitful attempts, I lapsed into silence as we weaved through the city's busy traffic. I had only a vague idea of how to get to Tequila, and was even more murky on just where La Cofradia was. I could only watch the scenery slip by the window.
But somewhere along the highway, about fifteen minutes away from my destination, it all came into focus.
The landscape had grown hilly the further we retreated from Guadalajara. The views had also changed, from merely interesting, to spectacular. Mountains loomed in the distance under the clear sky, crisply lit in the late afternoon sun. And then I saw them. The fields of spiky agave - coloured somewhere between a pale azure and a steely grey-blue. Row upon row, neatly tended and following the undulating passage of the hills like spiky corduroy.
We continued up to the buildings. There everyone was, milling about, chatting, joking - and all waiting for me. I felt like I was coming home.
There I was, in Mexico. At a tequila plant in Mexico with blue agave growing a stone's throw away. And I had this great, big, silly grin on my face, thinking, "I'm here. I'm really here."
The afternoon was still warm, a lot warmer than I had expected. I trundled out with the group to watch a jimador slice the leaves off an agave with consummate ease. The coa was offered around to any gringo bold enough to attempt it in the company of such a practiced expert. I heard my name being called, I was dragged out of the crowd. I didn't remove a foot, managed to keep the sharp blade from lodging in a shin, I escaped with my body parts and pride intact.
We also got our first close-up look at an agave, and its thick, straight leaves with their sharp thorns. We sniffed at the edges of the fresh cuts, smelling the green scents of vegetation and sap. The link between plant and process was starting to cement itself.
Then we got the tour. My first distillery. It was kind of like my first marriage, without the lawyers at the end. I was starry-eyed as we were shown the ovens, the fermenting tanks, and finally the distillation. This was where it actually happened! Everyone was glued to our guide, hanging off every word, snapping photographs.
I tasted the sweet baked agave, delighting in the dark caramel flavour, surprised that it was so good. Most of us weren't quite sure how to eat it - I saw more than a few people trying to chew the tough fibres, swallowing them (they would return to their source, somewhat later, and mostly intact... empirical proof how the agave fibres were useful for making rope and clothing). The trick is to strip the soft flesh off with your teeth, and discard the fibre. A few more distilleries and we'd all be experts at sampling these slices of cooked agave.
We tasted the first distillate - the ordinario - right from the still, then the second distillate - the fresh tequila. The tall tube passed around, each of us sampling it, becoming a little more intimate with each ritual, passing through the rites of tequila together.
For the final phase, we were herded into their cellars where, standing among the barrels of aging tequila, we were treated to more samples of their excellent tequilas, and delicious Mexican appetizers including some cheeses I'd never sampled before.
I returned on the bus to my hotel room in the Mision Tequillan - a nice, small, clean room, and unpacked before I joined a dozen others to visit a tiny bar off on a sides treet, where we had more gringos than there were seats available.
First we had to stop in an alley behind the cathedral, where we got some food from the local street vendors. Since Lent had just begun, there was no meat (a bonus for me), so I had a "shrimp burger" - camarones a la diabla - fried shrimp served with lettuce and tomatoes, hot sauce, on bread. Delicious! Others had the bean dishes.
On its own, the TV turned on - set as an alarm for the same time every morning, I later found out - showing an old B&W Pedro Infante movie, in Spanish. It's a cantina scene, a pretty señorita is singing, then Pedro, in his charro suit, gets up and sings his own song. Over at the bar, the bad guys are drinking tequila and frowning, obviously planning for confrontation.
This seems like serendipity - one of those comic cosmic coincidences - here I am in Tequila, watching an old Mexican movie that encapsulates the classic Mexican culture: tequila, charros, Pedro Infante - does it get any better?
Our driver - Miguel - deftly maneuvered the large bus through the tight streets of the town, never hitting telephone poles, trees or any of the numerous parked cars. Off the main street, the roads are cobblestone - not that pressed-concrete stuff, but rough, bumpy volcanic rock. I imagined tire sales are good, here in Tequila.
A short trip down the highway brought us to the agave fields of Manuel Landeros, agave grower and owner of the hotel.
It was early morning and the sun was rising directly behind the jimadores who had climbed through the barbed-wire fence to demonstrate their art on several seven-year-old plants. Manuel stood outside explaining to the group what they were doing, and how they removed the hijuelos - pups - for transplanting. I climbed into the field for some close-ups and a better angle. That was my first lesson in how important it is to treat the agave with respect.
Agave are very protective. Each leaf is armed with a needle-sharp thorn at the end, which easily breaks off and lodges in clothing - or skin. Even on the ground, cut from the piña, these spines pose a threat, stabbing upwards as you walk over the leaves, poking into exposed flesh, through socks and even the soles of light shoes.
The edges of the leaves are serrated, with curving spines that grab and hold clothing if you are careless enough to brush up against them. And in the fields, where agave are tightly packed and thousands of leaves poke out like long hypodermics, one has to walk with an almost Zen-like concentration, aware of every plant and leaf.
