I’m in a cave underneath the blue agave fields of the Tequila Fortaleza distillery in the town of Tequila, Jalisco, Mexico. The man talking to me is Guillermo Sauza, a lovable but gruff cowboy type whose family has produced tequila in the appellation for more than 140 years, and who is now the head jefe of Fortaleza—in my opinion, one of the world’s most beautiful spirits.
In the candlelit cave—decorated with skulls and skeletons, marigold garlands and multi-colored picado paper banners for the upcoming Dia de los Muertos celebration—Guillermo is giving his sermon on his family’s history and how he ended up holding Fortaleza’s reins. Meanwhile, the tequila I’ve been tasting the better part of the day is getting to my head.
According to Guillermo, his great-great-grandfather Don Cenobio founded his first distillery—La Perseverancia—in 1873 and was the first person to export tequila to the United States. Guillermo’s granddad, Francisco Javier, later made his family’s tequila one of the most well-known brands in the world and helped establish the Denomination of Origin for tequila.
Don Javier, Guillermo’s grandfather, also bought a piece of land in Tequila and built a grand hacienda on the highest point of town overlooking a small distillery, named La Fortaleza. Don Javier produced tequila at La Fortaleza until 1968 before turning it into a museum, and then sold the entire family business in 1976. However, in 1999, Guillermo began the process of turning the museum back into a functional distillery and, after years of hard work, he got Destileria La Fortaleza up and running again, making tequila in the same way it was made more than 100 years ago—with a small brick oven to cook the agave; a tahona (a large stone wheel) to squeeze the juices out of the agave; wooden tanks for fermentation; and the two original small copper pots for distillation.
That’s where I am right now. And the reason I’m here is because I’m a bartender. Twice a year, Fortaleza brings in more than a few lucky barkeeps to learn about tequila firsthand, from a handful of small-brand leaders, in the only place in the world where the spirit can be produced.
On the three-day voyage, I’ll visit the towns of Tlaquepaque, Tequila and Guadalajara; will tour the former Sauza family estate, which is now a museum dedicated to tequila and the family’s history; tour three distilleries—Tequila Fortaleza, Tequila Arette and Tequila Don Fulano; attend a costume party inside the high white and red walls of Fortaleza; visit the glassmaker in Tonala where a large portion of Fortaleza’s bottles are hand blown; taste single-batch tequilas at the home of the proprietor of Tequila Calle 23; catch a lucha libre wrestling match; and drink a ton of tequila (perhaps at times too much).
I could bore you to death with the details of my trip, but who wants that? What this article is about is tequila. However, I must mention that spending time in Jalisco made me appreciate the history of tequila, the labor and love that goes into it, and the essence and nuance that comes out of it. My hope is that you will as well.
The facts: Tequila is a mescal—a distilled alcoholic beverage made from any type of agave plant native to Mexico. However, tequila, specifically, must be made from the blue agave plant and, like champagne or Cognac, it can only be produced in a certain region—the state of Jalisco, and limited areas in the states of Guanajuato, Michoacán, Nayarit and Tamaulipas, where the soil is ideal for agave growth.
Agave, a succulent with more than 400 species, takes between eight and 12 years to reach maturity before it can be harvested. When ready, the agave hearts, or piñas (which can weigh more than 100 pounds), are peeled and then steamed in pressure cookers called autoclaves, or baked in ovens, and then crushed. The sweet agave juice is extracted, fermented and distilled, usually twice. The best tequilas come from baked agave, fermented with proprietary yeasts and distilled in copper-pot stills. Good tequila is made from 100 percent pure agave, but cheaper tequila, called mixto, is made of agave and other sugars. There are four main tequila categories: Blanco (silver) is aged for no more than two months and is clear; reposado (rested) is aged between two and 12 months in oak and is golden-colored; añejo (aged) is aged between one and three years in oak and is a whisky-like brown; and, a new category as of 2006, extra-añejo (extra-aged) is aged more than three years in oak. Typically, tequila is aged in used bourbon barrels.
Like any aged spirit, the longer it rests in oak, the softer and smoother it will likely be. Blancos tend to be a little hotter, while añejos and extra-añejos will be less harsh, and often contain flavors from the barrel’s wood. Blancos and reposados are good for citrusy cocktails like the margarita, while reposado, añejo and extra-añejo tequilas can and should be sipped like fine whiskies, or used to create nice, stirred, spirit-forward cocktails.
There are two unofficial styles of tequila—highland and lowland. Highland style tequila is generally brighter and more acidic with more olive and pepper flavor. Lowland style is usually fruitier and more tropical.
In Mexico, the most traditional way to drink tequila is neat, without lime and salt. (Sorry, spring-breakers.) It is also popular in some regions to drink fine tequila with a side of sangrita—a sweet, sour and spicy drink typically made using tomato juice, citrus and spices.
Tequila gained popularity in the United States during Prohibition, and the margarita helped the tequila boom in America. Margarita is the Spanish word for “daisy.” The “tequila daisy”—a drink made of tequila, citrus, sweetener and/or orange liqueur—was popular in Tijuana and other parts of Mexico in the 1920s and 30s. Another popular tequila cocktail is the paloma, a drink made with tequila and grapefruit soda; variations with fresh grapefruit juice are also delicious.
Other popular classic tequila drinks you can look to enjoy include the Mexican firing squad, made with tequila, grenadine, bitters and lime; the el diablo, featuring crème de cassis, lime and ginger beer; and a riff on the old fashioned called the Oaxaca old fashioned, created by Phil Ward at New York’s Death and Co., containing tequila, mescal, bitters and agave nectar.
Locally, two of the restaurants with the finest tequila selections are the uber-popular Las Casuelas Terraza in the heart of downtown Palm Springs, and El Jefe, the stylish taqueria inside the Saguaro Palm Springs.
To buy your own tequila, look to Total Wine and Spirits in Palm Desert. The store has roughly 40 shelves full of tequila. If you can’t find what you’re looking for there, I don’t know what to tell you. In the western end of the valley, your best options are BevMo and the family-owned Desert Wine and Spirits inside the Go Deli Market, both on the south end of downtown Palm Springs.
Like any spirit, what goes into tequila is what comes out of it. Appreciate it with every sip.
Patrick Johnson is a journalist and head bartender at Truss and Twine. He can be emailed at email@example.com.