tequila. I try not to be a snob, because there are a lot of folks who know way more than I do about agave, the plant that when cultivated, processed and aged with care produces a liquor as wonderful as any fine wine. In the past few years, I have learned a great deal about mezcal and tequila, and yes, some of my education involved a few sips of the stuff. But most of what I've learned was the result of the in-depth tours I took through two small boutique tequila distilleries in the state of Jalisco--which in case you weren't sure, is "tequila country". Yes, there is a town called Tequila, and I finally went there last summer. It's located about an hour west of Guadalajara, kind of a cute pueblo with cobblestone streets and a couple of small hotels. But though there are some great little family run distilleries, like the one we visited, La Alborada, which produces the amazing award-winning "El Gran Jubileo", I do NOT recommend you go. If you're driving south to Guadalajara and have the time, yes you should stop, tour and taste at La Alborada. The experience in Tequila feels like a cross between a typical Mexican bordertown and a tacky county fair (actually, don't get me wrong, I love a good county fair) but thanks to the tequila train that brings tourists to tour the giant factories of Sauza and Jose Cuervo this is not so good. Stalls line main street a few meters from the plaza, offering free tastes of watered down mixto (non-100% agave) in small plastic cups, and the few bars we found offer a disappointing selection of tequilas, served by young waiters who knew nothing about the town's most important product, and could care less.
It was especially disappointing compared to our previous trip to Arandas and Atotonilco, which are located a few km apart in the region known as Los Altos -- further east on the way to Michoacán. Doug and I have been there three times now, and found it a very cool rest stop on our way back to the U.S. and a fun place for the Mexico By Hand Art and Culture Tequila Adventure. Atotonilco, a clean and friendly little town, boasts the quality big guys, Patron and Don Julio. We found both of them closed to us when we arrived without an appointment. No big deal. Don Julio (a personal favorite of mine) was easy to find and was located just a few blocks from our very comfortable hotel. The thing is, hardly any tourists go to this town looking for tequila tasting, so they weren't prepared for us. No tour information at our hotel, and when we were directed to the "Tourist Office" we found it to be the town's government building and police headquarters. So remember... this is Mexico. The chief of police, after discovering that he couldn't find a decent map of the town, told us to get in our car and proceeded to give us a police escort to Patrón. I kid you not. But Patrón said "hoy no es posible" (today is not possible) and we continued our quest after striking out twice now. We finally found what we had been waiting for, on the road just before Arandas near La Trinidad there is a billboard with an arrow pointing to Tequila Espolon. And that was it!
http://www.tequilaespolon.com for more info. on all of the awards they've received at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition and International Wine & Spirits Competition...plus they have photos and a explanation of the tequila making process. Below you can see how the jimador digs up the piñas (on left) which is where the agave nectar comes from. The piñas, which are extremely heavy, are sliced and steamed (right) and the "jugo" is extracted and sent via tubes to tanks where there are various steps involved in fermenting and processing a perfectly pure product.
The agave plants can be seen and amazing tequila tasted by joining an intimate tour with Doug and Peggy www.mexicobyhand.com . If you speak Spanish and want to venture out on your own, here are some suggestions for staying in Atotonilco:
Hotel: Hotel Real de Cervantes, calle Dr. Espinoza, across from the market (reservations not necessary) doubles $40-$55
Breakfast: Hotel Portales de Vergel, delicious eggs & licuados $3.00-$5.00
Bar: Chatazo's on Calle Colon near the plaza. Best bar in Mexico! Complimentary healthy botanas (snacks), low priced quality tequila served with fresh squeezed grapefruit juice. Casual and "women friendly", usually musicians show up and play for tips. If you're really hungry, the taqueria across the street serves up cheap and tasty grub.