Equally dangerous are the old, dried-up leaves at the bottom of the plant. These become curled and stiff and, thanks to the strong fibres inside, remain on the plant to deter predators who might approach. When cut from the plant, they remain in a defensive curl, with spines intact and now even more brittle.
Meanwhile, the jimadores cut a half-dozen or so large plants. Every dozen or so cuts, each man would stop, take a small file from a back pocket, and sharpen the edge of the coa with swift strokes, then return the task. I never saw any women in the fields, and I think most could do the work equally well, but by tradition it's a man's trade. We would see many women working in the distilleries, however.
Back in town, we had a couple of hours of free time to explore. I went off down the side streets, cameras in hand, looking at the houses and shops, taking photos, and doing what I like to do - wander around and poke my nose into places off the beaten path.
I saw the agave motif everywhere on my travels. It's on benches, on sidewalks, on walls, on grates and fences. Agave plants are used for decoration, too, for landscaping and fences. Outside one house, little hijuelos were lined up on the sidewalk in pots, for sale. Sight lines along streets look onto distant pastures of agave.
You can't escape the imagery or the plant, but then why would you want to? It's the icon of the region.
We gathered again at to Mundo Cuervo; every visitor to the region should visit Mundo Cuervo - an easy walk from the hotel, and only a block from the zocalo, in the downtown core.
Cuervo takes its tourism as seriously as they take their international marketing. Mundo Cuervo is designed to impress, yes, to sell Cuervo, but gently. It's a beautiful place, one that reflects taste and refinement. After all, Cuervo has 211 years of history here and they are one of the cornerstones of the industry. If you've come this far, you don't need the uptempo, brash marketing that sells tequila in North America. Here you get a mature, even affectionate welcome to the Cuervo world.
We started off with margaritas and a short video that tells of both tequila's and Cuervo's past. Then we toured the hacienda - a large museum with shops, bars, multimedia presentations, sculpture and art. One of the shops has beautiful artwork from around Mexico, handmade goods, prints, jewellery - very little that's tequila-related at all. There is a separate shop for Cuervo-branded items or tequila-related goods.
We learned that for JC's premium tequilas, only one crushing mill is used to extract the juices from the cooked agave. For the rest, there are three mills, each squeezing out a little more of the precious syrup from the pulp. Agaves are roasted for 36-38 hours here, in ovens with 27-40 tonnes-capacity. JC still uses copper stills, too.
Cuervo makes three grades of handmade agave paper from the pulp, calling them blanco, reposado and añejo, depending on the colour. We were shown a display of the hand-painted cases for the famous JC Reserva de Familia, each year with its own design and art. JCRF is aged five-seven years.
The tasting was conducted by Francisco Hajnal, JC's maestro de tequila - a sommelier for tequila. We sat at two long tables set up in the barrel room, each seat with a flight of three Gran Centennario tequilas. Overhead, as he talks, I notice misters spraying to keep the cellar's humidity high and reduce seepage from the barrels.
Francisco instructed us in evaluating the 'legs' of the tequila ("lagrimas de la agave" - tears of the agave). He also suggests opening your mouth a small amount when sniffing, to avoid the tears that alcohol can bring. Swirl, sniff, then sip - and hold the tequila in your mouth for 10 seconds, while sucking in a bit of air - breathe out through your nose before swallowing.
Francisco said tequilas aged in American oak were sweeter than those aged in French oak, but Cuervo also uses barrels from Jerez, Spain. Small barrels give lots of control and immersion with wood, large barrels less. Barrels last 25-30 years, but each has only a five-year lifespan for any batch of tequila, after which all of the tannins are fully immersed in the tequila. So barrels are used five times before being discarded, or used for parts.
The large tanks around us hold 17,800 litres. The aroma of aging tequila is noticeable in the cellar, and Francisco says they lose up to five percent a year from seepage. Sales, he said, were 80% reposado, 17% blanco, and only 3% to añejo.
As a closing point, he says when drinking with food, we should start a meal or appetizers with a blanco or reposado, and end with an añejo.
From the tasting we moved to the private family cellar, where a century of bottles is stored. We descended into the gloom, passing stores of barrels, their ends signed by the many visitors - mostly Cuervo's international distributors who visit. Tourists, we're told, never get in here, so we feel very special. This is where they store the famous Jose Cuervo Reserva de la Familia. A few of us received a brandy snifter with tequila taken right from a barrel of JCRF, and the rest of us tasted the bottled version.
Here we learned how to sniff the brandy glasses to get the best from the tequila. There are three places in the glass to test - the bottom (closest to the tequila) has the alcohol; the middle has the agave, and the top has the wood.
We also learned that the award-winning JCRF is made from very old agaves - 12 years, quite remarkable - and only pressed once in the mill, to avoid and bitter juices.
Just before we left, we're given the opportunity to sign a barrel, a rare honour, since as far as we're told no tourists ever get the chance.
On the way to the building across the road, we paused to look at the large cage that housed a black crow - a cuervo.
