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Tequila Tales

Forget about shot glasses and margarita mix, fine tequila is a sipping spirit. Here, we travel to the source: the birthplace of Mexico’s national drink.

By Peggy Sijswerda

 

have to admit, my first experience with tequila was not particularly pleasant. Back in the days when I was young and foolish, a few too many shots combined with the ubiquitous lemon wedges and salt gave me the worst hangover of my life. I swore off tequila for many years, recoiling at the thought of its oily taste and head-pounding after effects. Some years later a frosty margarita proved to me tequila could be palatable, but only when well disguised. Little did I know that, for imbibers in the know, straight tequila could be as tasty as a fine cognac or top-shelf scotch.

And where better to learn the myriad nuances of tequila than in the Mexican city that shares its name. The city of Tequila, located about an hour outside Guadalajara in the state of Jalisco, traces its history back to 1530 when the Spanish conquistadors christened it Santiago de Tequila. Then it was little more than a village surrounded by the Sierra Madre mountain range. But it turns out the limestone soil blanketing these low-lying mountains is the perfect medium for growing agave, the plant from which tequila is made, and today when you drive into the region a sea of spiky blue-green agave plants covers the mountainsides as far as the eye can see. Nestled in a valley, the city of Tequila welcomes thirsty tourists drawn to the region by its haunting beauty and magical namesake.

Made from the distilled sap of the agave plant, Tequila is now synonymous with Mexico. But its fame only became known north of the border as recently as Prohibition, when it was smuggled into the U.S. during the 1920s and 30s and sold behind locked doors in speakeasies and gin joints. A decade or so later during WWII, tequila’s popularity surged once again when liquor supplies to and from Europe were interrupted. Today tequila consumption is on the rise, and many distilleries are focusing their efforts on marketing high-end tequila brands, whose finest bottles can sell for thousands of dollars.

While many visitors hop on the Tequila Express, a tourist train out of Guadalajara, my husband, Peter, and I opted to drive the forty miles or so in our rental car. We knew we were getting close as fields of spiky agaves came into view, turning the hillsides a mystical blue. While different distilleries offer tours, we chose to visit Mundo Cuervo (MundoCuervo.com), where we donned hairnets and slippers, and joined a small group to learn about all things tequila.

The tour includes history about the Cuervo family, whose founder Jose Antonio Cuervo became the first person licensed to manufacture tequila, in 1758. The Cuervo distillery is still family-owned and offers a historical perspective that other tours can’t match. One highlight is a colorful mural that decorates a wall in the distillery complex. Scenes of villagers chopping agave, tending the stills, making barrels, and dancing at harvest time offer a visual timeline of the tequila-making process.

Our guide explained that there are three traditional categories of tequila: blanco is young tequila, clear and with a less refined flavor; reposado, golden in color, has aged a few months in barrels, giving it a smooth but somewhat peppery flavor; full-bodied añejo is aged more than a year and, like reposado, should be enjoyed straight up.

The best tequilas are one hundred percent agave, yet much of what is exported to the U.S. is blended. Peter and I took the Reserve Tour, which included a tequila tasting in the family’s reserve cave or vault. I was delighted to discover that I actually liked the taste of tequila. Like smooth cognac, the reserves had lovely notes of wood and honey.

We lunched across the street at Mundo Cuervo’s restaurant, Fonda Cholula, where we shared a unique version of guacamole, with hints of pomegranate, and pork chamorro, marinated spiced pork cooked in a banana leaf. Everything was divine, especially accompanied by my new favorite adult beverage: one hundred percent agave tequila, whose smooth buttery flavor is a far cry from the tequila I remember from my foolish youth. Salud!

07-01-2009

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