In case you’re interested to know more about the town of TEQUILA and the Jalisco region, please go to the JALISCO PAGE.
This article has a particular focus on our experience as both tourists AND Tequila connoisseurs visiting different Tequila Distilleries.
If you’re new to the Tequila world, don’t worry about it, I will try to help out giving you some basic knowledge.
- Where does Tequila come from and where can it be produced?
Of the over 200 kinds of existent agave plants, only ONE is fit for Tequila: The Agave Azul Tequilana Weber.
100% agave Tequila can be harvested, processed, aged and bottled only in this specific areas (Appellation of Origin Tequila DOT):
- All of Jalisco state
- 8 Municipalities of Nayarit
- 30 Municipalities of Michoacan
- 7 Municipalities of Guanajuato
- 11 Municipalities of Tamaulipas
Furthermore, there are many other regulations (NOM) about the process that must be followed in order to name a spirit “Tequila”, that would make this topic super long and boring, so for now I’ll just stop here. Just know that every single step of the production is strictly regulated and controlled.
So, as you realize, you’re in the right place for making your tours! 👍👍
- I have limited time/budget but I still want to have a complex and fulfilling experience. How shall I organize my visit?
It all depends on
your budget, time availability, and if you want to have a tourist-focused
experience, tasting-focused experience, or connoisseur-focused experience.
I’d say that having a vehicle, a week of time, and a 300usd budget can be of great help, but it’s not mandatory.
Your options are:
- Renting a vehicle from Guadalajara, the city is only 60 km away. This will give you freedom to explore around the agave fields yourself, freedom to go out of the beaten track and to less touristic distilleries.
- Boarding the Tequila train (yes, they do exist!) to reach Tequila from Guadalajara. There are different packages offered by Jose Cuervo and by Herradura, prices are from 100usd and there will be tastings involved. Only available during weekends.
- Taking one of the tours offered by the locals in the main plaza. This is the last option, in my opinion, good if you want to have only one day and you want the tourist-focused experience. These tours are pretty much all the same: they will bring you to the agave fields to take pictures, to visit some distilleries (but beware, you may find yourself with many other bus tours in the same distillery as they all go to the same ones, so you may have 80 people in your tour!). There are a few that offer multi-day tours, which are a better choice, but they will still bring you to the distilleries that have the best agreement with them, not to the best distilleries in general. Always flag down their initial price, and careful to Gringo prices!
- You can’t avoid the tourist trap taking an organized tour with an agent, no matter what they say; a good option to limit this uncomfortable feeling can be to go during the side-seasons (spring and autumn, as summer is way too hot for this) or to take a tour in English, as most of the tourists are Mexicans.
In some distilleries, tours in Spanish can have 50+ people against the 15+ of an English tour!
- Lots of distilleries are at walking distance, and Tequila is a small place, after all. Probably the easiest way, hassle-free, is to show up and book for the next tour available. First tour 10am, last tour 3pm. Big distilleries have a Spanish tour each hour, and an English one every two, and if you’re waiting for a tour in Jose Cuervo, Casa Sauza, or any other distillery in downtown, you may want to kill the gap time by visiting some of the museums, like the Tequila Museum (30 pesos), Los Abuelos (owned by Fortaleza), or shopping around the different distilleries tiendas for souvenirs (wait for the bottles, you want to do the tasting first!).
- A few distilleries offer a more intimate, less crowded option: taking a tour with them may be by appointment only. And they will generally give you a much more connoisseur focused tour; some of them may be interested in knowing your background knowledge to adapt the tour to your level. Fortaleza, for example, offers an amazing 3 hours tour (the most complete we took!) for 25usd a person, but if you work in the industry (bartender, bar manager, brand ambassador, etc) you’ll very likely to get it for free!
Some others, like Cascahuìn, may accept EXCLUSIVELY people from the industry, and these small realities are likely to do tours for free (don’t forget to leave a tip tho!). Of course if you go to big companies like Orendain or José Cuervo, don’t expect to have it for cheap, the higher the tour level, the more expensive it will get.
- I have a vehicle and I’m independent. What is the best route to see the Agave fields?
In my travels through tequila country, it was the agave fields that truly amazed me and have led to the personal fascination I have for tequila. The landscape, the plant and the labor that each jimador puts into growing and harvesting agave are worthy of tremendous respect.
I have to encourage every tequila lover (or even passive admirers) to travel to the tequila fields at some point in their lifetime. It will give you a new respect for the drink and it’s an opportunity to immerse yourself in the real culture of tequila.
