I am a little winded as a group of us walk up a trail that leads to the highest point on Guillermo Sauza’s property in Tequila. I only had to look up at the ancient volcano that dominates the Southern sky to explain my shortness of breath. The town of Tequila is 4,000 feet above sea level, with mineral-rich volcanic soil that contributes to the growth and flavor of the blue agave, the plant tequila is made from.
Ollie, one of Sauza’s dogs, seems to lead the way. She runs several feet in front of us, then stops and turns around to make sure we are still following her, and then continues down the path. We pass “La Mexicana,” the Orendain distillery founded in 1926, to our right. We climb higher and, on the left, see trees with huge, twisted roots that seem to be crawling out of the ground. Finally, there’s just one more steep flight of stairs.
The overlook offers a gorgeous panoramic view of all of Tequila, a small town outside Guadalajara of about 50,000 people surrounded by fields that glow with the turquoise hue of blue agave. The wind blows toward us, and we catch a whiff of the honey-like scent of baked agave. It’s a smell that doesn’t quit while in Tequila; some of the big distilleries, like Cuervo and Sauza, work around the clock. For tequila aficionados – whether you’ve just started sipping or if you’ve sipped for decades – a visit to this magical place is a must.
Having written about tequila for nearly an entire year, it was high time I made the trip. I’m not a fan of planning trips – especially to other countries – so I chose Experience Tequila’s 10-Day Total Jalisco Experience, which includes hotels, most meals, and all travel costs (except airfare) for four days in Tequila, two in Guadalajara (Mexico’s second-largest city) and four days at Costa Alegre on the coast of the state of Jalisco. The itinerary is well-organized with plenty of room to breathe, and our guide, Clayton Szczech, was extremely knowledgeable, thorough, and fluent in Spanish.
We are a small group of six. Clayton likes to keep his tours relatively small so he can give each person attention without being overbearing. I am joined by Lauren and Bill, a well-traveled couple from Portland who recently toured Bourbon country, and Cody and Betsey, a technology librarian and lawyer, respectively, from Minnesota.
It’s not just the smell of agave that screams “tequila;” the hills are marked with large stones that form “Sauza” on one hillside and “La Cofradia” on another. In the middle of the town is a large smokestack that rises as high as the cathedral in the plaza. It is part of La Rojeña, the Cuervo distillery that’s both a tourist attraction but still a working factory. The colorful walls of Cuervo sit in stark contrast to the neighboring Sauza factory, with its bright white walls and high iron gates. Tequila has managed to retain a small-town charm, with family owned and operated shops, restaurants and hotels.
After taking in the view, we hike back down to the Fortaleza distillery, which we had toured earlier, to taste their tequila with the proprietor, Guillermo Erikson Sauza. Guillermo is a fifth-generation member of the Sauza family and honors his family’s tequila heritage by making Tequila Los Abuelos (known as Tequila Fortaleza in the United States) using traditional techniques. Agave grows and matures for seven to eight years (mostly on the estate), after which it is harvested by a jimador who removes the plant from the ground and slices off the leaves. The heart of the agave (piña) looks like a large, green pineapple and is taken back to the distillery and baked in a brick oven (horno). After 33 hours, the piñas are put into a pit where they are crushed by a large stone (tahona) that is hooked up to a tractor. Around it goes, pressing out the juices of the baked agave. The woody fibers (bagazo) are removed from the pit, and the juice is pumped into small wood vats where it ferments naturally for three to four days and then distilled twice in small copper pot stills. Following the second distillation it is either moved into stainless steel tanks for bottling as white (blanco) tequila, or into oak barrels where it rests for six to nine months (reposado, or rested) or just under three years (añejo, or aged). It takes the hard work of eight people to produce Tequila Fortaleza, a stark contrast to the hundreds of people employed by the big-name distilleries.
Our tasting takes place in the cave (cava). This is an actual cave right next to the distillery. It is dimly lit, and it takes a few moments for my eyes to adjust, but I find the rest of my group sitting at a table close to the bar. The only sources of light are from candles and a computer hooked up to a projector. Behind the bar is Guillermo Sauza in a white cowboy hat. His deep voice is gravelly from a sore throat, and he speaks slowly, enunciating each syllable. He reminds me of a Mexican John Wayne. After a brief toast to his guests, which also includes a group of restauranteurs and bartenders from California, Guillermo presents a slideshow of the distillery and family history.