Lunch was provided in the other building, outdoors under a large covered archway. It was a beautiful spread on a beautiful, sunny day. There were many Mexican dishes, all right from Cuervo's own kitchen, both on the table and served from a rich buffet, and even dishes for the several vegetarians among us. Chiles rellenos, zucchini & corn, rice, beans, salad were my choices. Dessert was a kiwi fruit sorbet, beautifully presented.
We sipped margaritas, shots of JC Tradicionel and agavero liqueur while admiring the sprawling private garden full of flowers and flowering shrub. Blue agave adorned the walkways as decorations. It was all beautifully manicured. The place was massive, with suggestions of more houses and family facilities hidden in the distance by trees or tall cacti.
The generous hospitality and warmth with which we were treated gave everyone a new respect for Cuervo.
Finally, we headed towards the entrance, taking a last look at the beautiful showpiece rooms with their museum displays and painted ceilings. By the afternoon of day two, we were mellow, full of JCRF and good food.
We boarded the bus again and headed to Tequileña, a few blocks away down the narrow cobblestone streets. Tequileña is housed in a former rum factory. Tequileña makes, among others, Pura Sangre, Patria, Asombroso and Don Fulano.
Mauricio Amignon of Tequileña greeted us, and gave us a tour of the plant. Tequileña uses a different oven - really a giant autoclave - not the traditional brick oven. There are conflicting points of view about these autoclaves, whether they make as good a tequila as the traditional hornos.
Tequileña also has a tall, stainless steel column still that towers over the courtyard, a leftover from the rum business. It's again different from the traditional pot-style stills and copper stills we saw at other fabricas.
After the tour, we had another tasting, accompanied by Mexican appetizers - antojitos - and entertainment provided by a mariachi orchestra that marched into the compound to play for us. The tequilas up for sampling included AsomBroso's three types, and Tequileña's blend of añejos called Tres Quatro Cinco (a blend of three, four and five-year-old tequilas).
When first announced, AsomBroso got into a bit of a squabble over their bottle's shape - accused of looking like a penis, it's actually copied from a piece of 18th century glassware. The controversy may have helped them by getting media attention.
AsomBroso took a bold step and aged their reposado tequila in barrels previously used for red wine. The colour from the wine is leached into the tequila. The result is a tequila with a ruby-red highlight, and a somewhat sweeter nose, with a slightly nutty flavour. We were the first to taste this new 'red' reposado - AsomBroso had a bit of a challenge getting the CRT to accept that it was naturally, not artificially coloured. It was released to the world only that day, so once again we had a historic tasting.
The afternoon ended with a subdued, happy group. We'd had a spectacular day, been fed and tasted many tequilas, and toured three sites, and still had something to look forward to.
Carlos laid out a flight of excellent tequilas for us to taste. In keeping with the historic theme of the trip, our group was the first to try Penca Azul blanco.
Penca Azul uses only agave that are 8-10 years old, and weigh more than 50 kilos, which means ripe plants with lots of agave sugars. They do everything in small batches, with natural fermentation (no added yeasts) and traditional methods. They don't have a distillery, yet, so their products are made in another fabrica, which they take over for two weeks. They do, however, have their own white oak barrels used strictly for their products.
Penca Azul reposado is aged six-eight months, and their añeo for 30. They make a very small amount, selling 2,000 cases of tequila in the USA, saving only five for Mexico (none of which are añejo).
One of the major differences between distillers, Carlos said, is the water, which affects the tequila. "It makes a big, big difference." He also noted that, since they are based in the highlands, "there's a huge difference between what you do in Los Altos, than what you do down here," (meaning Tequila).
One of the visually appealing things about Penca Azul is the handcrafted bottle, made by Hipolito Guterrez, with its artistic representation of a blue agave in the bottom, and each signed by the maker.
The evening slowly unwound with some members drifting slowly into the lobby, and pretty soon tequila bottles were coming out, as an impromptu tasting got underway.
From the hotel you can hear the church bell strike, then three loud, long whistles - calling workers to a shift at Cuervo. Then the rooster crowed.
Tequila wakes slowly. Stores remained closed and shuttered in the early morning, and traffic was light on the streets. Vendors were setting up, unhurried, in the alleyway behind the church, the place where we'd had out 'shrimp burgers' two nights ago, now selling bootleg CDs and DVDs, as well as various items - clothing, jewellery, clothing, as well as some food stalls.
Tequila has also retained a lot of its older buildings, its built heritage, and it feels like it's been here for a long time, which by osmosis seeps into the industry that drives the town.
Along the streets, I saw vendors cleaning the sidewalk in front of their stores; a little water splashed on the concrete, them brushed away with a broom. Mexicans take such pride in so many things.
I joined a group who decided to eat around the corner at a small restaurant on the main street. We had a quick breakfast, with delicious eggs, beautiful, sweet, freshly-squeezed orange juice, and really, really terrible instant coffee. Then we dashed back to board the bus and head to Tequilas Finos, at the outskirts of town, beside the railway line.
Tequilas Finos is actually located in the original, now restored, train station. Passenger service to Tequila has been suspended (the Tequila Express tourist train only goes to Amatitan). Since the freight service didn't need a fancy building, the station ended up as a distillery. Quite an attractive front, really. The ubiquitous blue agave was planted in a garden along the front of the station.
