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Tequila is intertwined with many aspects of Mexican culture, from the oldest traditions of mezcal production, to modern national pride, from mariachis and charros to the bars of Cancun. It is the icon of Mexico, that one symbol that says Mexico everywhere in the world without any more words needed. It has become the emblem of Mexico, a flag that is celebrated worldwide.
Updated May, 2011
Touring and tasting
Many people are discovering that a full appreciation on tequila the spirit comes best in concert with a visit to the land of the Blue Agave. Even a day trip to the birthplace of tequila can enrich one's knowledge and understanding of the drink and its role in Mexican culture. There is enough to see and do in central Jalisco that a full week is recommended.
There are two main growing and production areas, both easily reached by bus from Guadalajara (click maps below for a larger view). Guadalajara has many daily flights from all over North America, and is a large, modern airport.
The town of Tequila is to the west, approximately 45 kms from downtown Guadalajara. It can be reached by taxi or car from the airport in about an hour, depending on traffic in the city. Within a short drive of Tequila - the cultural and spiritual centre - are the towns of Amatitan, Arenal and Magdalena. The official 'Ruta de tequila' is a scenic route that heads west along Highway 15 to Magdalena, then south to Ahualulco de Mercado, back east to El Refugio, then northeast to Guadalajara (see map). In this area you will find such distilleries as Cuervo, Sauza, Cofradia, Herradura, Partida, Los Abuelos (La Fortaleza), Tequilana, and others. There is a faster toll highway to Tequila, but it is not as scenic as Hwy 15.
The other main area is Los Altos - the highlands - approximately 1-2 hours north-northeast of Guadalajara. It starts at Tepatitlan on Hwy 80 and continues to Arandas on Hwy 84. In this area you will find such distilleries as El Agave, La Alteņa (Tapatio), Cazadores, Centinela, Espolon and Agave Tequilana. The other main producing area in Los Altos is around the town of Atonolico.
Cultivation and production practices in the two regions, while similar, also subtly different. Agave density, soil types and size of fields are noticeably different. While the western district depends heavily on agave production for its economy, the highlands are more diverse, with other types of farming (particularly cattle and dairy), as well as many small industries prevalent.
Each distillery you encounter has a lot in common with the others, but each is also different. Some are more modern, with high-tech equipment, some are more traditional. Some have on-site museums and gift shops.
There are three museums worth visiting in Tequila: the National Museum of Tequila, which gives you history, culture and agriculture, and the family museums of Cuervo and Sauza, both downtown. Herradura also has a family museum at its hacienda in Amatitan. You should also visit each community's zocalo, or central square.
Some of the larger distillers (Sauza, Cuervo and Herradura, for example) offer regular, guided tours, others are less formal but will require you to make arrangements in advance. Some charge for a tour, others offer them graciously for free. Most distilleries will provide a tasting of their products, and give you the opportunity to purchase bottles.
One of the essential parts of a tour is a visit to an agave field, preferably one where workers are present. While some distillers have jimadors on hand at the plant to show the art of cutting an agave loose and removing its leaves, you really should visit the fields, walk among the rows of spiky plants, touch the earth, feel the weight of a quiote. And if you can. speak to the workers about their jobs.
Tequila and Arandas both offer some nice, inexpensive yet attractive, small hotels for visitors. See the tour notes for pictures and descriptions. If you can only visit one area, Tequila is the most picturesque and tourist-accessible.
Aside from tequila itself, you should look for souvenirs in each town, such as T-shirts, monogrammed caballitos, local art, postcards, or small barrels. You may even find some bumper stickers that say "Tequila: Pueblo Magico."
The Blue Agave Forum group hosted its first tour on the area in 2006. On that trip, 36 members took in 12 distilleries in Tequila, Amatitan and Arandas in a four-day whirlwind tour. The story of that visit is here: Tour 2006. The forum has hosted annual tours ever since 2006, the latest in April, 2011.
In April 2007, a forum group of 26 people returned to the area, this time spending seven days visiting the distilleries and fields in Jalisco, returning to some previously visited producers, and discovering several new ones. Information about that tour is here: Tour 2007. You can also visit the forum to read posts on the event and browse member's blogs and photo galleries.
A 2008 tour was held in late April, with 28 forum members participating. Please see the forum for details and members' stories and photographs.
Another option is to book a personal tour with David Ruiz, who comes from a family of tequileros, and knows the families, the regions and the companies intimately. David's knowledge and access to the industry are impressive. He is genial and offers a superb experience. David joined the forum for portions of our 2007 and 2008 tours and helped us get into places we had never been able to visit. I highly recommend his services if you want a memorable tour with depth.
There are also smaller agave-growing and tequila production regions in Tamulipas, Nayarit, Guanajuato and Michoacan.
Be aware that your own government only permits you to bring a limited amount of tequila home as duty free personal imports. This may not always be stringently enforced, however, and you may be allowed to bring in more than your limit, depending on the circumstances. Be prepared, however, to pay the extra duties and taxes, just in case.