Amber Gibsonfor major news outlets including Four Seasons Magazine, NPR, Saveur, Departures, Rhapsody, Hemispheres, American Way, Private Air, Wine Folly, Plate, Chicago Magazine, Tasting Table and Serious Eats; brings us the ultimate “Cinco de mayo” celebration in Tequila, Jalisco, Mexico.
Mezcal may be getting all the hype lately, but tequila is still Mexico’s most popular spirit. Many Americans will celebrate Cinco de Mayo this year by downing a few tequila shots or sipping margaritas, but if you’re a serious connoisseur consider heading to the source of it all. Tequila, the town, was founded in 1530 by Franciscan monks in the state of Jalisco and in 1795 the Cuervo family received a royal permit from the King Carlos IV of Spain to produce “vino mezcal de tequila.” Today the UNESCO World Heritage Site is still home to the majority of tequila production and very welcoming to visitors.
If you remember wicked hangovers from pounding tequila shots in college, chances are you were drinking tequila mixto, which is only required to be 51% blue agave. The best tequila is made purely from blue agave, so look for 100% blue agave on labels for a smoother drink.
American visitors only make up a small slice of visitors to Tequila (80% of guests are from within Mexico) but that only makes this destination all the more intriguing. This isn’t San Miguel de Allende, where you’ll encounter as many Americans and Canadians as locals, but it’s easy to get around even if your Spanish no es muy bueno.
Fly to Guadalajara and it’s a 90-minute drive or two-hour ride on Jose Cuervo’s Express train to the “Pueblo Mágico” where tequila was born. Check into Relais & Chateaux property Hotel Solar de las Ánimas. Also owned by Jose Cuervo, the hotel has significantly elevated the level of accommodation since it opened in 2015 with 93 rooms and a convenient location right on the main square.
The resort is a bit of a maze, but the Spanish colonial architecture and colorful paintings by contemporary Jalisco painter Chucho Reyes Ferreira make it a fun place to get lost. Enjoy a lavish breakfast buffet including made-to-order chilaquiles and sip smoky lemon rosemary margaritas at the skybar. A tasting menu dinner at La Antigua Casona is a must. Chef Sergio (his impressive resume includes Guy Savoy in Las Vegas and The Georgian Room at Sea Island) will indulge your palate with adobera cheese croquettes, beef blanketed with rich mole negro and duck breast in a spicy mole rojo made with beets.
The largest producers of tequila today are Jose Cuervo, Herradura and Sauza. Jose Cuervo just went public in February, making the Beckmann family billions. Herradura is a subsidiary of Brown-Forman and Sauza is owned by Beam Suntory. Cuervo owns 25,000 hectares of its own blue agave plantations, growing nearly 45 million agave plants. They also buy agave hearts (or pineapples, as they are commonly called) from many small famers.
While visiting the Cuervo plantation, I had a chance to see a jimador in action, wielding a deadly sharp coa machete and expertly slicing his way through the spiky seafoam green agave leaves. A good warrior can harvest 300 to 350 tequila “pineapples” per six hour shift, which equates to 11 or 12 tons. The general wage is $150 pesos per ton of tequila or a little less than $100 for a day’s work. Fifteen pounds of agave heart equates to a litre of tequila, a better yield than I expected.
Unlike grapes for wine, an agave plant must be replanted after it is harvested and it takes seven to eight years to mature. For top shelf premium tequilas, plants will be even older, up to 12 years.