The company makes both 100% and mixto tequilas, including Sol Dios, a Kosher tequila (made since 1999, although I confess it's hard to picture a Lubavitcher with a caballito...).
Once again we got the plant tour, and for the first time a chance to talk with a company biologist. He was delighted with our presence, because, as he said, "There are no Mexican tequila fans like you." He explained how he uses gas chromatography to create a "fingerprint" of their tequilas, and how this would be important when the new requirements came into effect (March 7, which requires all factories to have their own labs).
Another new regulation requires plants to use only agave with at least 24% sugars, in part to prevent too-young plants been harvested (perhaps an issue in the last shortage). Random samples or agave are shredded, then the juice extracted, and a "copper reduction" method used to determine the sugar content.
Talking to their biologist gave us a better understanding of the technical complexities of making tequila, but conversely it also emphasized how much of it is still an art, despite all the new technology.
We were the first tourists to visit the factory - another first for our group. We got a chance to see a bottling-label operation in use, too. Like most of the places we visited, the managers and owners were proud, to show us every aspect of their business.
Our tour guide was Arturo Fuentes Cortes, plant manager. He told us, frankly, that producing mixtos, "helps us pay the bills."
At the end of the tour, we went to the board room that looked down over the barrel cellar, for our fifth tasting, this time for Dos Manos reposado and añejos. The añejo is aged four years, was very coppery in colour.
Back on the bus, we headed out to the highway, for a short ride to Amatitian, a small town just east of Tequila, home of several other distillers including Tres Mujeres. Our next stop was Casa Herradura, one of the oldest, and largest of the distillers.
Saying Herradura is a world unto itself is not an exaggeration: Herradura is huge, with 10,000 hectares enclosed in its compound - so large that you need a map to get around. The fabrica is a short ride on the highway to Guadalajara in the town of Amatitian, east of Tequila.
Herradura was still family owned, and still had hacienda status - the only tequila company to retain it. To be a hacienda, you need to be fully enclosed with walls, have your own chapel, have cattle, and have workers living on your property (Herradura still has housing for 50-60 families on site, some of them 3rd and 4th generation). The company has 1,400 employees, its own medical services and a large museum, part of which is the original company distillery - the fabrica antigua - parts of it 50-100 years old.
The grounds have carefully-maintained trees that are 150-200 years old, one of the largest private libraries in Mexico (in the former stables). It has about 25 million agave under cultivation, and agreements to purchase from other growers, but only if it can select the agaves in the field.
Tourism is big business for Herradura, too. Every Saturday the train from Guadalajara brings 400 or so tourists to visit. I had a sense that Herradura as somewhat of a 'sleeping giant' because it is currently only using one of three production facilities on site - but is capable and ready to ramp up production considerably should the market change. They also have a fourth factory - but it is the original distillery, now a museum.
Waiters who met us with cans of New Mix - several varieties - that blend tequila and other juices, such as sangrita, mandarin, peach and grapefruit.
Ruben Aceves Vidrio, International Sales Director, was our guide for this stop. He was unabashedly partisan about Herradura, saying, "We're proud of what we do here." And everything about the place speaks well of company pride - it was clean, well-kept, and modern (except where traditional methods have proven themselves). We were told the company has kept its old ovens because they make better tequila.
Herradura is impressive. It's difficult to take in the sheer size of the place. High overhead, looking like some futuristic tramway, what seems to be ,miles of stainless steel pipe runs from building to another, carrying the juices from the crushed agave to the fermenting tanks, and from there to the stills.
Our first stop was the family's house - old, and looking more like a well-maintained museum, it is still used on weekends and holidays. There is even a hacienda chapel attached to the house. We peeked into rooms as we walked through. In the kitchen, staff are preparing our lunch. The counter, the walls and the tall ventilation hood are are tiled - each tile handmade and each one different.
Ruben told us the company had ten months' worth of tequila sales in its tanks, with about 40,000 barrels in its inventory.
At the nursery we saw where young agave plants are being grown to try and create better, stronger plants. Herradura is the only company sponsored by the government to do this work. But unlike the traditional method of transplanting pups (hijuelos), Herradura is cloning plants from leaf cuttings.
Ruben talked about Herradura's past, its production, and its future. Herradura was the first company to make reposado. They were the first to make an extra-añejo. A percentage of each load of agave is sent to their lab for analysis, and can't be used until the lab approves it. "We're in the vanguard of these things," saids Ruben.
We stopped to watch a jimador show his skill, and give the groups the opportunity to give it a try. The trick is to trim the leaves close to the body, to avoid any bitter juices when baking. Then the top (corta) is cut out - this is the place where the quiote emerges. We're told it too is bitter.
A good jimador can cut 130-150 piñas in a six-hour day, for which they made about $16-$18 a day in 2006. Herradura also buys agave from other growers, and pays more than the going rate - $2.50 a kilogram in 2006, but they get the right to choose the plants in the field. The rest are usually sold to other companies for about $2 a kilo.
