evidence of the culture
It was once considered just a campesino’s drink. But now tequila has gone way upscale. By Roger Toll
equila is to Mexico, a friend once alleged, as apple pie is to America. It is as much a part of the national identity of Mexico as mariachis or the art of Diego Rivera. It is also the national elixir, the stuff of celebration and the cure for what ails you: If a friend drops by,
you offer a tequila; if you feel the flu coming on, a tequila; if you feel a little blue, tequila; and at a fiesta, nothing else . . . tequila. Speak Spanish, and Mexicans will admire you; but order a tequilito, neat and sipped, and they will love you. Among all spirits, there is something unique about tequila, even ritualistic, given its sacred lineage. Its pre-Columbian incarnation, pulque—the fermented aguamiel, or “honey water,” of the agave plant—is known to be more than 2,000 years old. It was a sacred drink, believed to be a heady gift to mankind from Mayahuel, the Aztec goddess of the agave plant, who did double-duty as the goddess of fertil-
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Spirit of the People ity. The Spaniards took the Aztec’s pulque—“mexcalli,” in Nahuatl—and made it purer and stronger using the European process of distillation, calling the result “mezcal.” And the tastiest came from a town called Tequila in the state of Jalisco in southwest Mexico. The Spanish called it “mezcal de Tequila.” Over time it became, simply, tequila. (“Mezcal” now
(from top) campesino harvesting agave, agave ready to distill and inspecting the finished product
refers to a distinctly different agave-derived spirit made in southern Mexico. Some bottles have the worm, or gusano, in them.) Dotted with volcanoes, the sweeping landscape of the region feels elemental, its distances compressed in the crisp, clear air of the Mexican high plain, or altiplano. Here and there, the steeple of a 16th-century church rises above a tile-roofed village. A bullock cart ambles slowly along a narrow, red-earth road as the morning sun rises above a field of blue agave plants, armored in their sharp, swordlike stalks, ranging across vast acres in perfect ranks like disciplined armies on the march. Bulbous piñas—Spanish for “pineapples,” which they resemble—are piled high in a cart. Each is the oval heart of an agave plant, now stripped of its sharp spikes, mature and full of juice after growing under the tropical sun for eight to 10 years. In the field, men strip the plant of its sharp spikes using long
photos by (from Top) Keith Dannemiller/CORBIS, Tom Payne/Alamy and Janet Jarman/Corbis
evidence of the culture poles, each tipped with a rounded blade. A mile away, trucks stand ready to haul piñas to one of the 128 tequila distilleries in the region, several of which are 200 years old. Once family-owned cottage industries, many distilleries today belong to foreign spirits companies. Investment has soared, and processes and equipment have been modernized, but the old brick ovens where the piñas once cooked, and the huge tahonas— stone wheel presses traditionally pulled by bullocks—that crushed the roasted piñas to extract the molasses-like syrup, can still be admired by visitors. And admired they will be, more and more, as authorities ramp up development of the Tequila Trail, a US$6 million sustainable tourism initiative that
Happy Trail to You
The Tequila Trail is scheduled to be completed by 2010. A number of distilleries already offer tours, some very organized, some on a showup basis, and some by appointment only (such as the small, artisanal producers that still use the traditional methods of brick ovens and stone mills). Contact the Tequila Regulatory Council (703-575-9384) for assistance. Or take a ride on the Tequila Express (52-333880-9009, www.tequilaexpress.com.mx), a train operated by the National Chamber of Commerce of Guadalajara that runs through the Jalisco region of Mexico.—R.T.