If you’re independent and can drive your own vehicle (or are willing to rent one), the best route in my opinion was to go to Amatitàn and from there to follow the signs for “Paisaje Agavero”, that will make you drive through some flat fields at the beginning – Tequilera Tres Agaves – and later through perched hills. Many small villages are surrounded by agave fields in this route, the biggest one being Chome; there are also one amazing lookout on agave fields, and more than one on the Grande de Santiago River and on the Dam of the Hidroeléctrica Rios Santiago Lerma.
This road will give you the chance to meet locals genuinely curious to have a chat with you, as they never see tourists around the area.
On the way back, briefly stop at the former distillery (now a community center) Hacienda Santa Ana. It is a piece of history of the region, and has signs that explain the story of it.
Another amazing detour can be the Tequila volcano. It is what gives the soil such a rich mineral level, and is therefore an important element of the Tequila production. On a clear day, you’ll get a nice view of the Tequila valley! Also, the volcano is venerated by the locals like a Goddess, and is represented in different ways in lots of murals around downtown.
now start to understand that there’s an incredible hard-work that it takes to
But which are the differences between a traditional process and a modern one?
Maybe Tequila is the most underestimated spirit in the world (most people think it’s only good for shots and get wasted… there’s so much more to it!!), even myself, before starting my bartending career I always assumed it was something easy to make, as I could find it in the Italian market for quite a cheap price.
Here I’ll explain a traditional process, and I’ll put a note on the side explaining what’s changed with modern technologies.
AGAVE: It takes the Agave 8 years to grow and mature before they are harvested. These mature agave plants can grow to be very large. On average, each plant can produce about 8 or 9 bottles of tequila. It takes a specially trained “jimador” to harvest these giant blue agave plants, with their dangerously sharp points, it can cause injury if you’re not careful. A good jimador can harvest 200 Agaves in a day.
New: the regulations wants the Agave to be harvested not before 7 years. In reality, the high demand for Tequila – who boomed in the past years – is forcing more than a few to harvest after 5,5 years; for the rest, everything is still harvested by hand. Introduction of the axe as tool.
COOKING: Agaves are slowly cooked for 36 hours – 3 days in a very old stone oven or, even better, in a fireplace specifically designed for it, at slow fire. Agaves are careful loaded by hand, and then the door is sealed shut (in case of the oven, sometime using a combination of mud and dry platano leaves), and steam is injected into the oven.
As the agaves slowly cook, starches inside the agaves turn into sugars, and deep caramelization happens best when you slow down and use the old traditional way.
Once the agaves are cooked, they must cool down. It takes another 24 hours for them to be at a temperature where they can be hand-removed from the oven, and advance to the next stage in the process. New: Agaves are cooked at high temperatures (up to 96°C) to accelerate the process and cook for 24 hrs. They get loaded by a machine or tractor into massive ovens, with double the capacity (30 tons instead of 14 tons) of the old ones; every modern distillery has 15-25 ovens, against the 2-3 of the old distilleries.
CRUSHING: the tequila is 100% stone crushed in the traditional process. Using a “tahona” (a large round 2-ton volcanic stone) pulled by an electric tractor (which took the place of mules) all of the agave fibers are crushed in a stone pit. In this step the sugars are separated from the fibers of the plant so that the fermentation can fully occur (pitchfork in action!). Using a tahona is considered “inefficient” by modern standards. It takes longer, and still leaves some sugar behind. Plus, it takes 3 hours to crush 2 tons.
New: extracting machines. See pictures.
FERMENTATION is done in wood open-air tanks. Using natural yeast that eats the sugars, and produce alcohol. Once again, no shortcuts are taken. It may take longer, but the results speak for themselves.
It takes about 4 days before the yeast consumes all of the sugar. When fermentation is complete, the mash used to be carried in buckets to the other side of the room where it could be distilled.
New: adds of other sugars to this process and of yeast-accelerating chemicals. It then gets pumped to the distillation tanks.
DISTILLATION twice in traditional copper pot stills. The first time through the still the product takes the name of “ordinario”, which is approximately 20% alcohol by volume. This ordinario is collected in a stainless steel tank, and then it is sent through the still one more time. The second pass is when ordinario is turned into tequila. At this stage the tequila is about 46% alcohol.
New: Many tequila brands will distill to 55% or 60% because it is cheaper to store. Distilling “close to proof” helps to preserve as much of the agave flavor as possible.
AGING: small batches, to get the best quality.
New: The casks have to be 200L max for anejo and extra anejo, but the reposado ones have massive tanks. Barrels gets reused for over 20 years to get the maximum out of them.