We saw reddish- brown spots on many of the the plants, signs of age. An ideal amount of this aging is about 10%. More than that, the plant gets too dry and doesn't produce the juices necessary for fermentation.
The agaves are roasted in the ovens for 24 hours. Each of the 15 ovens in front of us holds 40 tonnes of agave. They're all hand-loaded, and hand-unloaded - we' saw the men inside passing the baked agave heads out to the workers outside.
For the first three hours of cooking, the juices from the outside, and the leaves are bitter. They flow to the bottom of the oven, and are let out. After three hours, Herradura shuts the valves to keep in the best juices. Ruben is critical of the modern autoclaves used by come competitors.
The pulp is milled, then re-milled to get the juices fully removed. The juices are piped to one of 29 giant stainless steel vats, where natural yeasts take over and start the fermentation. Nothing is used to accelerate the process.
An active tank is alive, bubbling with CO2 being released. We put our hands close to the surface and felt the warmth of the activity over the must. When fermentation is complete, the must is dead - but contains a claimed 9% alcohol (much higher than the usual 4-6%) - and is piped to one of the stills in another building.
The first distillation is the ordinario, or tequila primero, generated by heating the must at 90C. The second distillation is done at 95-100C, then diluted with water to bring the proof down. The heads and tails are removed in both distillations. "We're the only company to do that," Ruben said.
He called the quality of water used here, "tremendous" because they have their own wells. "There are no impurities in it at all."
Herradura has two large barrel warehouses, and one small one. Each of the white oak barrels from Kentucky holds 192 litres.
We walked back over the cobblestone streets to the last stop on the tour - the old factory. Maintained as a museum, it's a fascinating look at the old, traditional practices. The fermenting vats are actually pits in the floor. The old copper stills remain polished and stand like silent guardians in the dim light. It feels a bit like a chapel in the old plant, where memories are carefully preserved.
Afterwards, we were led outside through the stunning gardens with ponds, albino peacocks, lime trees and ferns, to the tables where lunch was being served. Again, it was the royal treatment.
Lunch was a beautiful buffet with traditional Mexican dishes. We had the chance to sample not only their tequila at lunch, but several other products they distribute. A table of products shows off the companies they distribute - many of which have agreements to distribute Herradura products elsewhere in the world.
At as final touch, Ruben handed out certificates from Herradura testifying that we had all been there and seen the process of tequila in action.
Many members took advantage of the opportunity to visit the Herradura shop and pick up some bottles, as well as souvenirs - branded hats, T-shirts, dress shirts and drinking glasses among other items for sale. The larger companies all have company stores like this.
On the way back into Tequila, I got the bus to stop at a particularly photogenic spot where I saw a solo tree in a field of agave, with a volcano in the background.
Our seventh tour, at the end of day three, was Los Abuelos is located not far from Tequilas Finos where we had been earlier in the day. From the train station, you can see the house - La Casa de Cielo - at the top of the hill, surrounded by the agave fields. But the narrow streets - where two cars had difficulty passing - and lack of suitable places to turn around presented a problem to the large bus we occupied. Once again our driver proved his skill - he blithely turned the bus around at the bottom of the hill and backed up the rest of the way.
The compound's road is lined with various fruit and flowering trees, including pomegranates. There are 3.5 kms of cobblestone road on the estate. On both sides of the road were agave fields, and a very large pond, large enough to have a small island on it, with a remarkable suspension bridge that spanned the 200 or so feet from the shore to the island. The island is La Isla de Amistad - the Island of friendship. When the Tequila Express ran, it was a stop on the tour.
There's also a small farmyard - more like a miniature petting zoo - with turkeys, chickens, ducks and goats in it. It was clean and immaculately kept.
Guillermo greeted us with Christine, former manager and personal assistant to Guillermo's grandfather and father. Guillermo proved a gracious host and tour guide, speaking fluent English.
As we walked, he pointed out some of the 250 different species of flowering tress planted on the estate by his grandfather, giving us the names and origin of all of them. He pointed out the pochote tree - the buttercup tree - with its large yellow flowers, the tacoma with its pink blossoms, the bahinia tree, also called the Hong Kong orchid, as well as three varieties of avocado tree, macadamia nut trees, even lichee nut trees.
Some of the flowering shrubs and bushes have
grown so large that they reach over the road and form a natural
bridge. Walking past them brought wafts of their sweet perfume at
Los Abuelos has its own microclimate. The agave needs sun, heat and good drainage to grow properly. Guillermo told us that agaves growing close to the stone walls and fences that border the fields did better and grew larger because of the reflected sun and heat. That's one of the reasons to weed the fields- weeds cause shade.
Another problem is a beetle that bores into the plants. Guillermo said it causes about 5% loss every year that has to be replanted.
In February and March, the pups - rhizomes - at about 1.5 years old, are removed from the mother plants, cleaned up and left to dry out. The leaves are also trimmed.
The distillery proved to be the smallest operation we had seen to date, with the oldest equipment in use. The boiler, for example, was made in New York in 1905 - a century ago, but still kept in use. The oven is small - it can take 15.5-16.5 tonnes only. Agaves are cooked for 24 hours, then left to cool for another 12 hours. One cooking produces 1,500 litres of miles, which Guillermo said was rated 14-17 brix of sugar. In 2006, Los Abuelos had cooked 14 loads since the distillery opened.
