On the Tequila Trail

Tequila sales are booming. But what exactly is this south-of-the-border sensation? Frat-house slammer? Worm-bearing hallucinogenic? Sunset visits Jalisco to distill the truth.

Nino Padova

Day Two on the Tequila Trail was off to a rocky start, and we had Day One to thank for that. Mexico's native spirit had welcomed us in a big way. First on the plane, then in the hotel lounge. Everywhere we went, tequila. It was served in crystal flutes and large earthen bowls. It was mixed with citrus and Sprite. We drank it from copper kettles as anxious men in lab coats looked on. It was sniffed and studied and paired and poured into hollowed-out limes and downed in a single puckering gulp.

We were learning a lot.

This was, after all, a crash course. Two full days of tequila immersion in the high-desert valley that bears its name, an hour northwest of Guadalajara in the Mexican state of Jalisco. A handful of us had come from various points north to learn more about this mysterious elixir that most people associate with that regrettable night in Cancún involving belly button shots and a mechanical bull.

Our tour, the first one of its kind, promised a more erudite experience. We would visit some of the best artisanal distilleries in the valley, and meet face-to-face with the most prominent makers, growers, and distributors in the business. They would answer thoughtfully our burning questions about terroir and the great agave shortage of 2000, then toast us with their finest estate-grown añejo before disappearing into the flat midday sun. All of which was highly unusual.

Foreigners rarely funnel into this dusty patch of Mexico, and the few who do are often shuttled in from beach resorts two hours away to soak up a day of "culture" between sunburns. That usually means a for-the-masses romp through one of the big industrial distilleries like Jose Cuervo, which offers guests the services of a weekend party train, complete with a margarita bar, seafood buffet, and dancing women.

We were on a different mission. Most of us were of that small but growing subset of drinkers who were hip to good tequila, searched it out at specialty cocktail bars and restaurants back home, and were now ready for the next step. We had used vacation days and frequent-flier miles to come here and take that step. So it was with a deep sense of scholarly satisfaction that I received my official Spirit of Jalisco handbook upon arrival. There, folded within its leather covers, was the trip syllabus, with an hour-by-hour breakdown of our very full itinerary. What I didn't notice at the time was the following line: "Day Two: Van departs 8:30 a.m. sharp."

"Are you as hungover as I am?" This was from Tom #2. We called him Tom #2 because the other Tom on the tour was a 6-foot-5 former college basketball player with shoulder-length hair and hands the size of Fiats, clearly earning him Proto-Tom status.

"I'm doing okay," I shrugged. In fact, I was not doing okay, and the van ride wasn't helping. We were crawling through rush hour traffic on our way to the great agave fields west of town. The trip could take 45 minutes, or at this hour, three times that long. I slunk in my seat, wincing with every tap of the brakes. From my window, Guadalajara looked like a city of slabs, gray and featureless.

And then it was gone. The road opened up, and the horizon gave way to big, deep gulps of blue. Row after row of agave—thousands upon thousands of plants—erupted from the earth in spiky, swordlike formations.

"We want to go down there." A finger pointed to beyond the highway, where a narrow dirt road clutched a thick maze of agave. The finger belonged to Clayton Szczech, Spirit of Jalisco's director of tequila experiences. Clayton had been leading private tasting trips on his own since 2008, but recently he teamed up with an established tour operator out of Los Cabos to help handle the million and one logistical challenges of running vanloads of day-tasters through a foreign country. His Spanish was crisp and flawless, almost lyrical, and his tight connections in the tequila world would open many doors for us. Dirt roads too.

The van lurched and swayed. Our stomachs did the same as we descended to the valley floor. Finally, the shaking stopped, and we exited the van.

Waiting for us was Silverio Nuñez-Contreras, plantation manager for the Orendain family, one of the oldest independent tequila producers in Mexico. Silverio wore a rumpled baseball cap and a look of pliant indifference. Beside him, upright and eager with dark, intense eyes, was a young jimador, one of the field-workers who harvest Weber blue agave, the desert succulent from which all tequila is made. Because even plants that grow side by side in the field ripen at different times, agave must be harvested by hand, the same way it has been since the Spanish introduced distillation to Mexico in the 16th century: with skilled laborers and a machete-like tool called a coa.

This was to be a demonstration. We gathered around the jimador as he lunged the blade into the plant over and over, shearing off the sharp jagged leaves that protect the agave's sweet, sap-filled heart, or piña. (The piña is the prize of the plant; it'll get cooked, crushed, fermented, and distilled to make 100 percent agave tequila. Anything labeled otherwise usually contains sugars from other sources and should be avoided in the same way one should avoid belly button shots and mechanical bulls.) Blue agave can take six to 10 years to mature, sprout up to 7 feet tall, and weigh 100-plus pounds. A good jimador will strip one down in two minutes flat.