BOTTLING: all the bottles were hand-blown. As a result, each one is a tiny bit different. Some still make bottles the way they were made 150 years ago as well. Tequila is hand bottled, capped, labeled, and packed in cases for shipment.
New: bottling stations set up inside of the distilleries, bottles not hand-blown in most cases.
- Which distilleries would you recommend to pick?
My recommendation is
to visit one of each kind.
One that can show you modern machineries, and one that still use the traditional methods, without technology but simply using hard work and techniques that have been inherited generation past generation, for over two centuries.
In this way, you can understand the difference.
José Cuervo is probably your best bet for the modern one. I mean, you really can’t skip it as La Rojeña®, the flagship distillery of Cuervo, is the oldest in Latin America, and the English tours are not too crowded. Another good point, it’s located super close to the main plaza.
Take your time enjoying a distillery tour with a professional tasting of blanco, reposado and añejo tequilas in the Expert Tequila rooms. Another good point in their favor is that they have the widest variety of tours: from the basic one (at 240 mxp), to the one with chocolate matching in the tasting, to the dinner with local comida matching tequilas, to the Express train, to the “bottle your own Reserva de la Familia Tequila”, and I could go on for ages naming them. From 240 to 2500 mxp, the choice is all yours. Check their website to see which one fancies you 😉
Fortaleza is what I would pick in terms of tradition. It’s a small company, also at walking distance from Tequila downtown. The tour is going to be 3 hours for 500mxp (unless you’re working in the industry) and is by appointment only (no crowds! Check their website). What is so amazing about this? The tour will start from a visit to their distillery, that uses traditional methods. Just to make you understand what we are talking about, Fortaleza produces in a year the same amount of bottles that José Cuervo produces in a day (120.000 bottles)!
Fortaleza, locally known as Los Abuelos, will make you visit their whole property, including an amazing lookout on their agave fields, their grotto (used as a tasting room); the owner of the house and distillery still resides in a house on the top of the hill. Every part of the tour is cared for even in the smallest detail: even the guacamole sauce served with tacos as a snack for the tasting is home-made (and delicious!). The tasting is going to be about their Blanco, Reposado, Anejo, and their still strength (46°, the best way to taste fully the agave flavor).
The tour was supposed to last for 2-3 hours but instead it lasted 4 hours, just to say that they’re flexible with their schedule and that you’ll be the guide number one priority.
Side option: Herradura still have both the old hacienda and the new one.
Still, the old one is not operative and you can’t take pictures inside, but you can have a look at it and get an explanation about how things used to work there. In case you’re really strict with your time schedule and can’t go for Fortaleza. The English tour was 1 hour, 20 people, and 250mxp. Personally, I found our guide to be not as informed as the other guides in other distilleries, but maybe it’s me, because I do technical questions. 🙂
Side option: Cascahuìn for me was another GREAT tour. IF they accept you, go there!! Write an email first to require an appointment to Mr. Tetsu. And here I tasted the BEST Tequila of all of the distilleries I visited, the Ancestral.
- Which distilleries will give me a touristic experience with over 80 other people in my tour, and which ones will give me a face-to-face explanation, tasting and a more intimate visit?
As a general rule, all tours are going to be more intimate on the more advanced tours (and more expensive ones).
Still, if you’re at basic level:
José Cuervo in English wasn’t too crowded (15 people), while the Spanish one was of 60 people.
Orendain receives people from bus tours and does only English, so it was the most packed one I went (80 people, see the picture below).
Casa Sauza was closed for the holiday period, so I can’t tell about it.
Fortaleza definitely private.
Herradura was 20 people in the English tour.
Cascahuìn (if they accept you), private.
Très Mujeres is another popular one.
Go private, drive with your car, there are literally hundreds of distilleries that will be more than happy to make you have a look for a propina (tip) or for 20 pesos.
- It is THAT moment during my tour: TASTING. What are the differences between the different Tequila categories?
With close to 1000 Tequila brands to choose from, it helps to know the different types of Tequilas and the categories they fall into.
The main two types of Tequila are first split into two categories, 100% Blue Agave, and Tequila Mixto (Mixed). Mixto Tequila contains a minimum of 51% Blue Agave, and the remaining 49% from other sugars (typically cane sugars). The additional products allowed in Mixto Tequilas are caramel color, oak extract flavoring, glycerin, and sugar based syrup. Mixto Tequila can now be bottled outside of the Tequila territory, including other countries, which started January 6, 2006.
By reading the label on the bottle you can tell which clasification it is in, as all Tequila that is made from 100% Blue Agave will say “Tequila 100% de agave” or “Tequila 100% puro de agave”. All other Mixto Tequila labels will only read “Tequila”.
