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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 This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Published in Cocktails

Dear Mexican: Why is Mexican Spanish so maligned by the rest of the Hispanic world (even Dominicans!)? It doesn’t make any sense to me, but am I making a mistake in learning Mexican-accented Spanish?

No Puedo Usar Accentos

Dear I Can’t Use Accents: Have you ever talked to Colombians? At some point, they inevitably say that their Spanish is the best in the world, that someone from the Real Academia Española said it was so, and therefore, it’s true. While I like Colombians (they’re as happy and drunk and angry as us Mexicans, and they gave the world cumbia), that’s an urban legend as preposterous as the one that maintains the husband of a jealous lover murdered Javier Solís.

It’s true that the rest of Latin America trashes Mexican Spanish for supposedly being lower-class than other Spanish varieties, but EVERYONE trashes everyone’s Spanish. Argentine Spanish gets mocked for being wannabe Italian; Cuban and Puerto Rican Spanish gets grilled for being lightning-fast garble. Peruvian Spanish is supposedly too soft-spoken; Central American Spanish is considered backwater for their continued use of voseo (the second person singular pronoun vos).

Even Mexicans make fun of each other’s Spanish. Guadalajara natives are notorious for saying “O, sea” (the fresa version of “I mean, like”); rural folks are ridiculed as sing-song chúntaros. Mexico City is so large that two Spanishes are ascribed to it: the matter-of-fact tone of capitalinos (the rich) and the hilariously vulgar babadas of the chilangos (the poor). And all Latin Americans trash indigenous folks for not even knowing Spanish, period.

So learn Mexican Spanish—that’s the one the majority of Latinos in the U.S. speak, anyway. And my vote for the best Español? Chilean Spanish, cachai?

Dear Mexican: A dear friend of ours has married a Mexican man, who is now our dear friend. They have invited us to his sister’s wedding in Mexico.

By North American standards, we barely know her. We would love to go, but we want to be sure that it is appropriate. What is expected of an acquaintance in this circumstance?

Vivacious for Vallarta

Dear Gabacho: You do realize Mexico is part of North America, right? Let’s start with knowing basic geographical facts about the host country before visiting it. It’s pendeja gabachas like you who make hotel workers continue to shove toothbrushes up their culos, then take pictures of that ass affront with the smartphone you left in your room while you’re getting drunk at the pool bar from your fifth Adios Mother Fucker.

Dear Mexican: I was wondering: What the origin is of so many Mexican-food restaurants having the word “Agave” in it?

#3 Combo, Extra Sour Cream

Dear Gabacho: “So many”? Betcha more Mexican restaurants get named for the owner’s hometown/home state, or tacos, or they use a -berto’s suffix than there are restaurants using “Agave.” But the word offers a fascinating insight into the history of Mexican-food restaurant aesthetics.

They started getting named after the mother plant of tequila back in the 1980s, during the Southwestern cuisine craze. Back then, chefs overloaded on Southwestern signifiers—agave paintings and silhouettes of howling coyotes and Kokopelli, mostly—to advertise their “authenticity,” much like modern-day taquerías bump Vicente Fernández on the jukebox, or mariscos spots employ waitress who follow the gospel of #chichischrist and #nalgamedios.

Ask the Mexican at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.; be his fan on Facebook; follow him on Twitter @gustavoarellano; or follow him on Instagram @gustavo_arellano!

Published in Ask a Mexican