"Are you getting this?" Proto-Tom was watching the scene unfold through his iPad. "Amazing. Look at him go!" We chewed on raw agave bits (which tasted like jicama) and absorbed Clayton's mini lecture on soil composition ("We're standing over one of the largest obsidian deposits in the world"). And then there were questions. At first directed toward Clayton, but then at the jimador: How many agaves can you chop in a day? Ever get injured? How much do you make? Would you take a picture with me?

Nearby, Silverio leaned on his pickup truck. I wandered over to see what he thought about this whole thing—the van, the cameras, the questions. He paused. "It's a good time to be a peasant," he said. "A good time for tequila."

A good time, indeed. Over the past 15 years, tequila sales have doubled worldwide, in large part due to an unquenchable thirst from Mexico's northern neighbor. The United States accounts for 77 percent of all tequila exports. And though much of the growth has come at the hands of multinational conglomerates that have rebranded the spirit à la vodka in the 1990s—bringing it from the frat house to the nightclub, with the help of buy-in from celebrities like Justin Timberlake and George Clooney—perhaps the biggest trend has been the emergence of "premium" tequila. That is, ingredient-driven, 100 percent blue agave tequila, which is sipped, like wine, rather than the cheap intoxicant dumped into blenders.

Some people would argue that the current boom is bad for tequila, saturating the market with a product that's become increasingly homogenized ("smooth" is a word you hear a lot) and compelling farmers to overplant a crop already prone to disease and infestation. Silverio is not one of those people.

I asked him one last question: "What if everyone suddenly quit drinking tequila?" He took me in for what felt like a full minute, then cracked a wide smile. "Well, we'd go bust," he said. "But that will never happen. There will always be drinkers."

The van pushed on, and within it life settled into that soft familiar rhythm common to the group traveler. The whispery introductions. The gentle conversations that spill from row to row. I met Tim, a video producer from Los Angeles who'd traveled to Mexico by motorcycle back in his "wild days," and who claimed to have been fired multiple times from the set of Apocalypse Now. I then met another Tim—Tim #2!—a middle-aged Chicagoan, along with his partner, Patrick. Both tequila nuts. Both severely jet-lagged.

The back of the van belonged to Iván and Aida. They live near Mexico City and work for Spirit of Jalisco—though in what capacity, exactly, I was never quite certain. They also run a small production company on the side that specializes in stop-motion animation, and in their spare time travel the country as professional clowns, teaching children the art of pantomime. "It's incredibly rewarding," they told me, their faces blooming with pride. Everyone loved Iván and Aida.

The Tequila Trail isn’t actually a trail. Not in the traditional sense, anyway. There are no maps to follow, no dotted lines that string you from one point to the next. You don't repeatedly run into the same cheery couple as you might while tasting in, say, Napa Valley: "You two again?"

The Tequila Trail is, first and foremost, a choice. You can head two hours east of Guadalajara to the remote distillery towns in the Los Altos region (where the agave is larger, the tequila sweeter, the roads scarier to navigate). Or you can begin where our journey began, back on Day One, in the town of Tequila, a proud little pueblo of 25,000 people sandwiched between a dormant volcano and the foothills of the western Sierra Madre. The town—a tangle of low-slung cement buildings that open up to an elegant Spanish plaza—sits at about 4,000 feet above sea level, a fact brought into sharper focus as we huffed our way up the cobbled entrance of La Fortaleza distillery.

Clayton kept the tempo brisk. Everything at Fortaleza seemed to operate in the kind of preindustrial dream bubble that hipsters back home fetishize. We ducked (literally, had to duck) into adobe bunkers that reeked of baked yams, where men crouched in pools of brown liquid milling agave by hand. Behind them leaned a Flintstones-like stone wheel (tahona) that's used to crush cooked piñas before they're fermented. In one room, we found a group of women working tiny chisels around the ceramic cork covers that get plunked onto each bottle of the 12,000 cases Fortaleza produces each year ... which is about what Jose Cuervo bottles in a single day.

We followed a path of candles into a cave. Inside was a small bar, backlit in red Christmas lights and decorated with Day of the Dead skulls. Clayton poured samples of Fortaleza's three classes of tequila—blanco, reposado, and añejo. With each sip, I could taste the baked agave, bracing at first, but then, as we let the spirit roll over our tongues (a trick we learned from Clayton), soft and creamy. With each sip, I could see the faces of the men kneeling, milling.

Next, we hit La Tequileña. Bigger and shinier than Fortaleza, the distillery is owned by the Fonseca family, who've been in the agave trade for five generations. We were greeted by Sergio Mendoza, a handsome 33-year-old with wavy, disheveled hair. "Claytone," he beamed, leaning in for a bro hug.