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borrows from the success of wine regions like California’s Napa Valley, single malt whisky distilleries in Scotland and beer gardens in Bavaria, Germany. Funded by the Inter-American Development Bank and the Jose Cuervo Foundation, and building on UNESCO’s recent naming of the Tequila region as a World Heritage Site for its remarkable landscape and rich cultural heritage, the Tequila Trail is scheduled for completion in two years. By then it will offer distillery tours and tastings, millenniaold archaeological sites, 300-year-old haciendas and the colonial heritage of Mexico’s second-largest city, Guadalajara, the birthplace of mariachis, cha rros and some of the best regional cooking in Mexico. Francisco Quijano, past president of the National Chamber of the Tequila Industry, stands in front of a wall of oak casks stacked high and filled with reposados, which is tequila aged in oak casks for two months to a year, and añejos, aged one to five years. The other variety of tequila, “blanco” (called “white” or “silver” in English), is not aged at all. The tequilero, or tequila maestro, dips into a barrel of each and pours the aging liquor into white-wine glasses; these, along with snifters, are the best vessels for appreciating the subtleties of a premium tequila, according to Quijano. “First, look at its color and trans parency, then take in the fragrance with your nose to gauge its promise,” he instructs my companions and me. “Finally, taste it to see if the promise holds up, first with the tip of your tongue, then by letting the liquid slide back along the tongue to discover its various tones.” He asks what we discern and, like obedient students, we suggest hints of vanilla, cocoa, caramel, citrus, flower, cherry, spice, wood and, more prosaically, wet straw. It is an exercise we repeat over and over as we tour eight distilleries—five in or around Tequila, the others two hours away in the Jalisco Highlands at the more rarefied elevation of 8,500 feet. At each, we sample premium and ultrapremium blancos, reposados and añejos, grateful that we are drinking only their best, 100 percent blue agave tequilas,
“Evidence of the Culture” offers intriguing examples of the cultural opportunities to be enjoyed at destinations served by Delta and its SkyTeam partners. To visit this month’s featured destination, Tequila, Mexico, flights can be booked on Delta or on SkyTeam partner Aeroméxico to Guadalajara. For more information about the SkyTeam travel network, turn to page 130 or visit www.skyteam.com.
photo by Peter Horree/Alamy
which are easier on the head than the mixtos. Mixtos are so named because they are distilled from a mix of sugars: at least 51 percent of that mix from blue agave, by law, with the rest from sugar cane or molasses. We’re drinking the best because that’s why we are here: to investigate why sales of the high-end premium and ultrapremium tequilas— meant to be sipped like single malt whiskies, high-end vodkas and classic cognacs—have been off the charts over the last few years. The numbers are revealing. While overall tequila exports nearly doubled from 2001 to 2006, exports of the 100 percent blue agave premium and ultrapremium categories rose by nearly 400 percent. Production of 100 percent blue agave tequila increased from 14 percent of all tequila production to 33 percent, meaning that demand for the upper-end, more costly product has increased dramatically. For the first time ever, the United States is a bigger tequila consumer than Mexico, and exports to Europe, Asia and former Soviet republics such as Kazakstan are rocketing upward. There must have been a lot of anxiety in and around Tequila when global spirits companies, attracted by the vogue of tequila among urban trendsetters in the United States in the late 1990s, started knocking on the doors of Tequila’s traditional, family-owned distilleries. But now, it is hard to find anyone complaining. “Sure, they may keep the profits,” says Don Jesús Hernández, maestro tequilero of ultrapremium Tezón, “but the benefits to our community are enormous. Everyone is touched by the prosperity that world tequila sales are bringing to the region, especially our campesinos that grow the agave. These
global companies give us penetration into markets we could never have dreamed of. Sales just keep growing and growing.” Hernández is quick to point out that quality keeps growing as well. From vast agave nurseries run by U.S.-educated agronomists to laboratories where statistical process analysis of each distillate ensures perfect consistency from one batch to another, the influence of distilling and marketing know-how, not to mention the deep pockets, of such new owners as Bacardi, Jack Daniel’s, Pernod, Brown-Forman and Beam Global Spirits & Wine has been enormous. “It seems incredible to us that tequila could have improved so much in the last 10 years, but it has,” Hernández says. “These global companies’ interest is to see tequila compete with the finest spirits worldwide. This is good for us, and it’s only going to get bigger as the world discovers tequila.” A century ago, tequila came to symbolize the rural people of Mexico, the downtrodden campesinos who fought for “bread and land” and threw over the wine-sipping, French-speaking elite during the Mexican Revolution. Tequila was a cheap, vulgar drink of the masses to those Eurocentric conservatives who ruled Mexico at the time. But then the masses won, and tequila became a symbol of Mexico’s new identity, the drink of the people. It is still the drink of the people today, but the irony is that it is becoming the drink of elites all around the world, as well, as distilleries offer a smoother, finer, more textured tequila, often thrice-distilled and softened in oak casks. “You know, at the end of the day the best tequila is the one you like the most, not the one that costs the most,” says Jorge Aceves, director of international sales at Tezón. “And the best variety of tequila is the one that most satisfies your palate. There is no objective best. It is all a matter of personal taste.” Aficionado of all things Mexican, Sky Contributing Editor Roger Toll lived for eight years in Mexico City, where he edited a Mexican daily newspaper and wrote for various U.S. magazines.