In the centre of the tiny distillery is a working tahona. Not a museum piece, it still had agave pulp in it. This one wasn't stone, however, but made of four different types of wood (white and red oaks, rosewood and another). The post that holds it to the centre pivot is called the esteche - it's a single piece of tree. Guillermo explained that, when properly set up and operated, the tahona moves in and out of the well on its own. However, he admitted it took some time to figure it out because few people had the skills to operate it these days.
The advantage of the tahona, he told us, was that the 'stone' doesn't rip up the agave fibres like the crushing machines. Los Abuelos was the only place we saw on our tour that use the tahona full time - most companies have them as museum pieces.
The fermenting tank is the old, original wooden tank. Guillermo told us that making wooden tanks is a lost art, and costs today about five times what stainless steel costs to make. The juices ferment for four to five days and when they're done, have about 5 brix of sugar in them (the industry standard is 1 to 4, he said).
The old stills are still working, too. The first one holds 400 litres and produces tequila ordinario at 20% alcohol. The second is smaller, at 250 litres. It makes tequila at up to 43%, which is cut back to 40 %.
The economics of tequila are interesting. Guillermo told us that of 30,000 litres of liquid produced from the ovens, there are only 10,000 left after the first distillation, and 2,500 after the second.
Guillermo uses handmade bottles, each individually blown by craftsmen. Even the tops - looking like miniature trimmed agave heads - are handmade. Because of the hand-crafted nature, each bottle is unique, slightly different from the others. They're heavy glass, too.
We entered the caves, built into the hillside under the house. Guillermo hopes to use them as the company's barrel cellar once he gets the proper, non-explosive lighting system in place (his barrels are currently stored nearby in a small warehouse). Los Abuelos ages its reposado 11 months, and its añejo two years.
Our tasting took place in the dark caves, lit only by hundreds of candles. Tables had been set up and a flight of tequilas laid out. In the romantic candlelight we were also serenaded by a guitarist-singer, his music echoing off the walls in the confined space. There were also some plates of appetizers on the table.
After the tasting, we received a private tour of the Sauza family museum, in downtown Tequila, and joined Guillermo at dinner in the museum's courtyard. His mother also joined us, a rare honour.
The ground along the highway is rocky, strewn with volcanic rock, some ridges jutting out of the soil like giant knuckles. The pointed leaves of the agave poke up everywhere, in the most unlikely places. Precariously steep hillsides sport tiny pastures of agave, while large fields retreat into the morning mist.
The views are spectacular at times, with the valley laid out below us, the road crossing small canyons, and carving right through the shoulder of the mountain. The geography of the region, with its creases of mountain and valley, creates several micro-climates within the overall environment. An early morning mist hung over some low areas, softening the vista.
Tequila - the place and the drink - is not a single experience. The industry is divided along and east-west axis, with Guadalajara as the pivot. While the historic focus is on Tequila and its environs, the highlands differ in many aspects; geographically, environmentally and in production methods.
Our first stop was Espolon (Destiladora San Nicolas), a small distillery tucked off the highway on a small cobblestone back-road. We headed into the farm country, way off the beaten path, where the blue agave grows in brick-red soil.
The bus pulled up to a surprising modern-looking plant, a few kilometers outside of a pueblita. We were greeted by Cirilo Oropeza y Hernandez, the plant manager. We learned Espolon started making 100% agave tequilas in 1998.
Espolon's processes were similar to those we'd seen before, but the plant looked shiny and new. Cirilo told us they use a large cutter to quarter the agave heads before cooking, and the resulting must is fermented for 72 hours. Both Espolon and Corazon tequilas are made here, but with different profiles.
There are 12 large fermenting tanks, each with a capacity of 61-62,000 litres. Over the noise of the plant we could hear strains of classical music being pumped through speakers. Cirilo explained the music helped enhance yeast growth. "Yeast sways to the rhythm of music."
He also told us Espolon hires mostly women - 80% of his workers were female. Cirilo believed women made better workers in many jobs, and were more detail-oriented than their male counterparts.
In the lab, Cirilo showed us samples of the yeast (levadura) used, small whitish clumps in a petri dish - this is the natural yeasts taken from the agave and grown on cultures. They take the yeast four times a year, once in each season, and the yeasts are kept separate. Throughout the tour, I felt Espolon had a scientific and technical focus ion production.
Espolon distills two and three times. The second distillate is tested and analysed in the lab to see if the quality is sufficient, and if anything in the production process needs to be adjusted. If required, a third distillation is done.
Cirilo told us Espolon uses new barrels for its añejo (the opposite of Herradura), then reuse them for their reposado. The result is that the two are similar in colour.
The tour over, we were led to the cafeteria where antojitos were laid out on the long tables, along with numerous bottles of tequila for our tasting. We asked about the plastic pour spouts on the bottles, and were told they were the industry's response to counterfeiting, to prevent the bottles being refilled. We'd heard tales of bottles of premium tequilas being spirited out of the distilleries to be sold in local bars, so the stoppers were only a partial measure.
