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Big Shots | Tequila article from Condé Nast Traveler

At the high end of the tequila market, they still do things the old-fashioned way

Joseph Ward pays a visit to Mexico's top producers and tastes pure gold.

Tequila Article from the November 2006 Issue of Condé Nast Traveler Magazine

"We want our tequila to have the flavors of the agave," says Felipe Camarena of Tequila Tapatío, pointing to a pile of what appears to be giant wooden pineapples, "so we follow the traditional ways." Camarena's La Alteña fabrica (factory), near Arandas, 75 miles east of Guadalajara, is proudly low-tech and old-fashioned, but I heard the same mantra from Francisco Alcaráz, master distiller at Tequila Patrón's stunning new state-of-the-art distillery in nearby Atotonilco. "At every step of the process we adhere to traditional methods," Alcaráz told me, "but we do it in a modern setting."

Camarena, Alcaráz, and some of Mexico's other top producers know that the very highest quality tequila—the kind you serve neat and sip slowly, as you would any other great spirit, as opposed to the kind which goes into a margarita—can only be made in this painstaking and decidedly old-fangled way. No spirit is more closely tied to the land than tequila. Protected by an appellation of origin, tequila can be produced anywhere in the state of Jalisco and in designated areas in four other Mexican states. It must be made from blue agave grown within that zone, although there is a loophole (read on). More than 95 percent of it is produced within driving distance of Guadalajara, the capital of Jalisco.

There are two categories of tequila: tequila and 100 percent agave tequila. The former, also called mixto, need only contain 51 percent agave; the remaining 49 percent can come from any sugar source. If the label does not specify 100 percent agave, it is a mixto. The vast majority of tequilas—80 percent of exports—are mixtos, and they are of no interest to us. The tequila you've been drinking probably doesn't taste like tequila.

Like all great spirits, 100 percent agave tequilas are designed to be drunk neat, perhaps with a glass of sangrita on the side. I tried dozens of white, or unaged, 100 percent agave tequilas, many directly from the still, to get a sense of the aromas and flavors. Here are my impressions: earthy, fruity, herbaceous, stony. Aromas and flavors vary depending on where the agave is grown and on the style of the fábrica. It's a bit like wine—except it can knock you out.

Within Jalisco there are two main production zones: in and around the town of Tequila, about an hour west of Guadalajara, and in Los Altos, the rugged highlands, about two hours east of the capital. It makes sense to use Guadalajara as a base for visiting Tequila and the nearby towns. There is a good toll road, as well as train and bus service, to Tequila. Los Altos is another matter. It's a bit too far for a day-trip, so you're better off spending a night or two in Arandas.

Distillation is pretty much the same the world over. The last breakthrough occurred in the nineteenth century with the invention of the column still. Before that, everyone used the pot still, and many, including some of the best tequila producers, still do. What makes tequila unique is what happens prior to distillation.

Agave is a succulent with spiky leaves that protect the heart, called the piña ("pineapple"), which takes 8 to 12 years to mature. Harvesting, even at the largest plantations, is still done entirely by hand. A skilled worker, or jimador, severs the plant at ground level. He then slices away the prickly leaves, trimming the exposed plant until all that remains is the mature piña, which can weigh from 50 to 150 pounds or more. The piña is then carried to the fábrica.

At an artisanal operation, workers split the agave hearts by hand and stack them in brick or stone ovens called hornos, where they are steamed for 20 to 36 hours, turning the starch into sugar. Modern producers have replaced the brick ovens with giant stainless steel pressure cookers called autoclaves. Cooked agave, incidentally, smells a bit like sweet potato or pumpkin and is very sweet.

When the piña has been thoroughly cooked, the traditionalists take a giant leap backward. The agave needs to be crushed to release the sugary liquid that will go into the fermentation vats. Whereas modern producers use mechanical crushers to begin the process of separating the liquid from the fibrous pulp, artisanal fábricas use a mill called a tahona. The agave is dumped into a circular stone pit, where it is crushed by a giant stone wheel that is powered differently at different distilleries: At Tequila Siete Leguas, a team of mules move the tahona; at Patrón and Tapatío, gasoline-fueled horsepower turns the wheel.

The mushy combination of liquid and pulp is carried to the fermenters—wooden tanks where the sugar is converted into alcohol. This mosto, or must, is then double distilled and becomes tequila. At a modern facility, liquid (sans pulp) is piped from the mechanical crushers into large stainless steel fermenters, and from there into the stills.

After distillation, the tequila can either be bottled immediately or aged in wood. Blanco, or unaged, tequila (also called white or silver) has all the earthy, fruity, herbal characteristics of agave, along with a fair amount of fire. To qualify as reposado, or aged, the tequila must be kept for a minimum of two months in oak, which helps to bank the fire. Añejo, or extra aged, tequila must spend at least a year in oak barrels, where it takes on the properties of fine aged spirits but loses some of the agave characteristics. Many top producers exceed the minimum aging requirement of one year, often aging añejos for three years or more.

The tequila industry is only beginning to understand the benefits of tourism. Many factories have security gates and turn away those who don't have an appointment. The town of Tequila, home to industry giants Jose Cuervo and Sauza, is the most tourist-friendly. Cuervo's tour of its La Rojeña factory is designed for the casual visitor but includes all you need to know about tequila production. If you want to visit the smaller, artisanal producers, you'll need to write or call ahead for an appointment. I urge you to visit at least one such factory; there's nothing quite like it.

