Tequila is really hot right now. People are drinking more tequila than ever before and looking at what makes great tequila. You used to be able to pick up a bottle of 100% agave tequila and know that it was going to be good. Today the skyrocketing demand for tequila has pushed producers to squeeze every last drop of profit out of an agave. New machines are making tequila more efficiently yet rendering a somewhat insipid distillate. Great tequila is crafted with hundreds of years of culture and tradition. The Tequila Trail is about culinary arts, the importance of the agave and finally distilled agave spirits. There is no better way to learn about the culture of tequila than taking a trip to the heart of tequila country in Jalisco, Mexico.
This is the first part of a three part guide meant to help you get the most out of your trip to Tequila Country in Jalisco, Mexico. Follow me as I take you through the Tequila Trail in Guadalajara, The Valley of Tequila and The Highlands of Jalisco. We will explore the cantina culture and culinary arts in Guadalajara, the capital of tequila country. We will visit the birthplace of tequila in the valley surrounding the Tequila Volcano and meet the people crafting the spirit in a traditional fashion. Lastly, we will travel to the highlands of Jalisco to learn about the agave that is used to make tequila. You will meet the people fighting to save an endangered species and strengthen the biodiversity of the blue agave by challenging industrial agricultural practices.
Tequila Trail Part 1: Guadalajara
Guadalajara is the capital of tequila country and a great base camp to access both the Valley of Tequila and the Highlands. The Consejo Regulador del Tequila is based here and there is a strong tequila culture. Besides, this is where the large regional airport is located and it’s worth hanging around for a few days before you head out to the pueblos.
Guadalajara is a 16th century pueblo that has grown into Mexico’s second city while retaining all the charm of the provinces. The historic core is an architectural gem of the Spanish colonial era. As you move away from the city center you can see how the architecture has evolved over the centuries: Spanish colonialism, 19th century French Baroque, and 20th century Art Deco. A walking tour, or better yet a Sunday bike ride, of the Downtown, Lafayette and Americana neighborhoods will let you step back in time while experiencing some of the best venues to eat and drink that the city has to offer.
One of the most enjoyable parts of visiting tequila country is eating and drinking. From traditional cantinas to restaurants serving haute Mexican cuisine, there is no shortage of world-class culinary experiences. Considering that this is tequila country you will find a wider variety of options than you are accustomed to for a fraction of the price. If you work in the hospitality industry or just love Mexico, this is where you will find plenty of inspiration.
Styles of Tequila
I am only going to talk about tequilas that are made out of 100% pure agave. There are plenty of tequilas that are made out of 51% agave sugars and 49% other sugars (usually sugar cane) but we are only interested in the good stuff. Tequila is made from the agave so leave the cheap stuff to the frat boys and avoid the hangover.
When I am teaching young waiters about wine I am constantly asked what the best wines are. The simple answer is the one that you like the most. The same logic applies to tequila. There are number of different styles with very different flavor profiles and it is hard to say that one style is better than another. You are never going to convince a Frenchman that an oak-aged, California style chardonnay is better than a Pouilly-Fuissé (un-oaked chardonnay). And you will never convince my mom to give up her Rombauer Chardonnay. What you should do is try a number of different styles to see what you like the most.
Tequila can be broken down into a number of classes depending on how it is aged, blended and filtered:
- Tequila Blanco or Plata (Silver) is a young tequila that usually has no oak aging. This is the most popular style of tequila in Guadalajara. Tequila blanco typically has strong notes of agave and citrus.
- Tequila Oro (Gold) is a style of tequila that blends fermented agave sugar with other sugars (typically sugar cane) for distillation and then adds carmel coloring to achieve the gold color. It’s best to avoid this class of tequila if there is a better option available.
- Tequila Reposado (rested or aged) is aged in oak barrels from 2 to 12 months. The oak barrels must be less than 600 liters and many are recycled bourbon barrels. The oak starts to develop the aromas of vanilla, caramel and butter.
- Tequila Añejo (extra-aged) is aged in oak barrels for a minimum of 12 months. This where the vanilla, caramel, butterscotch and oak aromas really start to stand out.
- Tequila Extra Añejo is aged in oak barrels for a minimum of 36 months. This is where the caramel and toffee flavors start to intensify and take on notes of whiskey, coffee and raisins.
- Tequila Cristalino or Diamante is not an officially recognized class of tequila but it is a style that is increasingly popular. Each tequila company has their own marketing but essentially they are blends of añejo, extra-añejo and possibly a reposado that are later filtered with activated charcoal. The filtering leaves the tequila crystal clear, visually resembling a tequila blanco but with much of the flavor profile of an añejo.
How to order Tequila
Now that we have gone over the styles of tequila we need to see how it is ordered. While modern cocktail bars are starting to catch on the most common way to order a tequila is called ‘derecho’ or neat. The proper tequila glass (not a shot glass) resembles a champagne glass with a slightly wider mouth. It is not likely that you will find many tequila bars with true tequila glasses on hand. Some will substitute a champagne flute, others will use a small snifter. A shot glass is probably acceptable for most commercial tequilas. I would try to avoid anything gimmicky like a skull. Not only is it difficult to appreciate the aromas but it is difficult to drink out of.