We climbed back aboard the bus and headed into Arandas.
We passed several fields full of mature agave, but in disrepair, overgrown with weeds, untrimmed brown leaves, and quiotes aplenty. Many had leaves grown so long and tall they touched one another, and all sense of planted rows was lost.
Arandas is larger than Tequila, with a reputation for being more lively, with a good night life. It has a beautiful, gothic cathedral that dominates the landscape, and seemed more lively and more bustling than Tequila.
We were met by Carlos Camarena Curiel, the owner of El Tapatio. He led us along the back roads, until we finally had to stop and get out. From here, the remainder of the trip was not possible in a big bus. We boarded waiting pick-up trucks and cattle trucks, to complete the trip.
El Tapatio's distillery - La Alteña, or lady of the highlands - is hidden down a narrow, bumpy country lane between fields of agave. From the outside, it is plain, almost nondescript. But for aficionados, their tequila isn't. Some of El Tapatio's products - their El Tesoro de Don Felipe añejo for example - are the holy grail for serious tequila drinkers.
Carlos gave us the tour without the obligatory jimador. At the ovens, Carlos explained his workers cut the quiote stalk from the female agave, and from the male they cut the "cebolla" from the top - an area equivalent to the quiote's base. This was the first I'd heard that agave have male and female plants, and despite being shown both, don't think I could easily recognize the difference without a lot more practice. Perhaps removing the top section from both eliminates the need to determine gender.
The first juices from the baking agave are called "bitter honey" because they contain wax and dirt that runs off the plants. After two hours in the ovens, Tapatio removes this juice to keep the rest from being bitter. Then the heads get cooked another 36 hours. The long cooking breaks up the inulin - long chains of starch molecules used to store carbohydrates in plants - into fermentable sugars. The yeast, Carlos explained, can't digest the long chains to excrete alcohol and CO2.
At this point, we met up with Ron Cooper from Del Maguey mezcals, who had come along to join us for this part, and would later present his products at our farewell dinner that night. Ron brought with him two other men - Francisco "Pancho" Martinez, his manager (and a master Zapotec weaver), and his Zapotec mezcalero for Chichicapa mezcal, Faustino Garcia Vasquez, who was on his first trip outside Oaxaca. Both men were very interested in the equipment and spent a lot of time examining it and talking about it with each other.
Then we were shown the tahona. El Tapatio still uses the old stone wheel to make their El Tesoro tequilas, but uses the more modern shredder for their Tapatio brand. Ron mentioned the tahona is still used for mezcal in Oaxaca. 30 years ago, Tapatio replaced the traditional mule to pull the stone with a tractor for health reasons.
Carlos explained the tahona put more fibre into the wort, and some of the wet pulp was carried into the tanks for the fermentation. It gave the tequila a much stronger agave flavour, he said, and that's what they wanted. Since El Tapatio añejo seems thinner to me than El Tesoro añejo, I began to believe the tahona's contribution to the taste was significant.
The must ferments for 72-96 hours in small wooden vats, the time required depending on the season (longer for winter). No commercial yeast is used, just the natural wild yeast from the agave, isolated and reproduced. Carlos said they were still using yeasts his grandfather cultivated 70 years ago, some kept frozen to preserve them, but others kept alive by adding liquid to the culture.
Tapatio doesn't use any accelerators to speed up fermentation. "It's an entirely natural process, we don't use any shortcuts."
The vats were made of pine by Carlos' grandfather, and painted by his father. Every eight to ten years, the vats need to have parts replaced or renewed. Carlos said he preferred the natural wood look, and was letting the paint wear off on its own. He prefers wood over stainless steel because it is a natural isolator from the environment. besides, it's traditional. "We don't want to lose our roots. We come from five generations who raised agaves or made tequila. We want to preserve those roots."
Tapatio grows its own agaves, too, and doesn't use any pesticides on the fields. The agave fibres are used as natural fertilizers, and no chemicals are used. Even their labels are put on with flour and water, not a commercial glue.
Once the fermentation is finished, the mosto is dead. Carlos likened it to a diamond, "We can make a diamond shine, or we can destroy it." And to make it shine, they distill it. The heads and tails are removed from the distillate because they contain "superior alcohols" and compounds from fermentation in the heads. The tails have methanol and compounds with heavier molecular weight. The middle - the heart - is the best.
The heart creates ordinario, about 25% alcohol. This is re-distilled in smaller copper stills, because copper interacts with the tequila and adds flavour, about 2 ppm. But as a result, copper sublimates, and parts need to be replaced as the metal gets too thin. The stills work at 85-90C to recover the most alcohol, and almost none of the water.
The large stills here are about 600 litre capacity, the smaller ones 350 l. His grandfather's stills are still in use where possible, although parts have not been made for the past 40 years. So Tapatio is cautiously testing a new tequila using a new, larger still, and may soon release another 100% agave tequila using it - the size of the still, Carlos warned, imparts a different flavour.
