ADVERTISEMENT

Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Tequila!

By Darley Newman
April 30, 2015
Tequila_Darley
Darley Newman
Just in time for Cinco de Mayo: Learning about tequila in the namesake town and region will give you a whole new respect for the tasty beverage (and hopefully no hangover).

I recently brought a little bit of Mexico home, hosting a tequila tasting for my friends in the Washington, D.C., area. I wanted to share stories from my travels in Mexico, show off my newly learned tequila tasting skills, and use the cheesy shot glass I brought specifically for the occasion in Mexico. I returned from a place that I didn't know existed. A place called Tequila, where for hundreds of years tequila has been distilled and perfected for tastings.

I hopped a train, the Jose Cuervo Express, from Guadalajara, the capital of the Mexican state of Jalisco. Train travel is a great way to take in the countryside, and the train ride to Tequila is both scenic and festive. If you think you might enjoy having a margarita with your breakfast, you can do so on the train, where snacks and, of course, tequila are served.

Passing fields of agave, the plant from which tequila is made, you know you're getting close to Tequila. This town is designated as a Pueblo Mágicoor Magical Town, due to its rich culture and history. The Agave Landscape also holds a special designation by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.

The two-hour train ride is both interesting and peaceful, as the scenery changes from urban to rural. You know you're getting close as you breeze past valleys of blue agave stretching to the horizon. Resting at the bottom of the Tequila volcano, the valley's mineral-rich soil and semi-arid climate make growing conditions perfect for harvesting agave azul, blue agave, the basis for tequila. Upon departing the train, we took a bus to the agave fields, where our education in tequila making would begin.

Field to Distillery

Like true champagne from the Champagne wine region in France, Tequila can't come from just anywhere. To be called tequila, the blue agave plant must be grown in the state of Jalisco and specific regions in the states of Guanajuato, Michoacan, Nayarit, and Tamaulipas. It's a labor-intensive process involving ajimador, a skilled harvester of the plants who likely has learned the craft from his parents.

With the backdrop of the Tequila volcano and, of course, a margarita, I watched as a dashing, mustached jimador dressed in a cowboy hat, white button-down shirt, and jeans used a coa, a hoe-like tool with a sharp blade, to slice off the spikey green-blue stalks and show us the core of the agave, called the piña. Aptly named, it resembles a pineapple. It's this bulbous core that is hauled to the distillery for processing, but only after it's been allowed to mature in the fields over a period of eight to 12 years. During this time, the plant is pruned and taken care of to ensure healthy ripening and growth.

Tequila Distillery Tour

Back in town, steps away from the main cobblestoned square, we started our tour of La Rojeña, Cuervo's oldest distillery, and said to be the oldest active tequila distillery in the Western Hemisphere. Our first stop was the ovens where the piña are split apart and then cooked for 36 to 40 hours. Split upon cooling, the cooked agave is ready to taste. It's often described as having a sweet potato or burnt honey texture and flavor. To me it tasted sweet, like tequila candy.

These agave chunks are then pressed to extract the juices, which are then fermented and distilled to create various kinds of tequila. To be called tequila, the spirit must be made in one of the designated Tequila regions in Mexico and also contain at least 51 percent blue agave. The blends are called mixto and won't be labeled as 100 percent tequila, as they contain added water and sugar. Even deeper than that, there are more types of tequila, including reposado, which is aged a minimum of two months, but not more than a year, in oak barrels, blanco, which is not aged and is bottled or stored immediately after distillation, or aged less than 60 days and usually in stainless-steel tanks…and more. Before my tour, I figured tequila was just tequila, but I was beginning to understand that the world of tequila is as complex as the drink itself.

Our final stop on our tour was the Reserva de la Familia Cellar. Once reserved only for members of the Cuervo family, guests may now sign up for a tour that includes a visit. In the dimly lit cellar, my group and I sat on benches at a long wooden table surrounded by barrels, eagerly awaiting the opportunity to taste tequila straight from a barrel—110-proof tequila that had been aged for seven years, to be exact. Before my tequila tasting and tour, I had thought of tequila as a not-too-pleasant drink that would likely cause a bad hangover and get you pretty drunk prior to that. Though 110-proof tequila is super strong, it was also extremely smooth.

