Poster: What are your favorite tequilas?
Mexico’s beloved drink is produced in Tequila, Jalisco, a small town that lies in the shadow of a volcano.
The Mexican government has declared the town one of the country’s ‘magic villages’ or pueblos magicos, indicating the place has significant historical and architectural value.
In July 2006 — UNESCO announced that the agave region of western Mexico along with the historic tequila producing factories have become the first Mexican site selected for their World Heritage List in the Cultural Landscape category.
The selection committee said the region was an “exceptional testimonial to harmonious and sustainable adaptation of natural soil use, as well as the application of a fusion of the pre-Hispanic maguey fermentation tradition and the European distillation process.”
Candidacy had been championed by the municipal governments of Amatitlán, Arenal and Tequila in the Valle de Tequila region, as well as Magdalena and Teuchitlán municipal officials for the past four years.
The official designation delineates two nuclear zones — the first comprised of 34,659 hectares in the Tequila and Amatitlán valleys (including the agave fields, factories and villages) and the second with 360.2 hectares surrounding the Teuchitlán archaeological site.
A second zone consists of 51,261.3 hectares around the Tequila Volcano and the Río Santiago basin to protect the flora and fauna.
Fields of orderly rows of agave tequilana surround the remote town, an hour north of Guadalajara. The prickly blue agave plant dominates the valleys, although you’ll see a cow or two sharing the fields or climbing the volcano.
The drink tequila is a relatively new invention. While indigenous people consumed various drinks made from agave plants, most notably pulque, the process did not include distillation. When the Spanish arrived they distilled the agave juice, naming the product mezcal. The mezcal produced in the town of Tequila enjoyed wide popularity, it assumed the special name of “tequila” by the end of the 19th century.
Today, the drink has to be manufactured in one of two municipalities, Tequila or Atotonilco, also known as Los Altos — both northeast of Guadalajara — to qualify as genuine tequila.
Some facts are in order. Mexico’s tequila industry produces 19 million gallons of the liquor each year. More than a third of the production is exported to the United States.
The numbers are astounding. The area surrounding the town boasts an estimated 100 million agave tequilana plants, cultivated on approximately 40,000 hectares (98,800 acres) that produce no less than 50 million liters of tequila each year, 40 percent of which is exported.
Like mezcal, there are many qualities and distinct flavors of tequila; the best is not meant to be pounded down with lime and salt, but rather sipped like a cognac.
A quick aside – because margaritas are made from tequila and lime juice, Mexican farmers protested the “wine-cooler” margaritas popularized in California. True margaritas are made from tequila, not wine. Otherwise, this was trademark infringement! In fact, tequila producers went to court, and the judgement came down solely in favor of tequila-based margaritas.
If you want to do more than taste, there are plenty of tours in the town of Tequila that will teach you the process of distillation from start to finish. The Sauza and Cuervo distilleries offer public tours.
And, if you want to rise above it all, it’s only a short drive from the center of the town to the top of the volcano, aptly named Volcan Tequila. Just follow Hidalgo Street south out of town. You’ll cross the railroad tracks and get to the top in a half hour.
The top of the Volcan Tequila is capped by a series of microwave towers. Locals call this area El Cerro de los Enanos (the Hill of the Dwarfs) because the trees at this altitude don’t grow very large. An added attraction is that the area is recommended for bird watchers. More than 60 avine species have been spotted here.