Tequila pilgrimage: Mexican town celebrates signature spirit
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After a visit to the Mexican town of Tequila, you’ll never approach drinking the spirit in the same manner. Your mind will swim with memories of the heady molasses smell of roasting agave, the subtle differences in color between types of tequila, the beauty of the agave fields bordered by mountains and the ringing of the church bells in the town square.
Tequila is a “Pueblo Mágico” (Magical Town). These are small towns promoted and protected by the Mexican government as places of special heritage and history. Most visitors to Tequila are day-trippers from cosmopolitan Guadalajara, 37 miles away.
While there are several famous brands of tequila associated with the town of Tequila and the surrounding area, on this trip I was concentrating on the Mundo Cuervo experience, the company that makes the well-known Jose Cuervo brand. Going the Mundo Cuervo route is immersive, since it comprises train service, a luxury boutique hotel, a superb restaurant, a distillery and the company’s agave fields.
My trip started with the Jose Cuervo Express, a tequila train that travels from Guadalajara. On boarding, the first thing I noticed was the redolent, sweet smell of tequila, since each seat had been served with three glasses of the spirit: silver (white), reposado (golden color) and anejo (dark brown). As the train rolled along the tracks at a slow rate of speed, the maestro tequilero provided background about the three types of tequila, how they’re made and the best ways to drink them. For example, the silver tequila provides the main ingredient for margaritas and Guadalajara’s signature cocktail, the Paloma, made with Squirt, a grapefruit soft drink; the reposado and anejo are best sipped the way a single malt whiskey would be enjoyed.
Our tequilero also taught us how to enjoy the viscosity of the tequila, swirling it in our glass and watching as it the liquid slid down, making marks on the glass resembling either tears or legs ( “Single people usually see the legs, while married people are more apt to see the tears,” he said).
A trip on the Jose Cuervo Express can be a full-day affair. It departs from Guadalajara and arrives in the town of Tequila, where passengers can disembark to tour La Rojeña distillery and enjoy free time to explore the town. Most travelers then return by bus to Guadalajara. My itinerary included a few nights in Tequila, so I headed over to the upscale Hotel Solar de Animas. The boutique hotel is also owned by Mundo Cuervo and has an elegant design based on a Creole colonial house and is typical of Mexican architecture from the 17th and 18th centuries. The hotel is right in the center of town and within steps guests are in the town’s zocalo, or main square, and the site of the 18th-century cathedral of St. James the Apostle.
After checking in, I toured La Rojeña, Mundo Cuervo’s distillery, which was less than a block away. The tour takes visitors through the steps of distilling agave into tequila, including a look at the roasted agave fresh from the huge ovens. I particularly enjoyed the Reserva de la Familia, an extra-anjejo tequila served in a snifter, which was offered at the end of my distillery tour.
The standout experience for me was a horseback excursion through the agave fields. You don’t even have to be a rider to enjoy the activity, since your horse is led along the track by a field hand. Sitting astride a horse provides a wonderful vantage point to soak up the rich colors of the landscape. The agave plant is a unique shade of gray-green, while other vegetation includes eye-catching yellows and oranges. Mountains loom in the distance. The morning I rode, piles of thick clouds were rolling in from the west. It was a landscape worthy of an Impressionist painter — a Pissarro or Sisley. The horseback ride concluded with a demonstration of agave cultivation, which has changed little over the centuries.
Almost adjacent to the hotel is the restaurant La Antigua Casona, which serves a creative take on regional cuisine in a gracious space. After dinner, I went up to the hotel’s Sky Bar, which offers great views of the town. I happened to be there during a local holiday and was treated to a fireworks display over the town, with the western Sierra Madre range as a backdrop.
There’s a charming daily tradition that sums up Tequila’s caught-in-time atmosphere. Each evening, the town’s priest rings the bells of the cathedral three times. At the first sound of the bell, the townspeople stop whatever they are doing and stand, facing the direction of the cathedral. At the third chime of the bells, the priest blesses the whole town. Not a bad way to end the day, and to be sent off to bed, whether you’re a resident or a fortunate visitor.
Mark Rogers, Special for USA TODAY