Through the years, tequila has become so strongly associated with its homeland that it has earned a reputation as “Mexico in a Bottle.” Made from the blue agave plant, it was first produced in the 17th century near the city of Tequila in the state of Jalisco. And two companies are offering visitors to Mexico unique experiences that are closely tied to tequila made in the region.
Located about 10 minutes outside of the city of Tequila, the Matices Hotel de Barricas also has its own tequila distillery, La Cofradia. The hotel rooms are shaped like agave barrels in the field and guests have access to tequila tastings, guided tours of the facility and visits to the on-site museum.
Mundo Cuervo, which offers a complete tequila experience, is located in the drink’s namesake city, around 37 miles northwest of Guadalajara. It offers rides on the Jose Cuervo Express train through the agave fields, lodging in the Hotel Solar de las Ánimas, the Hacienda El Centenario event space and a tour of La Rojeña, the flagship distillery of Cuervo and the oldest in Latin America.
A Sip of History
The name tequila comes from the Nahuatl word Tecuilan or Tequillan, which translates into ‘a place of work’ or ‘a place of cutting.’ The township of Santiago de Tequila was founded in 1530, by the Franciscan Fray Juan Calero and the Spanish Conquistador Cristóbal de Oñate, along with groups of natives.
King Ferdinand VI of Spain gave Jose Antonio Cuervo the first license to make tequila, in 1758. By the early 1800s, Spain’s kings continued to authorize the production of tequila as long as producers paid their taxes. When Mexico gained its independence in 1821, tequila became the official national drink, and in 1824, the town was officially classed as a villa. It was popular in the United States during Prohibition and was featured in Mexican-made movies in the 1930s and 1940s.
In 1974, the Mexican government declared that the word tequila was its intellectual property, making it illegal for other countries to produce or sell their own tequila. It also formed the Tequila Regulatory Council to ensure the drink’s quality and promote its culture.
In 2003, Tequila was chosen as one of Mexico’s “magic villages,” based on natural beauty, cultural riches or historical relevance. And the blue agave plant fields in Tequila, Jalisco, were declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2006 to acknowledge their role in the rich history of Mexico.
Today, only tequila distilled from blue agave harvested in Jalisco and some parts of Guanajuato, Nayarit, Michoacan and Tamaulipas can use the name. The Mexican government also created Normas Oficiales Mexicanas (NOMs), which specify what tequila is and how it must be made. Each bottle of tequila must have a NOM 4-digit number on the bottle to show the name of the distillery and ensure its authenticity. Mexico is home to more than 100 distilleries that produce nearly 1000 brands of tequila.
Tequila Made Here
Tequila in the state of Jalisco is made with blue agave, says Erika Castaneda Ibarra, the COO of Matices Hotel de Barricas. “It can take between eight and 10 years to be ready for harvesting. Once it’s cut down, the leaves surrounding the plant are removed and the heart of the agave – the piña – is cooked in steam,” she explains. “It is then cut into pieces and the nectar that forms the base is extracted and mixed with sugars to begin the fermentation process.”
After fermentation, the mix is heated, cooled and condensed to create ordinario. This concoction is distilled at least twice. The first time removes the bad alcohols and other impurities for a better quality drink. The second distillation determines what proof the final tequila will have, ranging from 80 proof for a higher quality down to 110 proof for lower quality.
There are two categories of tequila, says Castaneda. “One is a mix of up to 49 percent of nectars not produced from agave, and 51 percent of agave-derived nectars, while the other one does not allow mixes and is a higher quality.” In order for tequila to have the 100 percent agave label, it must be bottled at an authorized bottling plant, she adds.
Once fermented, the tequila can be distilled under five different types: Blanca, Gold, Reposado, Anejo and Extra Anejo. “The difference among the five is the time it’s distilled,” Castaneda says.
Tequila requires five stages of production: milling, cooking, fermentation, distillation, filtration and oxygenation.
Reposado, Anejo and Extra Anejo are aged in barrels, which also give tequila its flavor, says Castaneda. “Reposado is in the barrel and aged between two months and one year. Aging between one and three years is Anejo and aging for three or more years is Extra Anejo,” she says. “Aging also contributes to the colors, aromas, textures, wealth, flavors, character, maturity and lightness of the tequila. It’s very carefully produced and we follow strict regulations to ensure the quality of the product.”
In the old days, it was traditional to drink tequila with a lemon, says Castaneda. “The drink was really strong and bitter, so the lemon helped cut that,” she says. “But we don’t do that anymore, because the tequila is much better. We drink it naturally.”
Once you drink tequila the proper way, you will never toss it back again, says Castaneda. “First, you take a sip and savor it. Then you take another sip and swirl it in your mouth. Breathe in as you swallow then exhale,” she says.
The La Cofradia distillery produces around 4,000 gallons of tequila a day using a traditional process, says Castaneda. “We produce more than 43 brands of tequila for ourselves and other brands. We export 70 percent of what we produce to countries including the United States, Canada, Italy, England, China and Japan.”
Guests can go horseback riding in the agave fields, watch the harvest and see the distillery process. A visit here, says Castaneda, is more than a hotel stay. “You see and feel the tequila.”
The Land of Cuervo
The Mundo Cuervo experience, which is the tourism division of the tequila maker, begins with the Jose Cuervo Express train. “It’s like the Orient Express, but with tequila, says Andrea Cid sales manager for Mundo Cuervo. “It goes from Guadalajara to Tequila. The train holds 375 people and includes guides who explain what guests are seeing during the ride and what will happen when they get to Tequila.”
The Cuervo distillery, located in the town of Tequila, is the oldest one in Mexico. “It’s still family owned and 100 percent Mexican,” Cid says. Cuervo is the biggest tequila producer in the world, with a 30 percent market share. It exports nearly four million cases a year to the US market alone, and more than 60 percent of its revenue comes from the US and Canada.
The trip includes a stop at the La Rojeña distillery, which welcomes up to 1,000 visitors day. “We also offer professional tequila tastings, where we explain the unique characteristics of the drink,” Cid explains. “We also take visitors to the agave fields to see it harvested.” The distillery has eight tasting rooms that can accommodate up to 15 visitors each.
Guests also have the chance to take a special guided tour of La Rojeña’s Family Reserve cellar, where they can bottle their own tequila. The bottle includes an authenticity seal, serial number and date of bottling. After the tour, visitors can have a drink in the distillery’s Margarita Bar or shop in the Jose Cuervo store and buy their tequila, branded souvenirs and local Mexican handicrafts.
Mundo Cuervo also operates the Hotel Solar de Las Animas, the only luxury hotel in the town of Tequila. The hotel features a convention center, Hacienda El Centario, that can accommodate up to 3,000 people for meetings and events in different indoor and outdoor venues.
Like other tequila producers, representatives from La Cofradia goes around the world to do tastings and educate drinkers, says Castaneda. “Tequila is the classic drink from Mexico that comes from the beautiful agave plant. It’s a strong drink with its own personality that has been around for more than 400 years,” she says.
There is no best tequila, says Castaneda. “The best one is the one you prefer. You just need to enjoy it.”
By Benét Wilson