Another experience that's open to the public and one of the higher-priced tour options is a visit to the old hacienda. We entered the large wooden doors of the hacienda, which is just across the street from the distillery, and were greeted with explosions of confetti and colorfully clad dancers. I was surprised and impressed by the festivities, including cowboys on horseback, colorfully dressed dancers, and another chance to learn more about how to pair tequila with a variety of surprising foods, including cheese and chocolate.

Tasting Tequila: What You Need to Know and How to Share

For those of you reading this who are thinking, "This is great, but I'm not going to the town of Tequila anytime soon; how can I enjoy tasting tequila and perhaps share it with my friends?" here's what I did on my tasting in an attempt to re-create the enjoyable, educational, and hangover-free experience I had in Mexico.

I used the three varieties below from Maestro Tequilero, produced by Cuervo in Mexico, and had happy and surprised guests, who, like me, had previously only tried not-so-great tequila. Substitute your favorite brand and sip away. At home, I used miniature, shot-sized wineglasses (a small brandy snifter or something that's tapered at the top is the best type of glass to use) and encouraged guests to swirl, smell, and sip, similarly to a wine tasting.

Tequila Tasting Menu Suggestions

Tequila blanco,also called white or silver tequila, is 100 percent blue agave (no sugar added) and clear in color. Pair your favorite brand with citrus, including ceviche or chips and salsa, or try it with lime and sugar.

Tequila reposado is aged, or "rested," in white oak barrels for two months to a year, giving it a mellow oak flavor while still bringing out the taste of the blue agave. It pairs well with garlic shrimp, chile-spiced foods, and buttery cheeses and is especially good with Buttermilk Blue Roth Kase Cheese. Ask your grocer for something similar if you can't find it.

Tequila añejo is aged in white oak barrels for over a year in small batches. The longer aging process gives the tequila a stronger oak and more complex flavor, sort of like scotch. It pairs well with beef and desserts. I paired it with semisweet Ghirardelli chocolate.

Like any strong alcoholic beverage, drink in moderation and enjoy! You might be surprised at how much you like tequila. Oh, and if you do throw a tasting, let me know how it goes and what you did. There are lots of different tequila pairings. Who knows? With your recommendations, I may decide to throw another tasting bash of my own!

How you can go: You can reach the town of Tequila by driving. It's about an hour from Guadalajara and four hours from Puerto Vallarta. There are regular tours and tastings at several area distilleries. The basic Jose Cuervo Experience tour and tasting starts at around $20 USD per adult ($300 MXN). The Jose Cuervo Express takes you right from Guadalajara into the town of Tequila. Packages that include the two-hour train ride, a tour of Jose Cuervo's La Rojeña distillery, and more start at around $92 USD ($1,350 MXN) and run Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays (josecuervoexpress.com). Other popular distilleries in Tequila open for tours include Sauza and La Cofradia.

Travelers can also explore the tequila region on the Tequila Express train, which also departs from Guadalajara, but does not visit the town of Tequila. It takes travelers on a guided tour of the Herradura distillery in Amatitán.

About the author: Darley Newman is the host of Equitrekking on PBS and a contributing editor at Budget Travel. Watch videos from her series on budgettravel.com/videos.

Keep reading
Inspiration

New Travel Trend: 'Local Destination' Weddings

Eloping to Europe or a secluded island with your whole wedding posse is soooo 2014. A new report from Wedding Salon suggests that the definition of a "destination" wedding is broadening—and moving much closer to home, especially for couples who have long guest lists. This could be the year of the "local destination" wedding: ceremonies held at "beautiful resorts just a drive away from home, providing couples with venues for their large weekend weddings," the site says. Think historic country inns rather than beach resorts, though smallish wedding parties often still choose the Caribbean for their "travel destination" vows. (The classics never go out of style.) Wanna hop on the trend? Or just book a long weekend for your second honeymoon? Here are a few luxe local resorts that cater to couples looking to get away for their nuptials—but not that far away. The Inns of Aurora, in Aurora, NY Get married right on Cayuga Lake in New York state's Finger Lakes region at a property that can accommodate up to 200 guests. The property's three buildings are all historic, from an 1833 Federal-style building to a stone mansion—Frette linens to sleep on and decorative antiques to gaze at come standard (from $150 per night, innsofaurora.com). The Inn at Leola Village, in Leola, PA A private wedding "vows garden" and an outdoor pool surrounded by restored farmhouses and a tobacco barn are focal points at this hotel, in Amish country. The property has a wine cellar and two on-site restaurants, plus a spa, and can accommodate up to 250 guests (from $148 per night, theinnatleolavillage.com). Bushkill Inn, in Bushkill, PA Run for the hills and have a wedding with up to 250 guests in the woodlands of the Pocono Mountains. This inn's "Panorama room" has full-length windows with mountain views: Say your vows there or outdoors, and stay in your own cottage with jacuzzi afterward (from $139 per night, bushkillinn.com).