The heads and tails are also removed in the second distillation here, leaving a tequila that's about 80-83 proof. This is unique, the only distillery that distills to that proof - most distill to 100-150 proof, then dilute with water. But Carlos' grandfather told him he didn't care if it was holy water being added.
Since the barrels lose alcohol, however, Tapatio distills some tequila to 100 proof twice a year, to add to the barrels to restore the weaker tequilas to their original proof.
Once again we were struck at the combination of scientific and engineering expertise these distillers possessed, in parallel with their artistic ability to make a good tequila.
Tapatio produces about 300,000 litres of tequila a year, and sells about that amount. However, they have 1 million litres in storage at present.
We went into a small shed where a large wooden barrel holds the reposado. Carlos poured some into a traditional cow's horn, explaining how the horn developed into today's caballito. It was used so customers couldn't put their drink down and linger at the taverna - the old name for a distillery, a century ago - so they moved through faster. He filled up a horn from a spigot on the tank and passed it around to the group.
The we had lunch, a nice spread of traditional Mexican dishes, like a field worker's lunch. After lunch, we looked into the barrel cellar, built in 1957. Carlos told us the red soils were the result of a high iron content in the soil, but also in the water. The barrel cellar was below ground level, and below the water table. There was a pipe from which the natural, pure spring water leaked out, leaving a rusty stain on the wall. We tasted the water from the pipe and the mineral content was immediately evident.
The local pueblita is called El Nacimiento, meaning The Spring, or more literally, where water is born from the earth. The local water imparts some of its flavour to the tequila.
While most of the barrels are white oak, their Paradiso is aged in red oak.
Carlos said there was an eight-month window of opportunity to harvest a ripe agave, before it aged too much and began to rot in the field. But in fields where people took better care of their plants, more damage from the fusarium fungus was evident. So careful balance must be maintained in the care.
He told us the average sugar content of agaves in the highlands was 26-27%, compared to 23-24% around Tequila, while in Tapatio's fields the average was 27 to 30%.
We headed into Arandas to complete the tour. Tapatio's bottling plant, and its second storage area, is almost right downtown. It was Carlos' grandfather's house, converted to serve the company. At the front there's a n an office with a small store where visitors can buy some Tapatio products. A framed photograph of Don Felipe Camarena (1927-2003) greets everyone entering the house.
In the basement, we absorbed the rich agave aromas that permeate the cellar, expressing themselves gently from the hundreds of barrels stored there. Here, under the house, Carlos said, they have an evaporation rate of only 2-3% a year, sometimes less, compared to 8-10% above ground.
Carlos had 15-20 red-oak barrels lined up, separate from the others in the cellar, each sealed by the CRT for the past five years. Carlos used a screwdriver and a shovel blade to pop the cork out of one of the barrel, then he siphoned some of the contents into a bottle, while his niece handed out tiny plastic sampling cups.
Another historic moment: not only were we the first people to taste this añejo, but because it was only a small batch, it may not be enough quantity produced for commercial sale. It may only ever stay within Carlos' family and private circle. What an honour for all of us, perhaps the highlight of the trip!
He held the bottle up to show us. It was dark copper, with brass highlights. He swirled the bottle, and examined the 'legs.' "Tequila, like a woman, should have beautiful legs," he said. The long legs should be continuous, and not break quickly, to show the tequila has retained its essential oils.
Then he poured it into our eager cups.
There was a reverent silence as we enjoyed the tequila. Then everyone began talking at once, expressing their appreciation of this wondrous spirit, trying to describe it.
We retreated upstairs. Carlos' niece brought a bottle of El Tapatio Excelencia - a similar, five-year-old añejo, aged in white oak - so we could compare the two. This was a new product, too, and not on the market yet, so our historic event was doubly exciting!
The bus left Arandas in the late afternoon, heading back to Guadalajara and our last night as a group.
Ron Cooper set up his Del Maguey mezcals and during dinner led the group on a tasting of all of his products. Having sampled these exquisite mezcals in the past, I was appreciative of his spirits, including the rare triple-distilled Pechuga and Tobala (wild, shade-grown agaves). I was pleased to try his Crema de mezcal, made by adding aguamiel to his Minero mezcal.
Ron used the traditional clay mezcal cups - fashioned after a small half-gourd - for our tasting. He explained that the espadin agave used is sweeter than the blue agave, and is genetically the 'mother' or ancestor of the blue agave.
He also gave us a brief talk on the process of making mezcal and how it differs from tequila. One of the traditional practices is to put the cooked heads in the shade for seven days to begin fermentation naturally, before they are ground by the tahona. Mezcals are not aged in wood, but stored in stainless steel tanks, to retain their flavour.
In the end, the first forum tour was more and better than I had imagined it could be. I was sad to be going home, but I was also exhausted. I owed a great deal of gratitude and appreciation for Harry (Reifer) and Blanca, for their generosity in getting me on the trip, in their patience and friendship, and especially to Harry for his leadership - for organizing the tour, for guiding us and making sure we got on the bus on schedule, and for making sure we had a sample of a full range of experiences, from the largest to the smallest distiller, from Tequila to Aranadas.