Sergio oversees global branding for La Tequileña's tequilas (just about every distillery produces multiple labels, and some, as many as a dozen). "The U.S. is the big fish," Sergio said. "But the real potential is China. Think about it—a billion and a half people who've never tasted real tequila." His eyes widened.

We were shuffled through the distillery (highlight: an enormous barrel-aging room like something out of Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark), then escorted to a palm-shaded patio where a woman in a red apron cooked pork tacos. Bottles were opened, maybe a dozen, and we moved down the line, tasting. The diversity was astounding. Some were rough and vegetal, like unaged whiskey or Italian grappa. Others, toasty and sweet with hints of caramel and vanilla. It's this quality, I remind myself, that draws me to tequila—to so many things in life. The capacity to be wild, unpredictable, alive!

There was another group on the patio. Industry types. I could tell by the way they tasted. Slowly, deliberately, their noses floating over the glass before bringing the liquid to their lips. I introduced myself to David Driscoll, a spirit buyer for a boutique liquor store in the Bay Area. I asked him what he thought about tequila's big moment. "People are finally aware of good tequila," he told me. "But now they want more: Where does it come from, how is it made, what, precisely, makes it good? They don't just want a bottle; they want a story."

This made sense. The more time I spent here, the clearer it all became. What I sought wasn't so much an education as it was a validation. We live in a world of likes and shares, a world in which we're forced at every turn to consider our preferences, defend them, even. If I was going to call myself a tequila drinker, then I'd better learn the story.

"Enough tasting, let's go drink," shouted Clayton, and before I knew it, we were piled back in the van, zigzagging through the sunbaked streets. Next stop, La Capilla, the oldest cantina in Tequila. We drank the famous Batangas (tequila, Coca-Cola, and lime) and met the famous Don Javier, who owns the bar and invented the Batanga. Now in his 90s, he still had the sparkle of youth in his eye. Tables were pushed together. Stories came in waves. We were told the secret to a long life: "two short drinks a day, and never marry." Bottles were opened and emptied. Time sputtered. I went outside for a gulp of air and saw what at that moment felt like the strangest, most beautiful thing. A garbage truck with huge rooftop speakers blasting Vivaldi's Four Seasons.

There was more—more distilleries, more cantinas, more face time with distinguished tequileros. We met a former mayor of Tequila. He autographed our souvenir bottles—which was an honor, we were told, but also felt weird, like having Ed Koch sign your hot dog. Plus all the things that didn't involve tequila: guided walks through Guadalajara's historic plazas; ceramics shopping in the artsy but unpronounceable town of Tlaquepaque; Sunday morning goat meat stew.

Dinner our final night and spirits were high. Margaritas appeared. A debate broke out over whether it was worth using good tequila in a margarita.

Patrick: "No way, waste of good booze."

Clayton: "Now see, I disagree ..."

Conversations splintered off, found new channels. I told Iván and Aida about a news story that reported a clown shortage in the United States. Their faces froze in a look of mock concern—then, as if we had rehearsed it, the three of us burst into laughter.

When the meal came, I sat across from Proto-Tom. We got to chatting but were quickly interrupted by a roving band of mariachis—Jalisco's other great invention. One of the last things I remember is the two of us, arms locked, in the middle of the restaurant singing boleros at top volume. That we didn't speak Spanish didn't seem to matter, least of all to us.

Later I learned that Proto-Tom was Tom Williams, a 62-year-old retired science teacher from Fayetteville, Arkansas. Hard to find good tequila in Arkansas, but he managed, and took an interest in learning more about it. One day he Googled "tequila vacations" and found Clayton. It took him six months to save enough money for the trip. Then, just as it was about time to go, he realized he didn't own a passport—he'd never been out of the country.

He'd been busy. Working, raising three boys and a girl, and more recently, caring for his wife of 20 years, who'd fallen sick and had to be hospitalized. Mexico was the first big thing he'd done without her. When he walked out onto the tarmac in Guadalajara, a month later than expected, tears welled up in his eyes. "I finally made it," he told himself. "I'm here."

The moon hung low in the sky that final night. I wandered back to our hotel after dinner and sat down in one of the empty courtyards. A fountain gurgled in the dark. Clayton approached with bottles under both arms. "Taste this." He passed me a glass, a swallow's worth of tequila at the bottom. Something rare, an añejo, from his private stash. "Banana, right?"

We tasted for a while longer, then he left and I sat in silence paging through my notebook. I came across a sketch Iván had drawn back at the restaurant. It was of the jimador from that morning. He was leaning over the agave, clearing away the unneeded parts to get at the center, to get at the sweet core. Below it was written: He who hits the ground, knows the flavor.