Inspiration

Our Thoughts and Prayers Are With the People of Nepal

Budget Travel extends its sympathies to the people of Nepal in the wake of the devastating earthquake that struck the nation on Saturday April 25 near Kathmandu, killing thousands and injuring thousands more. News agencies are reporting that northern India, Tibet, and Bangladesh were also affected by the magnitude 7.8 quake. Google has set up a People Finder Tool to help in finding those missing in the disaster. While the travel plans of Budget Travel's audience of course take a back seat to the humanitarian crisis in the region, we can't help noting that four of the area's UNESCO World Heritage sites have been seriously damaged by the initial quake and powerful aftershocks. The New York Times provides a moving before-and-after look at some of Nepal's major cultural and historic sites. For Budget Travel readers who want to make donations to help with relief efforts, we urge you to donate to organizations that are well-established with a history of channeling donations directly to relief on the ground, such as Oxfam and CARE, who are working to provide shelter, food, clean water, and sanitation to those affected. (Sadly, emergency relief efforts like this often give rise to fraudulent fundraising schemes online.)

Inspiration

Earth Day Inspiration from Budget Travel on the Weather Channel!

In honor of Earth Day 2015, which fell right in the middle of this week's National Park Week (April 18–26), BT contributing editor Darley Newman was on hand at the Weather Channel to give our picks for some of the U.S.'s most beautiful national parks. Watch the video below! Of course, it's hard for us to play favorites, so check out our gorgeous slideshow of 15 Most Beautiful National Parks in America, and read about a few more parks that we're in awe of—and the stories behind why—at BT Staff Picks: 8 National Parks We Love!

Inspiration

Visit the World's Perfect Climates

Sure, we love the changing seasons, but the downside is that most of us live in places where summers can be too hot and winters too cold. (Still recovering from the Polar Vortex, anyone?) But there are a few select spots around the world where the weather is almost always just right. Here, four "Goldilocks" destinations to add to your bucket list: BIG ISLAND, HAWAIITemps in the 70s, with a variety of micro climates in the rain forests and mountains of this Pacific paradise What to do: Relax on a sunny, mind-blowingly colorful beach (white, black, and green sand!). Walk on an active volcano in Volcanoes National Park. Attend a traditional luau with hula dancing, roasted pig, mai tais, and Hawaiian beer.  Where to stay: Volcano Rainforest Retreat (from $180). SAN DIEGO, CALIFORNIASummer high of 76, winter low of 50, with the cool Pacific and inland desert creating a perfect oasis What to do: Spend a day in Balboa Park, home of the San Diego Museum of Art and the justly renowned San Diego Zoo. Take the ferry to Coronado and ogle the famous hotel that has hosted more than a dozen US presidents. Party Wild West style in the historic Gaslamp District. Mangia in Little Italy. Where to stay: La Pensione Hotel in Little Italy (from $140). LISBON, PORTUGAL59 in January, 83 in July thanks to the Atlantic breezes and Gulf Stream What to do: Take a walking tour that includes food and wine tasting. Stroll the majestic square Praca do Comercio. Take a day trip to beautiful Sintra, where royalty used to get away from it all. Listen to traditional fado music, an unforgettable, melancholy style of Portuguese singing. Ride the Elevador da Gloria to the top of one of Lisbon's seven hills for a great view. Where to stay: Internacional Design Hotel (from around $110) CAPE TOWN, SOUTH AFRICAThe Atlantic and Indian Oceans keep the climate mild, and our winter is Cape Town's summer What to do: Explore Table Mountain National Park and hang out with the penguins (yes!) on Boulders Beach (keep your distance, they bite!). For bigger wildlife thrills, head to Kruger National Park to see lions and elephants in the wild. Cape Town is where the Atlantic Ocean meets the Indian Ocean; the west side is best for soaking up the sun, the east side for swimming and surfing. Where to stay: Andros Boutique Hotel (from around $165)

ADVERTISEMENT