Herradura Distillery Tour
Herradura! You know the name. It’s everywhere. Every liquor store, bar, and restaurant that serves tequila likely serves Herradura, a brand that seems lesser known than Sauza or Jose Cuervo, but is the oldest distillery still intact and operating in Tequila, Mexico.
We pulled up to a traditional hacienda on a dirt road. The front gates opened only slightly to an interior courtyard and we saw three men in traditional charro garments, astride three chestnut mares. A boy, roughly ten years old or so, emerged from the massive wood doors with his donkey in tow.
The building was nondescript. The retaining walls surrounding the courtyard from the street are a muddied yellow from recent storms kicking up dirt into the paint. To the left of the massive oak doors was a simple sign: “Casa Herradura”.
Entering the gates into the courtyard is like walking onto a film set. Unlike to the dusty dry dirt road we arrived on, a hand laid cobblestone road lie before us, leading to another set of massive wood gates set in another retaining wall and surrounded by lush foliage and bright colors.
On either side of the cobblestone road were small bungalows painted blue and yellow and pink with carefully tended front gardens lining the walls to the outside world. Magnolia trees stretched up as high as I could see, full of bountiful white flowers emitting the sweetest fragrance. Women emerged from dark shadowed doorways looking busy sweeping but more likely looking for an excuse to get a look at this group of tourists taking in the scene.
From a doorway on the right came what appeared to be a small toy. Fluffy and white with a low center of gravity, with great big floppy ears and big dark eyes, this dog stole the hearts of everyone with a wag of his tail! I don’t know that I have ever seen a pet look so much like a child’s toy but what was unnerving was the energy of this puppy. He seemed so silly. He cocked his little head from side to side as we each bent down to adore his overwhelming cuteness. All I could think was that there was something “off” with this dog of epic cuteness.
A woman’s voice broke in, pulling our focus from the dog and instructing us to gather as our tour was about to begin. “This is Herradura and this is the oldest tequila distillery in Mexico still in operation” she began.
The gates opened for us and we passed through them. I turned around to watch the gates close, taking note of the dog sitting obediently on the other side of the closing gates. Following the docent, the story of Herradura began to unfold.
The Herradura Love Story
In Mexico every story begins with a love story. There are very few exceptions. As it is with all thing’s Mexico, there is a romantic story of intrigue and perseverance, overcoming all odds in this seemingly perfect place.
This love story begins with Félix and Carmen. A lucky man at the age of 45, Félix López meets and marries the beautiful and determined eighteen year-old, Carmen Rosales. Of this great love and union came two children, Aurelio, and Maria de Jesús (Jesusita.). The union of this couple and their family legacy brought the modern production of tequila to the Hacienda and together they built a factory that remained in the family and was used until 1963.
Félix López died in 1878. He left the future of the Hacienda in the hands of his young wife. Carmen’s brother Ambrosio Rosales and his wife, Elisa Gomez Cuervo de Rosales, step in and help Carmen with Ambrosio running the estate with great success for many years. As is Mexican custom, the property was to be handed down to Félix López’s son but Ambrosio taught the business to Carmen’s son, Aurelio, as well.
Pretty normal thus far, right?
Here is where the story gets good! Aurelio, a traditionalist and fervent Catholic, eventually takes control of Hacienda San José del Refugio, and throws himself into the production of this Mexican Moonshine, the family tequila, and he gives it the name of “Herradura”.
The distillery was threatened by the Cristero Rebellion (La Cristiada), a bloody battle between the Catholic Church and the State of Jalisco (1926-1929). In an effort to limit the incredible political stronghold of the Catholic Church, the federal government began harassing priests, outlawed the practice of Catholicism, and banned the display of all crosses. To make an example of the offenders of these newly enacted laws, trees and posts were strung with the bodies of offenders as a clear and callous reminder of the ramifications of disobeying the new laws. Before long, priests were being hunted down and killed. Those people who stood up against the government were called “Cristeros”.
Aurelio worked tirelessly on behalf of the Cristeros. He put out a call to the workers of the Hacienda to join the fight, provided financing, and gave shelter to priests and supporters at the hacienda. Built within the walls and confines of the Hacienda were endless tunnels that wove a tapestry beneath the Hacienda and all of Amatitán. Aurelio was later recognized for his brave and courageous hospitality and blessed with the official title “El Cristero”.
In 1927, the government began raids on the homes of Cristero sympathizers, and Aurelio was well aware that his life was at risk. Devising a plan to escape, he tricks the advancing federal soldiers. The Hacienda had a large store of wooden balls which were designed to crush agave. They were of little use for that, but by placing them around the perimeter walls of the hacienda, and outfitting them with hats and sticks, the advancing soldiers believed that the Hacienda was a well-fortified fortress and turned back. Aurelio and his sister made their escape through the tunnel system and into the countryside. It was later speculated that Aurelio spent three years in exile and safety at the Vatican before he came back to México. Sadly he never returned to the hacienda.