The above two categories of Tequila are then divided into the following five types of Tequila and are labeled as such:
- Tequila Silver – Blanco – Plata – White – Platinum
This is the Blue Agave spirit in its purest form. It is clear and typically un-aged, where the true flavors and the intensity of the Agave are present, as well as the natural sweetness. It can be bottled directly after distillation, or stored in stainless steel tanks to settle for up to 4 weeks. There are some Blanco products that are aged for up to 2 months to provide a smoother or “Suave” spirit.
- Tequila Cristallino
Tequila Cristallino is an aged Tequila, that after the aging process gets put through activated charcoal filters, removing the gold/brown color of it. The goal is to get a Tequila that is surprisingly smooth to swallow. Still, despite this being a new trend (approved in 2018), there are many people in the field not happy with the final result, that is leading to a much neutral spirit in terms of flavors (it’s similar to a Vodka with a hint of agave plant).
- Tequila Gold – Joven – Oro
Gold Tequila is typically a Mixto, where colorants and flavorings have been added prior to bottling. These “young and adulterated” Tequilas are less expensive and used in many bars and restaurants for “mixed drinks”. There are exceptions however, as a “Gold” or “Joven” Tequila can also be the result of blending a Silver Tequila with a Reposado and/or Añejo Tequila, while keeping the 100% Agave classification.
- Tequila Reposado
A Reposado Tequila is the first stage of “rested and aged”. The Tequila is aged in wood barrels or storage tanks between 2 months and 11 months. The spirit takes on a golden hue and the taste becomes a good balance between the Agave and wood flavors. Many different types of wood barrels are used for aging, with the most common being American or French oak. Some Tequilas are aged in used bourbon / whiskey, cognac, or wine barrels, and will inherit unique flavors from the previous spirit.
Reposado Tequilas are also referred to as “rested” and “aged”.
- Tequila Añejo (extra aged)
After aging for at least one year, Tequila can then be classified as an “Añejo”. The distillers are required to age Añejo Tequila in barrels that do not exceed 600 liters. This aging process darkens the Tequila to an Amber color, and the flavor can become smoother, richer, and more complex.
Añejo Tequilas are also referred to as “aged” and “extra-aged”.
- Tequila Extra Añejo (ultra aged)
Any Tequila aged more than 3 years, has to be labelled as an “Extra Añejo”. The distillers must age the spirit in barrels or containers with a maximum capacity of 600 liters. With this extended amount of aging, the Tequila becomes much darker, more of a Mahogany color, and is so rich that it becomes difficult to distinguish it from other quality aged spirits. After the aging process, the alcohol content must be diluted by adding distilled water. These Extra Añejo’s are extremely smooth and complex.
- So, how do I distinguish a good quality Tequila from a bad one?
There is actually no
good and no bad Tequila. The Tequila YOU LIKE THE MOST is the best one.
Obviously there are things that will make a Tequila much more enjoyable to the majority part of the final consumers.
First, the Tequila 100% Agave is the purest one. It is also the one likely not to give you a bad headache the day after, unless you don’t hydrate properly.
Concerning the other categories, some prefer to feel the flavor of the agave plant and will therefore prefer the blanco (especially the Gin drinkers), some others will like something with less flavor but smoother like Cristallino (especially Vodka drinkers), some others will like a mixed, balanced and slightly sweeter flavor as Reposado (Rum drinkers) and some others will prefer something aged or extra aged like Añejo, with a more complex flavor (Whiskey or Whisky drinkers).
Obviously there are exceptions to the rules.
In my humble opinion, I can’t appreciate Cristallino either.
“When you’re aging tequila you are getting the best that you can from the oak — you’re getting the tannins, the colors, the flavors,” explains Carlos Camarena, Master Distiller of El Tesoro. “And after all that you will pass everything through activated charcoal filters? You are shaving everything, not only the color, but the flavors. You [end up] with something that is a very neutral spirit. So my questions is ‘why waste time aging product if then you will shave it?’”
Another distinction comes from the state it is produced. Highlands Tequila don’t taste the same as Tequila Valley ones. Also the soil is different (Tamaulipas doesn’t have a volcanic soil, which leads to a different Agave flavor); plus there are rumors saying that Tamaulipas is been added to the list just because of politic favors between two close friends; for now, I would not try my luck with a Tequila from there.
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This is everything for the Tequila!
Please remember to check out the JALISCO page as well to learn more about our experience through distilleries.
Be aware that Mezcal (Oaxaca region) will come soon 🙂