Tequila Town

A loud bang is followed by a muffled groan. I swing my legs off the bed and listen intently, silence. The person in the next room is either now dead or in a complete daze. Showered and dressed, I grab my guidebook and skip down to reception where Lula welcomes me with a radiant smile. Lula is in her sunset years and has worked at this popular hotel in Guadalajara for over three decades. "I have never taken a day off!" she proudly beams. I'm convinced Lula is the most chilled out human being in the whole of Mexico, even the world. She goes at her own pace and meditates every morning at sunrise. I mention the loud bang from the room next door, but Lula laughs and casually waves her hand in the air as if you say "don't worry about it." She asks what my plans are for today and I sing 'Tequila town!' She nods, that’s her response, a slow nod of acceptance.

I leap aboard a bus and greet the cheerful driver, who has a bruised eye. Crunching the gears, we roar out of Guadalajara and eventually the chaos of the urban jungle is replaced with blue agave plantations that kiss the horizon and cling to the slopes of Volcán de Tequila. Here is where it all began. This actual volcano and the surrounding soil gives the blue agave its full intake of volcanic minerals, and the sweet smell of the nectar is strong and smells almost stale. Two hundred years ago, the Toltec Indians first made candy from the agave sugars and this gave the Spanish the brilliant idea of turning it into alcohol.

The bus arrives in Santiago de Tequila, a town in the state of Jalisco and roughly 60km from the city of Guadalajara. Named “Pueblo Mágico" (Magical Town) by the Mexican federal government, Tequila is a World Heritage Site and was founded in 1530 by Franciscan monks. I arrive at the Jose Cuervo's La Rojena distillery housed in a beautiful restored building, with curved arches and a statue of a Raven at the entrance. Knocking back a shot of Platino, the peppery liquid hits the back of my throat and powers me through to the tequila-making process. The production of tequila is divided into seven steps: harvesting, cooking, extraction, fermentation, distillation, ageing and bottling. First, the raw material is steamed for 36 hours, so the nutrients can crystallize into sugars and then a mechanical crusher separates the fibre from the juices. It is then fermented for seven to twelve days in stainless steel tanks and distilled and purified until the sugars are transformed into alcohol. Afterwards, the tequila is stored in white oak barrels and the amount of time it ages will determine the tequila’s characteristics, type, odour and taste. The longer the tequila ages the more colour and tannins the final product will have. My guide explains the differences between the various types of tequila, from Cuervo Black sitting in charred barrels to Especial Silver where the barrel process is skipped for a crisper taste.

We arrive in the tasting room where Katerina shakes me up a margarita. Flicking on a sombrero, I jump onto a bar stool and watch her pour the Jose Cuervo Gold, Cointreau, and lime juice into a shaker. A couple of ice cubes and a good shake before she pours the liquid into a cocktail glass with salt around the rim. It tastes delicious. Katerina explains the harvesting process, in which the blue agave core or heart called ‘piña’ (Spanish for pineapple) is the raw material for making tequila. The skilled harvester or “Jimador” spends hours in the plantations removing the agave leaves with a sharp curved tool called a Coa. They trim the leaves that protect the piña and extract it from the ground. Only the heart of the blue agave plant is used to make tequila. Fifteen pounds of blue agave piñas are required to produce one litre of tequila, and over three hundred million agave plants are harvested in their plantations each year.

With a skip in my step, I return to the gift shop and buy a bottle of Platino on my way out and restrain myself from purchasing a Jose Cuervo t-shirt. Despite the rather Americanized feel, it has been an interesting experience learning about Jose Cuervo’s seven stages of making tequila. Until recently, I didn't even know there was a town called Tequila. So, the next time you are enjoying a shot of the hot stuff in some bar or sipping a margarita on the beach, be proud in the knowledge that you now know where and how Tequila is made.

More books by Chris Raven

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