When Aurelio fled the country, he left the Hacienda in the care of his cousin, David Rosales, the son of Ambrosio. At a time when mixto tequila (tequila made with the addition of sugar) was becoming a method of cutting expenses, Don David insisted that Herradura remain 100% agave tequila, maintaining the integrity of the family tradition. In November of 1928, the brand of “Tequila Herradura” was officially registered with the government in Mexico City —with the horseshoe as the logo.
The property took you through the time of the story maintaining its original architecture and layout with the exception of the newer distillery implemented by Doña Gabriela de la Peña Rosales.
Hacienda San José del Refugio attributes much to the oversight of Doña Gabriela de la Peña Rosales. Married to an heir of the hacienda and finding herself a widow not long thereafter, she was a stunning beauty, of notorious legend, and worked harder than anyone else on the Hacienda. She was up with the sun every morning to greet the workers at breakfast, looked at accounts over lunch, then headed into Guadalajara to make sales in the afternoon. It was under Doña Gabriela’s supervision that a modern distillery was built, keeping the Old Factory as a museum. She introduced Herradura añejo tequila in 1962, and introduced the world to reposado in 1974.
We went on a museum tour of the original distillery within the walls of deep old adobe, passing windows on tunnels that led deep under the distillery and down, down, down into darkness. We saw the wells in which the pinas were thrown and the system used to pull the great wheels that crushed the pinas. The docent explainined that at first it was a man that pushed the massive wheel in circles hour after hour and later lead a mule or burro to pull the weight over the pinas. We saw the ovens in which the agaves were cooked to a perfect temperature and texture for fermentation and the walls of white and French oak casks for the storage of the extracted juices. We were transported back to a time when manual labor meant putting two hands in and then if necessary all of you in.
Did you know that some tequila fermented faster with sweat? It is a fact.
The jimador would come in from the field and strip down to nothing. He would then climb into the vat or well with the cooked agave and as the pinas were dropped one by one into the vats, he would wrap his entire body around the core of the agave, and squeeze with all of his might until the juice extracted from the plant. Then the plant was pushed back out to be used for other purposes similar to the way we use hemp today. This was done because the yeast was activated by the acids of the body and the PH from the sweat interacted with the juice, creating a faster sugar decomposition and ultimately alcohol. Mexican Moonshine old school!
We concluded with a tasting. The docent didn’t realize she was educating the educated. With a charming smile and an enigmatic personality, she enthusiastically told us the proper way to take the sip, inhale and exhale, and taste the notes of the varietals of the Herradura flight of products.
Coming out of the distillery into the light of day, I remember turning my face up to the sun and breathing in yet one more breathtaking moment of my beloved Mexico and her rich history. And then I was pulled back by a commotion happening in the distillery. There beneath the shiny modern vats was that dog, taunting the security guard who yelled at him for being “borracho”. The dog dodged the security guard, dipping behind and under the heavy steel machines until he fell over. Just fell over.
The security guard reached down gently and picked up the dog like a toy. As the man brought the lifeless animal up to his chest, it looked like a rag doll. The irritated security guard marched off toward the bungalows shaking his head as he cradled the dog to his chest and muttered to himself.
My face must have registered the horror I thought I had witnessed. I stood there bewildered as the man was so calm with the dog’s lifeless body in his arms. I couldn’t quite grasp the casual demeanor and irritation he exhibited when he reached down to scoop up the collapsed animal either. It seemed so surreal. That’s when the docent marched up to me with a great big smile and said “Don’t worry Senora, the puppy is just borracho”.
Seems the “silly” puppy lives in a state of tequila euphoria. His preferred station is beneath the drip leak of the distillation vats. He is a canine tequila junkie and they cannot keep him from his “habit” no matter how hard they try. The dog has grown to be adept in his search for tequila. He has mastered dodging security, sneaking under the gates, sitting under the dripping vat, and once he has had his fill, passing out cold. Obviously he has no care for moderation or sipping responsibly.
Jessica Arent has spent her career steeped in the Hispanic culture. Passionate about the Latin culture and experiencing roles that have taken her from television to digital marketing throughout the United States and Mexico, Jessica’s passion for Mexico runs in her blood. An accomplished writer, Mexico is where her heart lives and is the focus of her work and writing. Specializing in marketing Hispanic based products and services, Jessica will tell you there are few people in the world or places she has traveled, from Asia to Europe and in between, who compare to the Mexican culture. Building websites such as ALL ABOUT MEXICO and fostering the marketing endeavors of a number of tequila products, to name a few, Jessica sets out to inspire the world around her, one person, one relationship at a time, to know and understand the culture she calls home. Jessica is a partner at Intermountain Media, LLC, the Communications and Media Director of Terra Energy Resources Corp, and shares other travel and tequila adventures on her blog, Jessica’s Mexico.