The Truth About Tequila

From Guadalajara, on our way out to Sayulita on the Pacific coast, we stopped in the town of Tequila. Yes, there’s a town named Tequila, and yes, it’s the epicenter of tequila production in Mexico, and by definition the world.

(Tequila is a sub-category of mezcal, the broader group of distilled liquors made from the hearts of a wide range of varieties of the agave plant. Mezcal is made in a number of regions of Mexico, and because some agave varietals are native to the southwestern United States, I guess you could have American-made mezcal, though I’m not aware of any. Tequila is made from specifically the blue agave plant, Agave tequilana Weber, and must originate from the state of Jalisco, or a few municipalities near Jalisco, where that varietal is native.)

There are many tequila producers across and near Jalisco, but it’s also true that the town of Tequila is a hotbed of tequila production. Approaching the town, you can’t miss the miles and miles of blue agave fields, sort of a grayish-green, and lovely against the yellow hills and clear blue sky.

We came to town intending to learn more about tequila, to try a few tequilas (not too many; I was driving and, you know, it was midday), and to depart with a nice bottle. There are many big names in Tequila – Sauza is headquartered there, as are Jose Cuervo, Centenario, Orendain, and others. As we enjoyed a decent brunch just off the central square, I did some research into where we might best spend our time.

What I found was shocking: as explained in this Bloomberg Businessweek article, over the past couple of decades, international tequila demand has skyrocketed, and at the same time, technological advances (I hesitate to call them “improvements”) have dramatically changed the way agave is grown and tequila is produced.

Unfortunately, all or almost all of these technological changes have been to the detriment of the flavor of tequila. Agave plants which once took up to twelve years to mature, developing flavor along the way, are now cultivated and harvested in as little as three years. Traditional wood-fired ovens and granite mills, used to toast and crush the agave hearts over several days, have been replaced by diffusers that extract the juice in a matter of hours; this less-complex liquid is then subjected to an accelerated fermentation of 36 hours’ duration in stainless steel tanks, where once it would have naturally fermented in wooden vats over the course of up to five days.

The net product of all this innovation is an agave-based spirit so facile that it is actually necessary to add “agave flavoring” to make it taste anything like “tequila” should. No thank you. (The article also notes that these new techniques are ubiquitous across the tequila price range, from a $10 bottle of Hornitos to a $50 Casamigos to a $200 Herradura Supreme Selection.)

It turns out that within the town of Tequila, there is only one producer still using traditional techniques: Tequila Fortaleza, founded about 15 years ago by the great-great-grandson of Don Cenobio Sauza (whose own famous brand became part of the Jim Beam empire in 2005). This scion bought back his grandfather’s farm/distillery, “La Fortaleza” (“Fortitude”), took it out of mothballs, and set to making tequila just the way his ancestors did. He initially named his product Tequila Los Abuelos (“The Grandfathers”) but after losing an international trademark suit brought by the Panamanian Ron Abuelo, adopted the “Fortaleza” name itself.

While you can just walk into Mundo Cuervo or La Experiencia Sauza, tours and tastings at Fortaleza are notionally by appointment only. Because we’d only heard about the place minutes before, we figured we were out of luck, but thought we’d try anyway. I knocked on the imposing gate (above) and the guard said sorry, no can do, but told us their tequilas were available for tasting from a nearby museum. So it was time for some museum-hopping, and a small side quest to try this tequila.

Well, it turned out that the Abuelos Museum was closed for renovations, but we did visit the Tequila Museum (no tastings, just interesting history and a description of the traditional production process). We couldn’t help but notice the Kirkland Signature bottle that was included in the museum’s gallery of tequilas – to be fair, KS tequila isn’t half bad and, from what I read earlier, probably is no more inauthentic than any other large producer’s stuff.

Before we left town, we figured we’d give it another shot, and so we walked back to Fortaleza and explained that we really just wanted to buy a bottle. This time we had more success and after a few minutes, we were sipping their various ages of tequila (blanco/plata: unaged; reposado: aged at least 2 months; añejo: aged at least 12 months) and admiring the classic equipment in the distillery and the hillside of blue agave plants.

And let me tell you, this stuff was fabulous. Crisp and clean, tasting strongly of agave, floral and citric. We ended up preferring the unaged blanco style, which we felt most fully expressed the agave flavor. The bottle cost us about $32; in the US it would be at least $40, but what price authenticity? For making margaritas, we also grabbed a bottle of El Tequileño, about $10, tasty and straightforward, and produced just across the street.

And with that, we were off, driving westward under the vivid blue sky. We learned a good deal and had some great tequila. We were also left pondering the oddity of a small town powered 100% by a world-famous product. Verdict: worth a stop.

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