This article is from the October 1998 The Mexico File newsletter.
Back to Articles List

Tasting Tequila, Agaves, Agriculture and Tourism

by Ron Mader

Ron Mader is the author of the new guidebook, Mexico: Adventures in Nature (John Muir Publications, 1998), as well as the host of the Eco Travels in Latin America website (http://www.planeta.com). He can be contacted at ron@greenbuilder.com

Mexico's national drink is produced in Tequila, a small town that lies in the shadow of a volcano in the state of Jalisco. Fields of orderly rows of agave tequilana surround the remote town, an hour north of Guadalajara. The prickly blue agave plant dominates the valleys, although you'll see a cow or two sharing the fields or climbing the volcano.

The drink tequila is a relatively new invention. While pre-Columbian Indians consumed various drinks made from agave plants, most notably pulque, the process did not include distillation. When the Spanish arrived they distilled the agave juice, naming the product mezcal. The mezcal produced in the town of Tequila enjoyed wide popularity. It assumed the special name of "tequila" by the end of the 19th century.

Today, the drink has to be manufactured in one of two municipalities, Tequila or Arandas, both northeast of Guadalajara, to qualify as genuine tequila. Mexico's tequila industry produces 19 million gallons of the liquor each year. More than a third of the production is exported to the United States. The numbers are astounding. The area surrounding the town boasts an estimated 100 million agave tequilana plants, cultivated on approximately 40,000 hectares (98,800 acres) that produce no less than 50 million liters of tequila each year, 40 percent of which is exported.

Like mezcal, there are many qualities and distinct flavors of tequila. The best is not meant to be pounded down with lime and salt, but rather sipped like a cognac. A quick aside — because margaritas are made from tequila and lime juice, Mexican farmers protested the "wine-cooler" margaritas popularized in California. True margaritas are made from tequila - not wine. Otherwise, this was trademark infringement! In fact, tequila producers went to court, and the judgment came down solely in favor of tequila-based margaritas.

If you want to do more than taste, there are plenty of tours in the town of Tequila that will teach you the process of distillation from start to finish. The Sauza and Cuervo distilleries offer public tours. And, if you want to rise above it all, it’s only a short drive from the center of the town to the top of the volcano, aptly named Volcan Tequila. Just follow Hidalgo Street south out of town. You'll cross the railroad tracks and get to the top in a half hour. The top of the Volcan Tequila is capped by a series of microwave towers. Locals call this area El Cerro de los Enanos (the Hill of the Dwarfs) because the trees at this altitude don't grow very large. An added attraction is that the area is recommended for bird watchers — more than 60 avine species have been spotted here.

Getting there

Tequila is only an hour’s drive from Guadalajara along Highway 15, the main thoroughfare to Tepic and the U.S. Mexico border. If you're staying in Guadalajara, it’s easy to arrange a bus trip — just ask your hotel clerk for directions or you can hire a taxi for about $20 one-way.

The Mexico City Tequila Connection

Although native to the state of Jalisco, tequila has found its way to the hearts of chilangos in the heart of Mexico. There are numerous stores that specialize in tequila, in addition to tequila bars that often serve great food as well. Check out the following locations in Mexico City:

La Casa de las Sirenas, Republica de Guatemala 32, Centro, 704-3273. This classy tequila bar behind the cathedral provides a choice spot on the roof for people watching and observing Aztec dances that take place outside of the Tenochtitlan ruins.

La Madrileña, 16 de Septiembre 50 (at the corner of Motolinia), Centro, 512-1024 and 518-3820. You’ll find a great selection and display of the country’s tequilas at this store, located on a quiet pedestrian mall and across from one of the city’s oldest vegetarian restaurants.

Ultamarinos, Tacuba 15-B, Centro, (5) 512-7130. The managers have stocked a good selection of tequilas and other liquors. Clerks are very knowledgeable and helpful.

Agaves of Continental North America

Want to know more about agaves? Check out Howard Scott Gentry’s classic book, Agaves of Continental North America (University of Arizona Press, 1998, 670 pages). Based on 25 years of travel and research that led the author from the United States to Panama, this is the ultimate guide to agaves and a timely second printing of a classic. Each of the 136 species native to continental North America is examined in a separate essay covering taxonomic description, distinguishing features, distribution and habitat. The text is supplemented with pictures, line drawings and maps.

How to explain the popularity of agaves? These plants are among the easiest to plant and grow. "All that is needed is to dig up or pull up a young offset and bury its base in moist or dry soil," the author writes. "If it does not strike root and grow in the first season, the chances are good that it will the next." Consequently, the ease of cultivation led to its use for at least 9,000 years. The flowers can be boiled and scrambled with eggs. In northeastern Mexico, agave leaves are fed to livestock. Perhaps the most notable products of agaves are beverages. Fermented, agave is used to produce pulque. Or it can be fermented and distilled — a process unknown in Precolumbian Mexico — to produce tequila.