Producers in the Highlands

This large producer, north of Arandas and not far from Centinela, welcomes visitors with tours in Spanish and English. Owned by Bacardi, it's a modern, efficiently organized distillery with autoclaves rather than hornos, giant stainless steel fermenters, and a row of gleaming stainless steel stills. Known primarily for its reposado tequilas. Visits by appointment only (52-34-8784-5570; cazadores.com).

A large and highly respected producer on the outskirts of Arandas, Centinela exports only about two percent of production. "We have trouble supplying our own market," says plant manager Delia Vivanco Franco. Centinela specializes in aged tequilas and has two large rooms stacked floor to ceiling with one-use American oak barrels, most of them from Jack Daniels. The nine-year-old añejo has terrific dried fruit, clove, cinnamon, and toffee aromas. More like a fine old Cognac than a tequila, it's a lovely spirit. Visits by appointment only (52-34-8783-0468; tequilacentinela.com.mx, in Spanish).

Don Julio
Produced in an Atotonilco fábrica founded in 1942 by Don Julio González, this well-known premium brand is now owned by the British drinks giant Diageo. The reposado is particularly fine, with citrus and herbal aromas and a hint of oak. The añejo is a little too oaky for my taste (no phone or Web site).

Tequila Patrón has done more to change the American image of tequila from rowdy party drink to premium spirit than all the other brands put together. Owner John Paul DeJoria brought American marketing savvy to this quintessentially Mexican product: Handblown bottles, individually wrapped and boxed, signaled a different sort of tequila, as did the aggressive pricing. In a decade and a half, Patrón has created a successful luxury brand. Glitzy? Sure. Overpriced? Maybe. Top-class tequila? Absolutely. A beautiful new hacienda-style factory opened near Atotonilco last year and is still expanding to keep up with demand. It will probably become tourist-friendly when the construction crews finally leave (52-39-1917-4679; patronspirits.com).

Siete Leguas
Named for Pancho Villa's favorite horse, Siete Leguas is not widely known in America. Produced at two fábricas on a steep street in Atotonilco, the tequilas are among Mexico's best. El Centenario, the smaller of the two distilleries, maintains every aspect of artisanal production and is a required stop for aficionados. Visits by appointment only (52-39-1917-0999; tequilasieteleguas.com.mx).

El Tesoro de Don Felipe, named for the current Felipe Camarena's father, is the top brand from this artisanal distillery, located on a dusty road a few miles southeast of Arandas. Nearly everything suggests a much earlier time, including the monstrous old steam boiler built in 1888. Camarena tells me that the boiler is about to be replaced, but only because it lacks the capacity for expanding production. "It works fine," he assures me, "but we're adding two stills and so we must have a bigger boiler. We'll still use this one when the new one needs servicing." Earthy, fruity tequilas with strong agave flavors. One of the very best (52-34-8783-0425; eltesorotequila.com).

Producers in and Around Tequila

If you visit only one fábrica, it should be Herradura. This modern distillery in Amatitán, about 25 miles west of Guadalajara, is built around the beautiful Hacienda San José del Refugio and welcomes visitors. The tour provides a step-by-step explanation of tequila production—from agave field to bottling line—and includes a stop at an old fábrica that's now a museum. Herradura produces very fine tequilas in a style that is earthier and more herbaceous than tequilas from the highlands. A particularly fine reposado. Visits by appointment only (52-37-4745-0415; herradura.com).

Jose Cuervo
For many Americans, Jose Cuervo is tequila. By far the largest producer and exporter, Cuervo dominates the town of Tequila. The distillery La Rojeña welcomes tourists, and its restaurant is one of the town's best. Learn and enjoy here; satisfy your serious tequila cravings elsewhere (52-37-4742-2170; mundocuervo.com).

Tres Mujeres
Jesús Partida Melendrez is an important agave farmer who in 1996 opened a small fábrica in the middle of an agave field in Amatitán. The distillery has the bare minimum of equipment: a mechanical crusher, a few fermentation vats, and two small stills. I tasted the very good tequilas in an open-air room while a group of weathered workers sat quietly along the opposite wall. I have no idea what they were doing—perhaps it was payday—but it looked like a casting call for a Sam Peckinpah movie. Tres Mujeres exports to the United States, and its tequilas are worth searching out. Visits by appointment only (52-37-4748-0506; tequilatresmujeres.com.mx).

Guadalajara is a sprawling city of nearly five million, so it's impossible to find a hotel close to all the attractions. The Quinta Real is reasonably close to the cathedral and the historic district, as well as convenient to the main roads to Tequila and Los Altos. The low-rise, Spanish colonial–style hotel is a tranquil spot in a hectic city (52-33-3669-0600; quintareal.com; doubles, $235–$253).

If you can't visit a tequila producer, you can dine at La Tequila, a few blocks from the Quinta Real. It has good standard fare and a comprehensive list of tequilas (52-33-3640-3440; entrées, $8–$14).

The Cazadores is a very comfortable small hotel two blocks from the cathedral in Arandas. The important Los Altos producers are within easy driving distance (52-34-8784-6616; doubles, $50–$71).

Published in November 2006. Prices and other information were accurate at press time, but are subject to change. Please confirm details with individual establishments before planning your trip.

Source: http://www.concierge.com/cntraveler/articles/detail?articleId=10494

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Last Revision - 06 March 2011 - jat
Big Shots : Tequila article from Condé Nast Traveler - November 2006