The tequila is excellent. The blanco has a wonderfully sweet and floral bouquet, with a taste that’s fresh and a body full of flavor. The reposado is perfectly balanced and gets a sort of rustic flavor from the barrel – notes of wood, honey, and just a hint of caramel. The añejo is sweet, a great after-dinner choice with strong flavors from the barrel (leather, wood, caramel) and soft notes of smoky, floral agave. Maybe it is the context and romance of tequila done the old way, but we all agree that it has a very authentic flavor. When touring distilleries, we tasted a lot of baked agave, and Fortaleza maintains this flavor throughout the ages – from blanco to añejo.
There is a break in the program and the cave is momentarily silent. I remember that only a few hours earlier I met another patriarch of a tequila producing family. Things are much more modern at the Tres Mujeres distillery, located in Amatitan just outside of Tequila (about 15 minutes by bus). It sits in the center of the valley amidst several acres of agave fields owned by the Partida family, who have been farming and harvesting agave for three generations. Tres Mujeres, like La Fortaleza and many others, uses brick adobe ovens, but they also have an autoclave – a stainless steel steam oven that cooks agave in a short amount of time. The Tres Mujeres brand never uses agave cooked in an autoclave but, like many distilleries, it has contracts to produce other tequila brands and can use it as requested. Stainless steel tanks are used for fermentation as are stainless steel stills for distillation, allowing for a well-controlled environment. La Fortaleza, in contrast, is happy in its inconsistency, as fans battle over which lote (lot or batch) is better than another.
After our tour and tasting are complete, Clayton and I wander over to a room used for bottling. An older man sits at a table separating fabric labels for a Tres Mujeres bottle that comes encased in leather. We come to discover that it is Jesus Partida Melendrez, founder of Tres Mujeres Tequila.
Jesus started Tres Mujeres in the mid ‘90s, having taken an interest in learning more than just the farming of agave. His goal was to produce high quality, 100% blue agave tequila that was available at an affordable price. It took time and effort, but he was successful, and after a decade of production, Tres Mujeres opened their new glass-front facility in 2006. The newer digs include a second-floor patio restaurant, and the family has plans to open a small hotel on the property within the next few years.
Jesus introduced us to his son, Sergio, who manages the distillery’s operations. I was curious to see the old distillery. Bill and Lauren, acting as my photographer (I had made a rookie mistake of forgetting to charge my battery), and I stepped up into his truck, and we were soon at the original Tres Mujeres plant, just a quarter of a mile away. The original distillery is only partially operable, as it suffered a major fire in the summer of 2009 which resulted in a loss of over 80,000 liters of tequila and even caused a temporary shortage in some areas (including Southern California).
Sergio showed us the damage, but it did not seem to concern him much. Instead, he whisked us into a building adjacent to the bottling area and had us taste something he was very proud of. It was a sweet, agave-rich, tequila-flavored liqueur called Teky Ladies. It’s available in Mexico, and he thinks it would do well in the American market. It was a bit sweet but surprisingly full-flavored – something in between agave nectar and tequila. Is there a market for it? I don’t know – maybe in the mixology community – but Lauren and I enjoyed the tasting and the clear passion that Sergio had for his innovative product.
Tres Mujeres and La Fortaleza tell similar, but different, stories. Both exist in a world dominated by large conglomerates, where the bottom line sometimes overshadows the quality of the product. Guillermo Sauza and Jesus Partida Melendrez are still out to make a dollar, but Guillermo has chosen to honor and maintain a traditional, albeit antiquated process (that isn’t cheap for him or the consumer), while Jesus chooses to maintain a quality product at a quality price, employing more modern methods but trying hard to maintain a product of high quality.
After Guillermo’s slideshow in the cave, we return outdoors. It’s dark now, but the dim lights of the distillery and a large, roaring fire illuminate a fiesta complete with tacos, grilled corn, churros, and a guitarist who plays and sings romantic Mexican ballads. With a plate full of food, I sit by the warm fire with Bill and Lauren, stuffing myself with the wonderful flavors of Tequila. The tacos al pastor melt on my tongue and are followed by the best churro I have ever eaten – hot and crunchy on the outside and wonderfully soft and fluffy inside – paired wonderfully with Tequila Fortaleza añejo. It is a more than satisfying end to our second day.