Derecho, Divorciado o Banderita
A common way to order tequila derecho, or neat, is with a banderita or little flag. You will be served three separate glasses of tequila, lime juice and sangrita. Sangrita is mixture of tomato and orange juice prepared with Worcestershire sauce, jugo maggi seasoning sauce, Tabasco, salt and pepper. It is kind of like a bloody mary without the horseradish. Sangrita is a great way to clear the palate between tequilas. I am not a fan of the ones that come in a bottle but love the one we make at the bar.
Your tequila almost always will include one or two sodas with it. Ordering a tequila divorciado you will get a shot glass of tequila, a highball glass with ice and a soda or two. You then mix the drink as you like at the table or bar. I like to order a can of soda water to have as I sip on my tequila. The reason they give you two sodas is because so many people drink their tequila mixed with soda water and diet coke. I find the idea appalling but many restaurants have adjusted their costs to include two sodas because so many people order liquor this way.
Where to Drink Tequila in Guadalajara
Pedro Jimenez is the subject matter expert on all things mezcal and gives the best tastings that you can schedule in this part of Mexico. No matter what direction you want to take the conversation Pedro will amaze you with his story telling ability and his mastery of the subject matter. This is the only place that matters when it comes to learning about distilled agave spirits in Guadalajara.
De La O
Is a retro bar that celebrates traditional Mexican culture. You are not going to find any commercial brands of tequila or beer here. They are supporting small, independent producers and not multinational corporations. De La O also has an excellent cocktail list and most of the bartenders speak English. They also have some great bar food.
El Gallo Altanero
Another new high-end tequila bar that is specializing in artesanal tequilas and innovative cocktails. They are located in one of the best coffee shops (upstairs actually) in Guadalajara. While mezcal has been trending recently, El Gallo Altanero wants to focus on the regions around Guadalajara that are crafting quality tequila.
La Tequila Cocina Mexicana
La Tequila restaurant and bar has one of the largest selections of tequila in Guadalajara and a wait staff that really knows their product. The kitchen puts out a very good food that is representative of not just Guadalajara but of lots of different regions of Mexico.
Cantina La Fuente
One of the oldest cantinas in the historic core of downtown Guadalajara. This is where you come to see what life was like in times long past. The place feels like a time machine taking you back to the revolutionary era.
El Parían de Tlaquepaque
San Pedro de Tlaquepaque is one of the five municipalities making up the Guadalajara Metropolitan Region. Located about 20 minutes away, traffic permitting, from downtown Guadalajara it needs to be on your list of drinking destinations. The Parían is a series of about ten different cantinas and restaurants surrounding a tree lined plaza. There are mariachi bands playing all day long where the feel of old Mexico hangs in the air. There are a number of art galleries and stores selling folk art that are worth checking out.
El Abajeño de Tlaquepaque
Is one of the most popular restaurants for traditional Mexican food and tequila in the metropolitan region. The place is massive. This is a great place to try a cazuela de Tequila: a cocktail served in clay bowl with tequila, grapefruit, orange and lime juice topped off with Squirt and a dash of salt.
Transportation: Getting There and Getting Around
Miguel de Hidalgo International Airport is a fairly serious hub with direct flights from major airports in California and across the US. If you happen to be in Southern California you should consider flying out of Tijuana. There is parking on the US side of the border directly in front of the Tijuana airport and the Cross Border Express pedestrian bridge is the best way to access the airport. During the low season you can score a one-way ticket for less than USD$50.
The Guadalajara airport is located about 30 minutes outside of town on the highway to Lake Chapala. An Uber will cost you about MX$150 and a taxi will run you about MX$250. There is also a shuttle that will drop you off in the Glorieta Minerva for about MX$60. Once you are in Guadalajara Uber is the best way to get around the city. Public transportation is uncomfortable and the metro doesn’t run anywhere near the tourist destinations until they finish the third line.
Tequila Trail by Bus
There are three bus terminals located at the western, southern and eastern entrances to the city. To go to Tequila and Amatitan you will leave from the Central Camionera Poniente at the western entrance to the city. Buses leave for Tequila every half hour and take about an hour to get there.
To head to the Highlands (Los Altos de Jalisco) you will be leaving from the Nueva Central Camionera on the border of Tlaquepaque and Tonalá. This is the big bus station with at least 20 different companies traveling all over the country. Check out Primera Plus and ETN bus lines. They are first class and really comfortable.
Tour buses to Tequila
On Saturdays there is a Tequila Express tour bus that will take you to Tequila and back. Buses leave Guadalajara around 10am and return by 6pm. Make sure to make reservations in advance. The itineraries change from time to time but they are currently touring the Sauza property.
Train to Amatitan and Tequila
Both José Cuervo and Herradura offer train rides through the agave fields to their respective distilleries. The antique trains have been restored beautifully in a retro modern fashion. Both trains operate on Saturdays only. José Cuervo Express leaves the Estación Ferromex around 9am and Herradura Express leaves the same station at 11am.
The Jose Cuervo tour is a combination of train and bus ride. You can choose to take the train to Tequila and the bus back, or take the bus there and the train back. The bus ride section stops at the Jose Cuervo agave fields for a harvesting demonstration.
Each train has a number of different cabin cars with different pricing. The pricing depends on the selection of tequila offered in each car. The selection of premium tequilas obviously costing more than the basic tequilas.